In what could be the final showcase for teams laden with NBA stars, the U.S. is a heavy favorite to win its fifth gold in six Games
This is an article from the July 23, 2012 issue
IN A practice gym at UNLV, a dozen of America's richest basketball stars scrimmaged against a team of younger NBA players as intently as if they were back in high school. Guards Russell Westbrook and Andre Iguodala trapped the ball in the backcourt, yelling instructions back and forth while their teammates on the bench—led by LeBron James and Chris Paul—clapped and cheered. The scene was telling: If the U.S. is to defend its gold medal, it will have to defend with intensity. And in a tournament that begins six weeks after the conclusion of a taxing, condensed NBA season, every player, from James, the regular-season and Finals MVP, on down to Iguodala, a defensive specialist, will have to contribute. "They are going to need everyone on that roster," says one NBA team executive, "because this is going to be an exhausted team."
Maybe, but they know what's at stake. Twenty years after the original Dream Team changed global basketball, NBA commissioner David Stern has hinted that the quadrennial All-Star roundup may end after London and give way to a system similar to the one used for Olympic soccer, which has an age limit of 23 (with the exception of three overage players). Mike Krzyzewski, 65, has admitted that these Games will be his last as national team coach. No wonder, then, that the players were treating their first practice as if it were their last.
The sixth edition of the Dream Team has a chance to be the second best. "It's very versatile and much more mature than in '08," says USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo. "We think we're deeper, we think we're better." The squad that will try to defend the 2008 gold has fulfilled the original vision of Colangelo, who took control of the national team in '05 with the aim of maintaining a roster of experienced players all committed to competing in multiple international tournaments. James and Carmelo Anthony are each playing in their third straight Olympics. Power forward Anthony Davis and guard James Harden are the only players on the 12-man roster who haven't earned an Olympic or a world championship gold in the last four years.
But the run-up to London has not been without problems. Injuries and other factors knocked out guards Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade; forwards LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin and Lamar Odom; and centers Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum. With 7'1" Tyson Chandler the only true center on the team, James (6'8"), Anthony (6'8") and Kevin Durant (6'9") will have to join power forwards Kevin Love and Anthony Davis, who joined the team when Griffin was lost with a torn meniscus in his left knee last week, in holding down the paint.
The rest of the world is poised to prey on any vulnerability. "You'd better be focused, you'd better be paying attention to these [opponents], because if you're not you'll get your butts handed to you before you know what happened," says Kobe Bryant. "Look, they are just as competitive as we are, they want to win, they believe that they can win—which is different from '92. We're facing teams that want to take us down and believe they can take us down."
The U.S can expect several serious challenges—and they'll begin right away.
Opening round:JULY 29--AUG. 6
Playing in the tougher of the two six-team groups, the U.S. opens against France, which has a half-dozen NBA players, including Spurs point guard Tony Parker, Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum and Nando De Colo, a promising 6'5" combo guard who next season will join San Antonio, which drafted him in 2009. "If France were an NBA team," says Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards' VP of basketball administration, "they would be in the playoffs."
The U.S. should be able to coast against Tunisia, Nigeria and Lithuania before concluding group play against nemesis Argentina, led by Spurs swingman Manu Ginóbili, former Rockets forward Luis Scola and Bucks swingman Carlos Delfino. Though the game is highly anticipated, the Argentines have lost coach Rubén Magnano (who took over Brazil) and will be without point guard and floor leader Pepe Sànchez, who, at 35, was left off the roster. And if they're already assured of advancing, the Argentines may rest Ginóbili, keeping him fresh for the knockout stages.
Quarters and semis:AUG. 8--10
If they win Group A, the Americans will face the fourth-place team from Group B. Spain and Russia are likely to finish one-two in that group, meaning the U.S.'s opponent will probably be Australia (which is missing injured center Andrew Bogut of the Warriors), China (featuring Mavericks 7-footer Yi Jianlian) or Great Britain. A matchup with the Brits, who are led by Bulls All-Star forward Luol Deng, would be the most intriguing. The hosts would have no chance of upsetting the U.S., but a showdown against LeBron—who is a minority owner of Premier League side Liverpool—would give the sport a boost in one of the few European nations that hasn't embraced it.
The next round is more perilous. The U.S. lost in the semifinals at both the 2004 Olympics (to Argentina) and the '06 world championships (to Greece), and the Yanks can count on a tough test from France, Argentina, Brazil or Russia. While the Russians rely on the two-way skills of former Jazz All-Star Andrei Kirilenko and the strategies of American-born David Blatt, a top European coach for more than a decade, the Brazilians pose a more dangerous threat. They feature the Pacers' explosive backcourt scorer, Leandro Barbosa, and two talented big men, the Cavaliers' Anderson Varej√£o and the Wizards' Nen√™. Brazil prefers to push the ball and move fluidly into pick-and-rolls. Defending that play has been a priority for the U.S. since '06, when Greece ran it possession after possession in a 101--95 upset. The U.S. roster is loaded with big, aggressive guards—Chris Paul is the only player shorter than 6'3"—and athletic frontline defenders who can switch easily.
The Spaniards have been the U.S.'s biggest rival since the 2008 gold medal game, in which they drew within four points with 2:25 remaining before Wade and Bryant lifted the Americans to a 118--107 win. Though Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio is out with a torn left ACL, former NBA players Rudy Fernàndez and Juan Carlos Navarro are recovering from injuries, making Spain the biggest threat to the U.S. The Grizzlies' 7'1" Marc Gasol and the Lakers' 7-foot Pau Gasol played their best basketball together last summer, when Spain won the European championship, the brothers switching seamlessly between the high and low posts. Spain can also bring shot-blocking big man Serge Ibaka of the Thunder off the bench.
Starting point guard José Calderón of the Raptors is an excellent shooter and by-the-book facilitator who will try to exploit the Americans' lack of size by dumping the ball into the Gasols. The U.S. has one of the best low-post stoppers in the game in Chandler, but after the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year the Americans lack depth up front. When Griffin went down, the 6'10" Davis returned to the team despite a left-ankle sprain. Now it's likely the No. 1 pick in the draft will play meaningful minutes for his country before making his NBA debut.
Still, the U.S. will create matchup problems of its own: James can play every position on the floor with Durant or Anthony manning the power spots, which used to be areas of U.S. weakness. "I don't really spend time thinking, Gee, we don't have this, we don't have that," says Colangelo. "I know what we do have, and people will have to worry about [that]."
Like the Argentines, the Spanish have been playing together for years, but their familiarity isn't the advantage it used to be. Under Colangelo and Krzyzewski, U.S. basketball has more continuity than ever: The Olympic final will mark the 38th straight day the players will have spent together. They didn't sacrifice their summers to finish second. If all good things must come to an end, then this team, perhaps more than any past group of U.S. stars, is committed to finishing with a celebration and a familiar song.