For those of us who remember how that first Olympic basketball Dream Team—with Magic, Larry and Michael—took Barcelona by storm back in 1992, it is rather remarkable to see the 2008 model, unveiled this week, tread with such humility.
Of course, it is a well-earned humility. A mere decade after the original Dream Team schooled the world, the U.S. team, more nightmare than dream, finished sixth at the 2002 world championships in Indianapolis. Since then, all that can be credited to its successors is consistency—a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics, where the U.S. team lost to Puerto Rico (by 19 points in the opener), Lithuania and the eventual gold medalists, Argentina; and bronze again at the 2006 worlds, where the U.S. at least got revenge on Argentina in a consolation match after getting whipped by Greece in the semifinals.
Now the Americans are trying to show that they too can learn from the world in order to match up with experienced teams that have played together for years. "We have a unique opportunity to represent our country—not just to win a gold, but to set a standard for how the game should be played," said Duke and Olympic team coach Mike Krzyzewski earlier this year. To make the team for Beijing, even the loftiest NBA aspirants were required to commit early and to play in regional qualifying rounds in hopes that the team could develop both cohesion and camaraderie. In addition, USA Basketball finally recognized that all that glitters is not necessarily gold; the team needed not just stars but the kind of role players—from deadeye, long-range shooters to those who can defend, especially on the perimeter—that have been conspicuously absent on past U.S. teams.
What could go wrong this time? Perhaps nothing. But here are four reasons this team might go astray:
Kobe Bryant: The lede on the announcement of the 2008 team was its awesome star, and firepower, with Kobe joining LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony. But the last three all played on the 2004 Olympic team, along with Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson, so the Athens team wasn't exactly a shabby assemblage. Clearly the biggest difference is the addition of the current NBA MVP. Bryant's talents adapt perfectly to the international game since he can score both inside and outside and defend anywhere on the court. And with his NBA season having ended on a down note, he will be looking, as he always seems to be, for redemption. But Kobe is nothing if not unpredictable. He is capable of unrivaled brilliance but can turn selfish if he decides he needs to carry the team or if he wakes up on the wrong side of the bed (which, on the other side of the world, is always a strong possibility). And, of course, he is used to having the ball in his hands. So are a lot of his teammates; eight of the 12 Olympians led their NBA teams in scoring.
Big Men: The international game, with its wide lane near the basket, doesn't necessarily put a premium on big guys who can clog the middle. So the U.S. team loaded up on players—at least half the team by my count—who can take advantage of that extra space by slashing to the hoop. That left room on the squad for only two big men, Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh. Both are exceptionally skilled, but neither has a wide body to bang with some of those big European front lines. An untimely ding or twist could leave an undersized American squad with a huge disadvantage on the boards.
Role Players: While the necessity for role players has been acknowledged, Krzyzewski only selected two—Michael Redd for three-point shooting and Tayshaun Prince for defensive pressure. Some expected the team to add a second defensive standout like Shane Battier or Bruce Bowen. That is why Kobe is so central to the U.S. team's fortunes. Beyond his superstar qualities, he is also the "other" long-range bomber and the "other" shutdown defender. Indeed, with so many talented scorers, the team might be best served if Kobe let others take the star turn and concentrated on those critical roles. But how likely is that?
Jason Kidd: Kidd was one of the superstars to whom USA Basketball committed early. And Coach K has continually extolled his virtues at the point-guard position. With all those scorers on the floor, the team does need somebody who plays selflessly and who can get his teammates the ball when and where they need it. Kidd can do that. But at 35 years old, his game appears in decline, and he has barely averaged double figures in scoring the past two seasons. He is not a consistent threat from the outside and his defense, never very good, is now a conspicuous weakness. Kidd, at best, is probably the fifth-best point guard in the NBA's Western Conference. Two, Steve Nash and Tony Parker, play for Canada and France, respectively. The other two, New Orleans' Chris Paul and Utah's Deron Williams, made the Olympic team. If necessary, will Coach K be willing to sit Kidd and play the kids? And just how selfless would Kidd then prove to be?