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Chris Ballard
September 11, 2006
The Long View
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September 11, 2006

Basketball

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The Long View

For the third straight time in international play, Team USA failed to win gold. But don't expect drastic changes in its lineup

Last Saturday, after defeating Argentina 96-81 to take the bronze medal at the FIBA World Championship, the U.S. team made the hourlong bus ride from Saitama Super Arena back to the Four Seasons hotel for the last time, winding from the northern suburbs of Tokyo into the pulsating, neon glow of the Ginza district. The atmosphere on board was relaxed. Players who'd been on the 2004 Olympic team joked about whether their two bronze medals equaled one silver. There was none of the despair or finger-pointing that followed the world championships in '02, when Team USA finished sixth. "Hey, we did six weeks together, we became like a family," Elton Brand said. "Of course we felt like we could have won the gold, but it's a three-year process and now we understand what it takes."

This notion of the world championships as a warmup act for the Olympics was pervasive. Dwyane Wade explained that the team was only "getting used to the rules a little bit," and LeBron James said of international ball, "It's a whole different game. You have to forget about the NBA." What few spoke to was what might have been at this event, not only from a technical standpoint-what if coach Mike Krzyzewski had installed James at point guard earlier in the tournament, an adjustment that was the key to the victory over Argentina?-but also from a personnel one. What if there had been veterans like Chauncey Billups and Shawn Marion on a team whose tricaptains ( James, Wade and Carmelo Anthony) averaged 22.3 years of age? And then there was the elephant in the Saitama Super Arena that no one talked about: What if Kobe Bryant had suited up?

"It's not fair to say," said Brand. "What if [ Michael Jordan] was younger and was on our team? We were the ones out here, [and] we gave a good effort." James was more philosophical. "I'm not sure how that would have worked out," he said. "Kobe would have been a big part of our team if he was here. But we're very excited with our three captains."

Had the Americans won gold they would have had an obvious core going into the Beijing Games (which they now have to qualify for next summer at the FIBA Americas tournament in Venezuela). Because they didn't, there have already been calls to revise the lineup. What was clear was that the U.S. must upgrade its defense-especially against the pick-and-roll-and its shooting. Bryant would have helped in both areas: He's one of four players on the expanded roster to make an NBA All-Defensive team (along with Wade, Billups and Bruce Bowen; only Wade was in Japan), and he has a jumper suited to the 20'6" international three-point line. Players like Joe Johnson aren't pure shooters; they've trained themselves to hit from the NBA's 23'9" arc. But Bryant, while not an NBA three-point marksman, is one of the few perimeter stars at home 20 feet from the basket.

That said, don't expect the U.S. roster in China to be much different from the one in Japan. The team bonded (unlike its recent predecessors), worked hard for Krzyzewski and comported itself admirably on the world stage, with Brand, Shane Battier and Chris Bosh worthy of all-ambassador honors. "If there's a change or two-that's ultimately what I see, if any-that's only the flexibility that we have built into the system," said Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo. "But, no, we're not throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

It's also a sign of the changes in international basketball that a U.S. team could feel good about going 8-1 and taking bronze. That's why that bus ride wasn't a downer, why James and Wade talked optimistically about preparing for Beijing: Losing isn't what it used to be. A disappointment? Yes. A disaster? No.

Asked if people back home understand how international competition has evolved since the days of the original Dream Team, Battier shook his head. "I don't think so," he said. "All those young players [overseas] who were watching the 1992 Olympics-well, guess what?-they're full-grown now." What he didn't say was that on many of those international teams, many of the players have also been practicing together since 1992. And that's what ultimately will make the difference for the U.S.: not personnel changes, but chemistry and familiarity. You know, the things that turn individual players into basketball teams.

WNBA FINALS

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