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
"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
Others see a potential U.S. weakness on the front line, where
"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
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
Messina believes the Americans can dominate at power forward with NBA small forwards
"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:
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.''
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.''
"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: