Thursday August 7th, 2008

The best USA Basketball team in eight years is the result of previous mistakes in judgment. Over the preceding three major international competitions, the American men have failed to win an Olympic or world championship gold medal because they lacked shooting, chemistry and preparation time together.

That's why managing director Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski have made zone-busting shooting the priority while assembling a team of stars capable of helping one another. The team's enhanced training schedule of the last three years has emphasized the importance of the mission.

"Because of the work that was done by Colangelo, Krzyzewski and everyone else, now we have the feeling that the Americans will win this time,'' said Ettore Messina, the coach of Euroleague champion CSKA Moscow and a former coach of the Italian national team. "We are back to the way it was 10 years ago. I am not saying this team is like the one you had in 1992, but it is very close to that. We feel that you are much more serious this time than you were in recent years. So now people [competing against Team USA] are back to thinking about second place again, and this will help the Americans.''

Others see a potential U.S. weakness on the front line, where Dwight Howard is the only true center. Should he suffer foul trouble or an injury, the United States will have to go small by promoting a power forward like Chris Bosh, who at 230 pounds won't be as physical as some of the big men the Americans will face in Beijing, or Carlos Boozer, who at 6-9 will be undersized. One NBA team executive who asked not to be named worries that the lack of size up front will hurt the team defensively.

"If Howard is out, how are they going to be able to deal with somebody like Baby Shaq?'' the executive said in reference to highly skilled Greek center Sofoklis Schortsianitis, a 2003 second-round pick of the Clippers who reportedly weighs close to 350 pounds after spending three months this season at a weight-loss clinic in Switzerland.

But the U.S. strengths are intimidating. Humility was forced upon this team after settling for the bronze medal two years ago at the world championships, where it was upset by Greece 101-95 in the semifinal. More than half of the U.S. roster is occupied by respected defenders, led by Kobe Bryant, and the only American players not known as capable perimeter shooters are Howard and point guard Jason Kidd, who brings leadership and experience (38-0 in international play).

Messina believes the Americans can dominate at power forward with NBA small forwards LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

"I would love to see them playing with LeBron James at the 4," Messina said. "That would be a problem for everybody, because he has the strength to defend the powerful 4s. And his quickness? No other 4 can match it. The same is true with Carmelo.

"If I am an opponent, I would be afraid. What do I do? I want to post Carmelo Anthony? So I play all my game for my 4 man inside, and what do I get -- a maximum two points each time. And then it's a nightmare to defend because I don't have the quickness to defend him or LeBron. So I need to play a lot of zone against a U.S. team that has a lot of shooters now.''

Like most observers, I'm picking Team USA to win the gold medal -- though not without some tense moments, given that the last American group of NBA players to go undefeated in a major event without a close game in the final minute was the 1996 Olympic team playing in Atlanta. As I've written before, a majority of these scenarios must occur for this group to lose: The opponent shoots a high percentage from the three-point line and doesn't turn the ball over, while the Americans go cold from the perimeter, suffer foul trouble and lose Howard to injury or fouls.

Here, with Messina's help, is how the rest of the tournament shapes up:

Silver medal: Spain. The 2006 world champions are loaded with NBA talents like Raptors point guard Jose Calderon, Lakers big man Pau Gasol and his brother, Marc (the reigning Spanish league MVP and a rookie center next season with the Grizzlies), Blazers rookie swingman Rudy Fernandez and former Grizzlies guard Juan Carlos Navarro. In June, Spain replaced coach Pepu Hernandez with Aito Garcia Reneses, who is the more demanding leader.

Spain lost the European championship final last summer when the Russians slowed the tempo. By trying to push the ball up the court, the Spaniards will be playing to the preferred pace of the Americans.

"I think their style will help the U.S.,'' Messina said. "They're not like Greece, which is able to slow down the game as they did during the world championships [in their '06 upset of the Americans].

"Their goal realistically has to be nothing more than to make the final. I remember they were so happy when the draw put them in the same group with the U.S., meaning they [are likely to] face the U.S. only in the final. I think they are thinking of second place.''

Bronze medal: Argentina. Manu Ginobili's availability was in question for a while after he suffered an ankle injury while playing with the Spurs during the NBA playoffs. But he is set to play, joining an Argentine team that includes Bulls forward Andres Nocioni, Spurs center Fabricio Oberto and former NBA player Carlos Delfino, who recently signed with a Russian team.

The Argentines of the Ginobili era peaked in 2002-04 with a silver medal in the worlds and a gold at the Olympics while beating the Americans each time. They're on the downside now, but their group experience and intuitive passing game give them the best chance of controlling tempo against the United States.

If they should win Group A as expected, they'll likely face a semifinal against a Spanish team that may have too much energy and speed. The draw is a killer: It will be asking too much of this older Argentine team to score back-to-back upset of Spain in the semis and Team USA in the final.

"This might be their swan song,'' Messina said. "But if Manu is there, they are going to be strong.''

Fourth place: Greece. The Greeks have been near the top of the world for some time. They won the 2005 European championship and reached that tournament's final four last year, and at the 2006 worlds they scored their biggest upset with a roster of non-NBA players that routinely burned the Americans on the pick-and-roll. They have highly respected European stars in guards Theodoros Papaloukas and Nikos Zisis, as well as former NBA players Vassilis Spanoulis, who spent one frustrating year with the Rockets, and Antonis Fotsis, who played with the Grizzlies in 2001-02.

"They play together, they play smart, they play tactics a lot,'' Messina said, referring to the Greeks' ability to adapt their strategy based on the opponent. "Fotsis is a big key. This year he played very well for Panathinaikos [in the Euroleague]. As a shooter he spreads the floor, and he has the quickness and athleticism to defend any big 4.''

Other challengers will include:

Russia. The surprise European champions may be without injured forward Viktor Khryapa, though they still have Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko and naturalized American point guard J.R. Holden. It was one thing to come out of nowhere to win the European title last summer; it will be much harder to win this summer amid the expectations of contention.

Lithuania. Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas was prevented from playing in the Olympics by the Cavaliers. The team's leader, Sarunas Jasikevicius, has had an unsettled couple of years after failing to make it in the NBA before joining Panathinaikos in the Greek league. "They always have a nice flow,'' Messina said. "You have to respect them.''

China. The home team always gets a boost, but that advantage has its limits: Four years ago, the Greeks finished fifth at the Athens Olympics. Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian should be ready to go, but China's backcourt remains too weak to contend.

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