Team USA has plenty of style, but could use more substance
Posted: Friday August 13, 2004 1:46PM; Updated: Friday August 13, 2004 1:46PM
Team USA will sell plenty of souvenirs with LeBron James and Allen Iverson on the team, but it may cost a gold medal.
How ironic that the Parthenon would be a backdrop for the U.S. men's basketball team during these Athens Olympics. Despite numerous attacks throughout its 2,500 years (it was nearly destroyed by a mortar shell fired by the invading Venetians in 1687), it somehow still stands as a testament to the engineering skills of its builders.
If only Team USA had been constructed so brilliantly. Instead its roster looks more like something thrown together by Zorba the Greek after an all-night ouzo bender. Too many small forwards. Not enough shooters. No backup point guard.
True, USA Basketball tried to put together a balanced team of NBA stars only to have nine of 12 players defect for reasons ranging from injury to security concerns. But Stu Jackson and Co. must have misplaced the blueprint when it came to naming replacements.
Judging from the exhibition season, this U.S. squad looks as wobbly as any structure up on the Acropolis. Even with Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and LeBron James, the Americans lost to lightly-regarded Italy while struggling against non-qualifiers Germany and Turkey. Most experts now consider the U.S. at best "co-favorites" to win gold, along with Argentina, Lithuania and Serbia & Montenegro.
A U.S. defeat, of course, wouldn't be the end of the world. But it could depress American hoops fans, many of whom still believe we should rule over the sport we invented (even if Dr. James Naismith was born in Canada). It also could make them angry, especially if the Athens crowds -- as expected -- react gleefully to a U.S. demise.
Win or lose, however, the early struggles of this year's Olympic squad should be a wakeup call to USA Basketball. Clearly, the All-Star thing isn't going to work much longer. As we learned at the 2002 World Championships, and in last week's exhibitions, the U.S. can no longer throw 12 NBA stars together for a month and expect them to dominate. The rest of the world has narrowed the talent gap. The foreign teams play together longer. They're more comfortable with the international rules. They know how to pass and cut and move the ball. They know how to zone up and neutralize our superior athletic ability.
The problem, of course, is that USA Basketball is tied closely to the NBA. And marketing is the NBA's top priority: selling jerseys, opening new world markets, spreading David Stern's gospel. Thus, when several players withdrew from the Olympic team a few months ago, James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade got the call to replace them. Never mind that Team USA was already loaded at the perimeter spots, with Lamar Odom, Shawn Marion and Richard Jefferson. The NBA couldn't resist a chance to put its three bright young stars on the international stage, even if it meant creating a logjam at small forward.
One look at the U.S. team in its exhibition games, though, and the lack of balance was obvious. Unable to knock down outside shots, our stars did what they are accustomed to doing in the NBA and tried to drive into the lane. But with the more liberal international zone rules, they were often met by four or five guys in the wrong-colored jerseys.
USA Basketball will surely hear about it if this Dream Team fails to bring home the gold. Some will say the U.S. needs to go back to a Dream Team concept, with only the biggest NBA stars. Shaquille O'Neal. Kobe Bryant. Kevin Garnett. Others will say we need a year-round international team that can train together and learn to play together the right way, even if it means using CBA-level or college talent.
A year-round team with a bunch of hungry young kids sounds like fun. Building a team from scratch would be a true test of our Yankee ingenuity. Besides, it's unfair to keep asking our NBA stars to risk injury and fatigue by playing in these international events. Many don't really want to be there anyway. They're doing it for endorsements, and that's not in the spirit of the Games.
But as it appears NBA players will remain a fact of U.S. international play for the foreseeable future, the powers-that-be might be wise to choose future Dream Teams with an eye toward putting together a real "team." How about having a squad with a few players who complement the superstars by doing the little things such as diving for loose balls and setting bone-crunching picks? Players who maybe don't have Q rating but bring much-needed dimensions to a team? Players who don't call their agent if they only get five minutes of PT against Angola.
Some of the names mentioned to put the blue collar into the red, white and blue include Michael Redd, Brent Barry, Shane Battier, Brad Miller and Brian Cardinal. Any would have been a smart choice this year. Redd or Barry could have knocked down open shots and made opponents pay for zoning up on Duncan. Battier could have provided blanket D when one of those European sharpshooters goes unconscious. Miller or Cardinal could have rebounded and passed, and maybe given those beefy foreign counterparts a few black and blue marks of their own.
Maybe such a U.S. team wouldn't feature as many superstars or sell as many jerseys, but it would bring home the gold. After all, the Parthenon wouldn't be standing were it not for those plain old functional pillars.