Americans: For the first time in six years, the world's most talented players
are actually going to win an international tournament. When the FIBA World
Championship opens on Aug. 19 in Japan, the NBA millionaires dressed in U.S.
colors will be focused as never before on representing their country. They may
not dominate every opponent, but at least their attitude won't be arrogant and
their tactics self-defeating. And get this--you may even grow to like them. �
In fact, likability will be the truest test of this team. Even when the U.S.
was throttling all comers in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, fans were losing
interest in the Dream Team concept because it had more to do with sponsorships
and the players' celebrity than with doing the nation proud. The misplaced
priorities led to a sixth-place finish at the 2002 worlds in Indianapolis and a
bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, which in turn forced USA
Basketball to spend the last year overhauling its senior men's program. To
build cohesion, Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo demanded that his
players make a three-year commitment rather than just serve a short tour of
duty. "The biggest change is that [ USA Basketball has] hired a staff and a
group of players who will work for a few years instead of a few weeks,"
says Ettore Messina, an Italian coach who is seen as a candidate to lead an NBA
team. "No more is the attitude that [the U.S.] can pull together a group of
players and with a little preparation win anywhere against anybody."
Another sign of
newfound humility: The 24 who took Colangelo up on his invitation were even
willing to accept that they might not make the cut. On July 25, after a week of
training camp in Las Vegas, coach Mike Krzyzewski sent home Charlotte Bobcats
rookie Adam Morrison, Seattle SuperSonics point guard Luke Ridnour and Phoenix
Suns forward Shawn Marion, who has a minor left knee injury. (They'll remain in
the pool for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing along with six other players,
including Kobe Bryant, who were excused from attending camp for personal
reasons.) Three more must be pared before the U.S.'s tournament opener against
What remains is
an American roster that is more promising--because the players are hungrier and
better balanced--than any since the original Dream Team of '92. None of the
final 15 choices has ever won a major international title; seven have never
even made an All-Star team. Marquee players Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and
Dwyane Wade were largely afterthoughts in the last Olympics. Role players like
swingmen Shane Battier and Bruce Bowen would never have been considered for
previous Dream Teams, but Colangelo believes that name recognition is less
important than having a pair of stoppers to clamp down on Argentina's Manu
Ginobili or France's Boris Diaw. Even Duke's Krzyzewski has something to prove:
Having never led NBA players, he has chosen one hell of a time to dispel the
notion that college coaches can't get through to well-heeled pros.
The lack of a
dominant center such as Shaquille O'Neal or Tim Duncan may make the road more
difficult--"With Shaq they could have killed everybody," says a top
G.M. from a Euroleague team who asked not to be named--but British bookmaker
William Hill has still made the U.S. a prohibitive 1--2 favorite to win the
tournament (followed by Argentina at 13--2 and Spain at 8--1). Here are five
reasons why the U.S. will wind up on top of the worlds:
Messina applauds Coach K's decision to dispense with the double teams and traps
that were shredded by Argentina's read-and-react backdoor offense in the last
two tournaments. "In Europe and Argentina we are not as good athletically
as you, but we have much better passers and shooters, and when you double-team
and trap, we are able to swing the ball quickly and find the open man,"
says Messina. "But if you are playing one-on-one defense and switching,
that means you are forcing us to beat you one-on-one--and we don't have the
aggressiveness and quickness to do it."
big men Gone are bruising bricklayers Antonio Davis and Ben Wallace, whose
defenders enticed them to fire away by sagging into the paint. In their place
are Chris Bosh and Brad Miller, capable shooters who will pull big defenders
away from the basket and create driving lanes for Wade and Gilbert Arenas.
versatility Messina expressed sympathy for the absence of Marion--"That's a
big loss," he said--until he heard that Krzyzewski plans to use small
forward James (as well as Anthony) at the power forward slot. "That's a
great idea," says Messina. " LeBron James is quick and strong, and he
can rebound against any four in Europe or Argentina."
bird-dogging Longtime NBA coach Rudy Tomjanovich heads a team of scouts who
have spent the last two months overseas charting the tendencies of the best
players. They will follow Team USA to Japan to continue breaking down the
opposition. "The coaching staff used to have to do all of this advance work
at three in the morning, and it wore us out," says Tomjanovich, who guided
the U.S. at the '98 worlds and the 2000 Olympics. "Our opponents have had
an advantage because they know our guys from seeing them in the NBA."
Consider that advantage erased.
A team in full
His predecessors felt the need to find minutes for everybody, but Krzyzewski
has made it clear that some players may not get minutes against certain
opponents. He vows that there will be no consistent starting lineup and that no
one will be stuck at the end of the bench. "I don't want them thinking that
they're the 12th man," he says. "I want them thinking that they have
usa on the front [of their jerseys, and therefore] I want to play my butt