2012 U.S. hoops team bound to be most talented group in decades
When Jerry Colangelo set out to rebuild the USA men's basketball program and end an eight-year gold-medal drought in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the international resumes of the players he was so high on said everything about the operation he was taking over.
"Jason [Kidd] was the only gold-medalist in the room [from the '08 team]," said Colangelo, the former Phoenix Suns owner who took over the U.S. program in 2005 after its bronze-medal finish in the 2002 Olympics. "Since that time, we now have 18 gold-medalists -- eight from the Olympic team in '08 and 10 from the  World Championship team. But it all started with Jason."
But when Colangelo announced the 20 finalists for the 2012 Olympic team on Monday, Kidd's absence, due to international retirement, was hardly lamented. This year's group is as talented and experienced as it has been since 1992, when the Dream Team set the gold-medal standard that has been tough to maintain. The 2012 pool is filled with more than enough incredible athletes, scorers, defenders and dominant big men to counter any roster.
Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Deron Williams, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwight Howard remain from the 2008 gold-medal winning Olympic team. Kevin Durant, Tyson Chandler, Derrick Rose, Rudy Gay, Kevin Love, Eric Gordon, Andre Iguodala, Lamar Odom, Chauncey Billups and Russell Westbrook are back from the 2010 team that won gold at the World Championship.
The final roster of 12 (six alternates) will be set June 18 and training camp is expected to take place from July 4-6. Because NBA free agency doesn't begin until July 11 and also because of concerns about the league's lockout-shortened season possibly causing more injuries, Colangelo said the list of finalists expanded from 18 to 20 to "protect our backside."
Those two spots were filled with two phenomenal young players. The Clippers' Blake Griffin and Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge were the only finalists with no prior international experience, yet both have a very real chance at making the final cut taking part in the 2012 Games in London.
Griffin would have been considered for the 2010 team, but the knee injury that cost him his rookie season in 2009-10 took him out of the running. Many felt that Aldridge should have been an All-Star last season, and his chances would appear to be good in light of a key change to international rules. Whereas the 2008 Olympics were played with a trapezoidal lane, the 2012 version will feature a rectangular lane like the one in the NBA that makes post players more valuable than before.
Colangelo has been masterful in his design of the team. He's demanded an increased level of commitment from players while regaining the American edge that had been lost in recent years while teams across the globe improved dramatically. Perhaps his best move, however, bringing on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski in 2005.
"This will be the most talented of the three teams that I've had the opportunity to coach," Krzyzewski said in a conference call with reporters on Monday. "They're all older. They're better. A number of them are at the prime times of their careers. I like the balance ... we eventually could have with youth, guys in their prime."
As Krzyzewski noted, it's a scary sign that Bryant is the oldest player in the group. The Lakers star has spent the last few weeks reminding the masses that he has plenty of great basketball left in his 33-year-old tank, scoring at will with the trademark competitive spirit that was contagious on Team USA in recent years.
And while Bryant has been playing through a torn ligament in his wrist, Krzyzewski made it clear that he expects the 16-year veteran to find a way to play a big part.
"Depending on injury, that will be his choice, but it will have to be something very, very serious," he said. "He has a number of years still left, but I know he would want another Olympic championship. He's about championships, and we need him ... because of that mentality and being one of the leaders for our team."
Krzyzewski raved about James' defensive contributions in years past, calling him the "dominant voice of our defense" in Beijing. He's equally thrilled to have Wade back in the mix, as James' Miami running mate had considered retiring from international play after 2008.
"I think the power of prayer worked," Krzyzewski said with a chuckle, "because I didn't say anything to [Wade], but I certainly said a few prayers hoping that the other [players] would have an influence on him."
Come this summer, of course, Team USA should have more than a prayer's chance at winning back-to-back gold.