There are no more excuses for Uncle Sam’s fellows. It’s gold medal or bust in Beijing for the US men’s national squad, the so-called “Redeem Team.” Anything else will be deemed as a failure, pure and simple.
Yes, the competition is fierce and, frankly, any number of teams could, if things go well, beat the United States. Spain is a force. Russia is a force. Lithuania is a force. Argentina, if Manu Ginobili plays, is a force. Greece is a force. All of those teams but Russia have beaten a US team within the last four years. That’s a US team with NBA players.
But the United States isn’t planning on losing to anyone. It has prepared for this Olympiad unlike any other. The process started three years ago, when Jerry Colangelo was put in charge of developing an Olympic program. In years before, going back to 1992, when NBA players became eligible, USA Basketball, the nation’s governing body, would select a team, have it train for a few weeks and, due mainly to talent alone, would win the gold and not lose any games in the process.
That proved to be the case in Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney. But the gold medal in Sydney in 2000 would be the last for the Yanks in major international competition. There was a humiliating sixth-place finish at the 2002 World Championships, the equally humiliating third-place finish in Athens and then, in 2006, a sobering bronze medal at the Worlds in Japan.
The company line now is that the Japan experience, where the US was beaten by Greece (which had no NBA players) in the semifinals, was a blessing in disguise. It forced the US to qualify in 2007 and while that was a foregone conclusion, it enabled Colangelo and his hand-picked coach, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, to have another summer with the team.
And, the thinking went, with the same team involved over a three-year period with the same coach, the United States would finally be on the same footing with other international teams whose players played together for years. That was the thinking, anyway.
But of The Dandy Dozen who will suit up in Beijing, only six were on the team that went to Japan. All of them, however, save Carlos Boozer, were on the US qualifying team in 2007, but that tournament was hardly a test for the United States. Beijing will be different.
On talent alone, no one can touch the United States’ roster. It has Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Jason Kidd. It’s a star-studded troupe. But stars don’t always shine in these things.
If you’re looking for potential trouble spots, and you know that the other countries are doing just that, you can start in the middle. Dwight Howard is the Yanks’ only true center. What happens if he gets into foul trouble? Given Tim Duncan’s unfortunate experiences in Athens, it seems clear that FIBA referees do not allow the big guys to play the way NBA referees do. Duncan was so incensed by some of the calls that he flat out refused an invitation to play in 2008.
You might ask why, with Bryant and James on the roster, the US felt compelled to have three point guards in Kidd, Chris Paul and Deron Williams, when the only real big man to back up Howard is Chris Bosh, who is a forward. Boozer, who was on the 2004 team, is the only other alternative. The US did have Tyson Chandler on board until he was hurt.
Colangelo has stated many times that the US does need big men. Couldn’t the Yanks have done without Paul or Williams and added someone a little taller? Kevin Garnett comes to mind immediately, but he declined an invitation. But what about someone like Marcus Camby, Emeka Okafor (who was on the 2004 team) or even a young player like LaMarcus Aldridge?
But to be worried about a backup center position indicates just how strong this team is at the other four positions. It has added outside shooting in the persons of Bryant and Michael Redd. That was a big missing ingredient in Athens. Aside from Howard, who can be downright brutal at the line, the US has much better free-throw shooters. That, too, was a problem in Athens, as the US shot a woeful 67 percent from the line.
The US team also had trouble defending the more experienced national teams, whose players had been together for years and who, for the most part, see playing for the Motherland as the ultimate honor. If that were true in the United States, Garnett and Duncan would be on board. But it simply isn’t for many NBA players.
To borrow an oft-used phrase of Larry Brown’s, the non-US teams also seem to play the right way. They pass. They set screens. They help on defense. You can watch a series of non-US games at any Olympics or World Championships and never see a dunk. The US is gradually coming around to recognizing that – at both ends. And, let’s not forget, the non-US teams also are more accustomed to international rules. It’s always strange to see someone swat the ball off the rim in a game. The NBA impulse is to yell “goaltending” and NBA players’ built-in tendencies are to not swat the ball for that very reason. They’re coming around on that, too, but it’s an adjustment after playing under one set of rules for your entire life.
But aside from its talent, the biggest advantage the United States might have is its determination to right the international ship. Krzyzewski has gone overboard in praising opponents, reminding one and all that the US cannot take anyone lightly. It’s hard to envision how that message has not gotten through to the players. There may be a breather in the first round – Angola comes to mind - but after that, it’s going to be cutthroat competition the rest of the way. There can be no surprises any more.
That said, the US was cut down by Greece in 2006 because of an inability to stop a high pick-and-roll for about a six-minute stretch. That was the only loss of the tournament for the Yanks but, in this kind of draw, if you have to lose, it’s as important when you lose.
With the quirky Olympic format, one bad day could doom the Yanks, as it did for Spain in 2004, when Pau Gasol and friends went through the first round undefeated and then lost to the US in the first round of medal play. That would be the only loss for Spain in Athens – the Spanish had the best record of any team - yet they ended up finishing seventh. The US team which lost thrice, got a bronze. Italy, which lost thrice, got the silver. Argentina, which lost twice, got the gold. Go figure.
This United States team, however, has had its eyes set on Beijing gold for three years. Unlike most countries, the United States values the Olympic experience over the World Championships, where the field is bigger and better. The setback in Japan hurt, but it would be a major wound if something similar happened in Beijing. That, clearly, is not a part of plan.