The 20th anniversary of the Dream Team could bring an end to the concept of the biggest American basketball stars representing their country at the Olympics. With NBA commissioner David Stern vouching for a move toward an under-23 roster at future Games, this summer's U.S. team could be the last of its kind.
There was talk that the current group might rival its 1992 forefathers, but injuries have blunted those comparisons. The absence of centers Dwight Howard (back surgery) and Andrew Bynum (knee treatment) and power forwards Chris Bosh (abdominal strain) and Blake Griffin (knee surgery), among other big men, will force the United States to pursue a second straight Olympic gold medal with unorthodox lineups that shift Kevin Durant to power forward and LeBron James to center. Dwyane Wade, James' teammate with the NBA champion Heat, will also miss the Olympics as he prepares for offseason knee surgery.
But the U.S. remains the overwhelming favorite in the 12-team field to win a third consecutive international championship, following the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey. Rival contenders have suffered injuries of their own -- Spain won't have point guard Ricky Rubio and France will be without center Joakim Noah -- and no country can match the U.S. for depth or athleticism.
The Americans understand the historical context of their mission: The team leaders have been committed for the last several years to restoring USA Basketball to No. 1 in the world, and they're unlikely to accept anything less than a gold medal as their era concludes. As if they needed anything more to play for, this figures to be the last international tournament for coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has been in charge since 2006.
The nature of the Olympic tournament promises to help focus the American stars, who must approach the final three games (beginning with the quarterfinals) as if they're competing in the one-and-done NCAA tournament. James and Carmelo Anthony were on the 2004 Olympic and 2006 World Championship teams that lost in the semifinals, and those negative experiences have helped galvanize them and their teammates to make sure they don't fall short again.
The Americans may lack traditional size in the pivot -- NBA Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler is the only true center on the 12-man roster, with Kevin Love and No. 1 pick Anthony Davis behind him -- but they are nonetheless likely to control their air space. No other country possesses as many vertically aggressive stars as the U.S., which has James, Durant, point guard Russell Westbrook and others. The pick-and-roll that Greece ran possession after possession during its semifinal upset of the U.S. in the 2006 Worlds has been offset by Team USA's lineups of versatile defenders who can switch without fear. Consider this potential combination: James at center, Anthony at power forward, Durant at small forward, Kobe Bryant at shooting guard and Chris Paul, Deron Williams or Westbrook at the point -- altogether they should create endless pressure at both ends of the floor. The U.S. also has a top NBA wing defender, Andre Iguodala, coming off the bench.
Even with a shortage of big men, the Americans should have more than enough depth elsewhere to win Group A (which includes Argentina, France, Lithuania, Nigeria and Tunisia) and claim the gold medal for the 14th time in 18 Olympics in which basketball has been contested. Lurking in a potential gold-medal game is Spain, which headlines a Group B that also features Brazil, Russia, Great Britain, Australia and China. The top four teams from each pool advance to the quarterfinals.
The British have been slow to take to basketball -- in fact, British teams have made only one previous appearance in the Olympics, at the 1948 London Games, where they went 0-5 -- but this tournament could create a breakthrough. They've never been represented by any player as talented as Bulls All-Star small forward Luol Deng, whose commitment was revealed by his decision to postpone wrist surgery in order to play in the Olympics. Great Britain went a competitive 2-3 at EuroBasket last summer in Lithuania. If the hosts finish fourth in Group B, they will face a likely quarterfinal against the U.S. that could generate unprecedented interest in the team and the sport.
• The U.S. is 122-5 with 13 gold medals in 16 Olympic appearances, including 37-3 with teams anchored by NBA players.
• All teams will be playing every other day, a taxing schedule for NBA players after the grind of the lockout season.
• Basketball debuted at the Olympics in 1936 at Berlin, where games were played outdoors on lawn tennis courts and James Naismith tossed the ball for the opening tip of the first game. In London, basketball will be played at two venues: the North Greenwich Arena (known otherwise as the NBA-ready O2 Arena, though facility sponsorships are not recognized by the IOC), and The Basketball Arena, a 12,000-seat temporary building. After the Olympics, The Basketball Arena will be moved to Glasgow for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
• Sunday, July 29: Basketball tournament begins with six games, including USA-France at 9:30 a.m. ET.
• Wednesday, Aug. 8: Quarterfinals
• Friday, Aug. 10: Semifinals
• Sunday, Aug. 12: Gold-medal game and bronze-medal game