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.
[Sport Explainer: Basketball]
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.
[Ian Thomsen: Biggest challengers to Team USA]
LeBron James, U.S.: He could be tired after carrying Miami to the championship during the lockout-truncated season, but these Olympics represent an opportunity for him to show the world what the NBA learned this spring: that James is the best player in basketball.
Kevin Durant, U.S.: He was the leader of the 2010 World Championship team, and it will be interesting to see how the NBA scoring champion and James -- his rival in the recent NBA Finals -- team together to lead the U.S.
Kobe Bryant, U.S.: The 33-year-old was the backbone of the 2008 Olympic team. What role will Bryant play this summer?
Pau and Marc Gasol, Spain: The 2008 silver medalist will be counting on its twin towers to carry it in an anticipated gold-medal Olympic rematch against the U.S., but the job will be harder without Rubio and with explosive shooting guard Juan Carlos Navarro slowed by a foot injury.
Tony Parker, France: The four-time NBA All-Star is the experienced playmaker and leader of a talented French team that includes guard Nando De Colo, a 2009 second-round pick, who will join Parker in San Antonio next season; another Spur, veteran power forward Boris Diaw; small forward Nicolas Batum, who recently signed a four-year, $46.5 million contract with the Trail Blazers; and forward-center Kevin Seraphin, who averaged 14.1 points and 7.2 rebounds in 21 starts with the Wizards last season.
Manu Ginobili, Argentina: The soon-to-be 35-year-old leads an older team -- power forward Luis Scola, small forward Andres Nocioni and point guard Pablo Prigioni are all 32 or older, and swingman Carlos Delfino will turn 30 in August -- that won the gold medal at the 2004 Athens Games and finished third in Beijing.
Leandro Barbosa, Brazil: The former Sixth Man Award winner is an aggressive scorer who could join with big men Nene, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter in leading Brazil to the gold-medal game.
Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuania: A lot of NBA fans will be getting their first look at the 20-year-old big man, who is set for his rookie season with the Raptors after being drafted fifth in 2011.
Andrei Kirilenko, Russia: The former NBA All-Star, who spent last season with CSKA Moscow, headlines a young team guided by American David Blatt, one of the top coaches in Europe.
U.S. vs. Spain: This matchup won't happen in pool play because the teams are in different groups. But this is the clash that many want to see in the final, even if the charismatic Rubio's injury has taken away a bit of the luster.
Argentina vs. France: The top rivals to the U.S. in Group A will meet in round-robin play, meaning San Antonio backcourt mates Ginobili and Parker will face off early.
Brazil vs. Spain: The Brazilians will be the biggest threat to Spain in Group B.
U.S. vs. Brazil: As with Spain, the U.S. won't meet Brazil in the group stage. But don't be surprised if the Brazilians are playing for the gold on Aug. 12 thanks to their size and the expert coaching of Ruben Magnano, who led Argentina to victories against the Americans in the 2002 World Championship and 2004 Olympics.
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.
[Alex Wolff: Deng's unwavering commitment to Great Britain]
• 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