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A stellar group of NBA all-stars was named to the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team yesterday and most hoops junkies in America, not surprisingly, claimed immediate victory in Beijing. Never mind that the U.S. team of NBA stars that played in the world championships two years ago in Japan finished third, or that the 2004 Olympic team in Athens lost three games and finished third, or that the 2002 world championship team lost three games and didn't even medal, or that the 1998 world championship team finished third. If Kobe and LeBron and D. Wade are playing then the United States ought to win, right?
If the reciting of names can win a championship, the U.S. team is a lock. Here's the list, alphabetically: Carmelo Anthony, Carlos Boozer, Chris Bosh, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Tayshaun Prince, Michael Redd, Dwyane Wade and Deron Williams. That's 10 current or former league all-stars. Williams, who isn't, was second-team all-NBA by time the season ended, which makes him by acclaim one of the top 10 players in the league. And Prince, who isn't, is the one guy on the team who understands his entire value is in his defense. If they're awarding medals on name value or shoe contracts the other teams might as well stay home.
It really is a glittering roster USA Basketball has put together. Wade already has been MVP of the NBA Finals. Kobe is the reigning MVP of the league. James almost single-handedly led his Cleveland team to the NBA Finals last year and surely is a future league MVP. Kidd led his team twice to the Finals. Paul and Williams appear to be the two best playmakers and leaders of a new generation of players. Howard is the most physically impressive low-post player America has produced recently. If you could put this team of players on the floor for an entire training camp and NBA regular season, they might win 75 of 82 games.
But for a month of international competition?
I've covered too many U.S. losses in international basketball to presume anything, and perhaps I'm letting that history overly influence my wait-and-see attitude about this team. The domestic sentiment, almost unanimously, about this collection of players even before it was officially announced has been, "We're back. We win." In a discussion about the team first thing yesterday morning, two of my dear friends and colleagues who know as much if not more about basketball than I do, Tony Kornheiser and David Aldridge, spoke of a U.S. gold medal run as if it was the lock of the century, as if this was the one and only Dream Team descending on Barcelona in 1992.
Of course, that team wasn't just unbeatable it was invincible, both in terms of competitive basketball and as a tool that would change the global basketball landscape. It accomplished everything the NBA and FIBA, the sport's world governing body, wanted to do to showcase basketball at the highest level and seduce every kid who ever dreamed of playing from Africa to Asia to Europe to South America. The world is still thanking the United States, by beating our brains out mostly. We keep sending star-studded but flawed teams into international play, then cursing their effort and heart when they don't come back with gold because we arrogantly decided they should be superior primarily because we invented the game and monopolized it for so long.
Okay, this U.S. team doesn't seem to be fatally flawed. Howard, Orlando's 6-foot-11 monster, is the only traditional low-post player. The other true front-court players, Boozer and Bosh, are tall but certainly not big men. This appears to be a concession to the difficulty the low-post, inside-out game that works so well in the NBA has had being effective in international play. You need big men who not only can pass and shoot (which Boozer and Bosh can) but who can also go out and guard big international players who can pass and shoot and never even dream about camping out on the low block.
If, as rumored, Detroit's Prince was selected over the Hornets' Tyson Chandler, that would seem to be a smart choice. Prince can run his skinny 6-9 body all over the court to defend; he can guard at least three positions, probably four in international play. With any number of combinations of players, the United States seemingly would be at a distinct advantage in terms of skill and versatility. With the exception of Kidd, the players are young and determined to end this string of international losing. I wouldn't want to bet against such a team, but I wouldn't want to presume victory six weeks before the tournament begins either.
One would think we, and by we I mean Americans, would learn something from so much recent defeat. Actually, it's been 20-plus years of lesson-learning, going back to the 1987 Pan American Games team of collegiate stars that lost to Brazil and the 1988 U.S. Olympic team that lost to the Soviet Union in Seoul and closed the curtain on amateurs representing the U.S. against other countries' professionals.
The 2002 world championship team looked pretty good, too, when it was named. Paul Pierce, MVP of the recently concluded NBA Finals, was on that team. As was Jermaine O'Neal, as was an in-his-prime Ben Wallace, as was Shawn Marion, Baron Davis, Antonio Davis, Michael Finley, Elton Brand and an extraordinary shooter by the name of Reggie Miller. That team finished sixth.
The 2000 Olympic team in Sydney narrowly avoided a loss, and that group included a 24-year-old Kevin Garnett, Kidd, Ray Allen, Gary Payton, a healthy Alonzo Mourning, a healthy Antonio McDyess and Vince Carter. There was zero doubt expressed about that team before the competition began.
The 2004 Olympic team, criticized for who wasn't playing, nonetheless included James, Wade, Allen Iverson, Boozer, Amare Stoudemire, Tim Duncan and a coach of some renown by the name of Larry Brown.
No doubt, the U.S. team will be the favorite when competition begins in Beijing, but opposing players and coaches won't be asking to pose for pictures with the Americans. Certainly, the U.S. team won't be feared as was the case in Barcelona. Coach Mike Krzyzewski and his assistants will have relatively little time to turn a group of superstars into a team, while true teams with few if any household names will be looking to once again bag the big game . . . us.