When the July 27 opening ceremony launches the London Olympics, the United States again will be the nation to beat in men’s basketball.
Well for that matter, the USA will be the team to beat in basketball period.
In men’s and women’s 12-team pool competition, the USA won both gold medals with relative ease at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
But like the entire international athletic landscape, much has changed in the men’s basketball since coach Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) and his virtual who’s who of NBA talent capped an undefeated 8-0 Olympic run with a 118-107 win over Spain in 2008.
When Krzyzweski said in early spring that the USA National Team is an “evolving” endeavor, he certainly was not kidding.
Only a few days earlier, Miami Heat superstar Dwyane Wade created an instant sports controversy by saying the USA should pay its players. Not only that, the 30-year-old former Marquette University player said he hadn’t totally decided to return to the Olympics.
A 6-foot-4 wing guard, Wade led the 2008 team in scoring with a 16-point per game average, slightly more than his now Miami teammate LeBron James (15.5 ppg) and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant (15 ppg).
In the public uproar that followed Wade’s statements, he made the sensible move of backpedaling on both fronts. Dubbed “D-whine” and “D-bank” among other nicknames by critics, Wade rephrased his stance to leave open the possibility that he would be in London while saying that money would not the reason if he did stay home.
Roster Impacted by Injuries
Wade’s playing status and opinions on reimbursement aside, other significant changes on the USA roster from 2008 are inevitable.
Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard, who averaged 10.5 ppg and 5.8 rebounds per game in 2008, definitely will have to be replaced. Although he’s only 26 years old, the 6-foot-11, 265-pound Atlanta native is recovering from a back surgery that could possibly keep him out of games until December or later.
Three more 2008 contributors, Jason Kidd (age 39), Tayshaun Prince (32) and Michael Redd (32), have basically aged out of the national team loop.
Brilliant 23-year-old playmaker Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls would have a prime candidate to replace Kidd, but that all changed early in the NBA playoff when Rose sustained a knee injury that will keep him off the court for months.
The two primary point guard options are 2008 contributors Chris Paul, 27, of the Los Angeles Clippers by way of Wake Forest and Deron Williams (New Jersey Nets/Illinois), who will turn 28 on the day (July 26) before the opening ceremony.
A candidate to claim Howard’s roster spot is Kevin Durant, 23, of the Oklahoma City Thunder and a former college star for Texas.
2008 Approach Won’t Change
Once the team is settled, Krzyzewski has said the patterns and policies that worked so well in 2008 will not change radically.
"We don't subscribe to the theory about leaving their egos at the door. We want them to bring their egos inside the room,” Krzyzewski said recently. “We want those egos. We want them to be who they are, wearing the USA jersey. And they've done that, because they know they're part of something bigger than them.”
Krzyzewski will go to London with the chance to become first USA coach since Hank Iba (Oklahoma State) to lead teams to two straight golds.
Iba’s 1964 and ’68 teams repeated during the era before NBA participation.
That ’64 team in Toyko included Bill Bradley (Princeton), Jeff Mullins (Duke), “Jumpin’ Joe” Caldwell (Arizona State) and Walt Hazzard (UCLA). A 73-59 win over the Soviet Union in the title game left the USA with a 9-0 record.
In ’68 at Mexico City, Iba had collegians Charles Scott (North Carolina), Spencer Haywood (Trinidad Junior College) and Jo Jo White (Kansas) and finished 9-0 with a 65-50 win over Yugoslavia, which finished 7-2.
But 1968 was also the year when it became obvious that the rest of the world was catching up in basketball. The Soviets finished the Games with a 9-1 record but never got to place the Americans.
In earlier games before the title game, Iba’s team struggled to get past Puerto Rico and Brazil.
In 1972 at Munich, the basketball competition ended in a controversial 51-50 gold loss to the Soviets.
With North Carolina’s Dean Smith taking over as coach, the 1976 USA team reclaimed the gold with a 7-0 record and easy win over host Canada in Montreal.
Smith’s approach was to pick players with whom he was familiar and could mesh quickly into a workable team. Hence, there were seven players from the Atlantic Coast Conference and four from Carolina, Phil Ford, Mitch Kupchak, Tom LaGarde and Walter Davis.
The transition to an NBA roster finally came in 1992 with the “Dream Team” that included Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
But in the years since, the process of folding so many superstar multi-millionaires into a harmonious team has been tricky at times.
In 2008, Krzyzewski and assistants Jay Triano, Jim Boeheim, Mike D'Antoni, Nate McMillan so thoroughly mastered the playing time challenge that 10 of the 12 players averaged at least 10 minutes per game. Eight of the 12 averaged at least eight points.
In the gold medal game win over Spain, Wade led the scoring with 27 points, but Bryant added 20 points, James 14 and Paul and Carmelo Anthony 13 each.
Krzyzewski knows the competition in London will be more difficult to beat than was the case in 2008.
“The international level of play keeps improving. It hasn’t ebbed any yet,” Krzyzewski said.
But in the long run, talent still heavily favors the USA. Logically, the only team capable of stopping the Americans will be that team the Americans see when they stare at the mirror.