Before we start declaring all of Team USA's issues a thing of the past, please bear in mind that wins over Venezuela and the Virgin Islands don't count. They don't really even come close to counting. Here's how nameless these opponents were: in his pre-tournament team previews, Chris Sheridan's mentioned only one player for Venezuela, David Cubillan of Marquette, and he did not play against the US; he mentioned Raja Bell as the Virgin Islands only NBA player, but Raja is not playing either.
Of course this entire tournament barely counts. The only team in the field other than the US to advance to the round of 16 in last year's World Championships is Argentina, and they are playing without four starters and several key reserves (they'll still be pretty good, but not their best). Sure, Brazil, Puerto Rico and Venezuela qualified for the Worlds last year, but in international basketball, the difference between the top teams and the rest is vast - similar to the difference between the USA in 1992 and everyone else. There aren't 16 really good teams in the world, let alone 24. So the fact that none of these teams made it to the final 16 only a year ago (and let's face it, this isn't the same Argentina team) doesn't speak well of the level of competition.
One could argue that it's positive just for this group to be playing together, but it's almost as likely that it's detrimental to be facing such soft competition. Again, just looking back at last year's worlds, Team USA played one style of basketball in the preliminary rounds and they were successful doing so. But in their very first challenge, Krzyzewski panicked, changed his rotation, didn't adjust to the pick and roll, and lost the game. In the knockout format of these tournaments, it's better to find out what you really need to work on in pool play. If you go into the single elimination phase over-confident as was the case in Japan, bad things can happen.
Let me be clear. I think this Team USA is terrific. They will win this tournament, and if they take these 12 guys to Beijing, they should win the Gold Medal there. They've addressed two of their biggest issues, at point guard and outside shooting, but problems remain. Much of my confidence in this team hinges entirely on Jason Kidd, and to a lesser extent Kobe Bryant; Kidd being the consummate point guard that you need in these tournaments, and Bryant being simply so good that he can score any time he wants to. But, of the two, there's no question that Kidd is the more important to Team USA's ultimate goal. But by relying so heavily on the point play of Kidd and the one-on-one heroics of Kobe, Colangelo and Krzyzewski are glossing over some of the biggest problems. Where is the game plan? Where is the offensive continuity? And most importantly, what happens if Kidd can't play in Beijing?
I would have serious qualms about a team of Kobe, LeBron, Melo and Wade in Beijing, even with a terrific pro like Chauncey Billups at the point. Kidd is the essential element, at least until the leadership of Team USA gets some bollocks. It's fairly obvious that nobody on the sidelines is going to tell these guys that they have to subjugate themselves to the team ethic, leaving it up to Kidd to manage the situation in on the court. He can handle it. I'm not convinced that Billups can, and forget about Williams and Paul and Hinrich.
Since Jerry Colangelo took over the team with grandiose plans of competitive tryouts, a three year commitment from participants and role players on the roster, nothing has really changed with the 'Dream Team' process. By my reckoning, here is the complete list of players that have been 'cut' in Colangelo's tenure: Adam Morrison, JJ Redick, Luke Ridnour, Bruce Bowen, Kevin Durant and Nick Collison. Not surprisingly, there's not an all star on the list. Sure, Gilbert Arenas was essentially cut, his injury in 2006 being a face-saving ruse for all involved. But let's face it - that didn't work out so well either. The list of players ignoring their supposed three year commitment just continues to grow, as they wish either to avoid the embarrassment of being cut or benched again, or more likely, refuse to participate in the farce any longer - I mean, did anyone really expect Shane Battier to make the team at the expense of Kobe or LeBron or Carmelo?
Coach K's comments about Collison were particularly ludicrous last week.
This close to making it? You added him August 14th and cut him August 21st. There were no other cuts in between. He was cut the first chance you had. Great job, Nick! Why did they even bother adding the guy?
And as for continuity, another supposed goal of the Colangelo plan, this 2007 team has exactly 3 players on it who competed in 2006. The same number of repeats from 2004 (pre-Colangelo) to 2006. (I guessed last week that the number would be four, but Chris Bosh withdrew with plantar fasciitis in the interim.)
If you include Collison we're now up to 33 players on the official list (although I believe they have moved JJ Redick onto the select squad that scrimmages against them). What happens if all those players show up for 12 spots next year? Injuries and apathy have done most of the dirty work for Colangelo and Krzyzewski so far. But what happens if all these guys say, "Hey, Beijing would be pretty cool?"
By my count, there are 14 tier one stars on the list - guys who have made multiple all star teams. Eight of them showed up for work in Vegas, and unsurprisingly they are all on the current team. Those eight are Kobe, LeBron, Melo, Kidd, Billups, Redd, Howard and Stoudemire. Now, what happens if the other six super stars (Wade, Brand, Marion, Bosh, Pierce, and Arenas) show up for the tryout for Beijing? And I'm not even including tier 2 players like Joe Johnson, Jamison, Odom, Paul, Boozer and Deron Williams on this list, and obviously we know that the role players like Battier and Hinrich and Prince and Chandler have no chance. Frankly, that could be the best entertainment from Team USA up to and including Beijing - watching what Colangelo does if everyone shows up.
In the final analysis, if the team wins gold in Beijing then Colangelo will be lauded, despite the fact that he abandoned his 'plan' almost before he hatched it. Kidd and Bryant et al may simply be good enough to get it done. But the irony is Colangelo was right all along. Team USA would in fact be better off with a real team, instead of a collection of All Stars. So why won't they put that team together?
A couple days before the tournament, Coach K hadn't decided on a starting lineup, but the one thing he knew for certain was that Kobe, LeBron and Melo would be there. Why? The two most difficult positions to fill on an NBA roster are point guard and center, but those guys don't play those positions. Moreover, Melo isn't anywhere close to a power forward, but Coach K plays him there anyway. If you were building a 'team' you would NEVER play those three guys together - forget the fact that there's only one basketball - they just happen to play two positions. It's not really rocket science. Chris Sheridan put it quite well in a column last week:
And what happens when Wade is healthy? Is he yet another starter? Now you've got four mega-super stars who play two positions. Sure, you can play Melo at the 4 and play Wade or LeBron at the 1; but why would you? You said you wanted a team, right?
Like I said, it's a non-issue in Las Vegas. There simply isn't a team there that can compete with them, not even Brazil or Argentina, each reduced to two NBA level players for this tournament (Brazil has three if you count Tiago Splitter). But Spain and France and Argentina and others are going to show up with all NBA rosters in Beijing, and then what?
In case you missed it, Team USA lost their final scrimmage to their sparring partners - a group of 8 NBA players who are all good, but not nearly as good as Pau Gasol or Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker. If this team can lose to Al Jefferson, Channing Frye, David Lee, Devin Harris, Jason Kapono, Aaron Brooks, Jeff Green and Andre Iguodala, aren't there still problems?