I've ranted about this before, and I'll probably rant about this again, but I just think it's so funny how Jerry Colangelo supposedly completely overhauled USA Basketball, and had all kinds of praises heaped on him for getting the USA back to the Gold Medal podium in Beijing, when in fact it's just been business as usual the entire time.
Let's start with the obvious fact: the US has the best basketball players in the world and therefore should be the favorite to win the Gold Medal in any major international event. As it happens, the US has one Gold and one Bronze in their major two events under the direction of Colangelo. So I ask you: is that a good record?
The big changes that USA Basketball supposedly underwent in 2006 never seemed so big to me. They won in 2008 because they had the best basketball players, and in particular great point guard play with the internationally unretired Jason Kidd and developing stars Chris Paul and Deron Williams.
Among the changes Colangelo supposedly implemented were a real try out, the inclusion of role players and a three year commitment. But at the end of the day, the 2008 team, the supposed Redeem Team, was an All-Star team just like all the teams had been before. It was a very, very good all star team, that much is clear. But let's not pretend like it was a new and improved process that won Gold in Beijing when Kobe Bryant played in his first Olympics, where he was joined by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, Carlos Boozer, Michael Redd, Kidd, Paul and Williams. The only guy anywhere close to a role player was Tayshaun Prince. And if we're to believe Ken Berger's version of events, LeBron was a prima donna that no one in Team USA particularly wanted there, but they kept him anyway. So they didn't reject any stars, and they didn't take any role players. So how is that a new way of doing things? They just picked a super talented team, like they always try to do.
As for the three year commitment, well not a single one of the twelve members of the 2008 team will be participating in the World Championships in Turkey this summer. And Colangelo, the man behind the super brilliant 'three year commitment' says "I'm OK with that."
Look, I understand that he wants to have the best players on the team when London 2012 comes around, so he can't afford to burn any bridges with these guys. And I understand that Bryant's finger hurts and that James, Wade, Bosh and Boozer are all free agents (believe me, I understand about the free agents). But don't go around saying it's a three year commitment if it's not a three year commitment. And don't take credit for a bold new process that brought Gold back to America when it's just the same old process of asking the best players and hoping they say yes.
The US has only won the World Championships once, in 1994. Why? Because we don't take them as seriously as we take the Olympics, and we end up sending lesser teams. Don't get me wrong. Mistakes have been made with choosing the teams even from the available talent pool, and it's obvious that the teams have had enough good players to win, so other problems have contributed as well. But the main reason the US lost in Japan in 2006 and in Indy in 2002 is because we had the wrong players there.
It's worth noting, with the World Cup just concluded, that in international football, it is the World Championship (a.k.a. the World Cup) that everyone cares about, not the Olympics. And in the rest of the World, the World Championships of basketball are certainly equal to the Olympics. But in the US we seem to view it as a distraction, as some wacky little tournament that's quaint and cute and all, but that isn't really worth taking seriously. We know why the free agents aren't playing (though of course that's a joke as well, since they'll all be well settled into their new contracts by September). What about Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony? Why aren't they playing? Colangelo says "it's a combination of ... free agency, injuries and having gone hard for a long time." Perfectly reasonable, right? Only, what about the three year commitment? Is it, "We absolutely positively need a three year commitment from you, unless that's inconvenient because you've been going hard for a long time, in which case a one year commitment is plenty"? And what exactly is a one year commitment other than "Here's the 2012 London Olympic team"?
Back to the actual blueprint for winning, the keys are not really that complicated. Obviously you have to have a good team. More specifically, the things that are unique to international success (and the things that undid prior editions of Team USA) are point guard play and outside shooting.
In that sense, the team might be OK in Turkey, even without the Beijing vets. The team has Chauncey Billups, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook and Tyreke Evans in camp (though Evans tweaked an ankle and has been unable to participate most of the week). Billups will likely be fine, despite the fact that he'll be a month shy of his 35th birthday when the tournament starts. Rose will hopefully be OK, though it's worth noting that in a similar situation in Japan (a couple years into the NBA, playing in his first international competition) Paul was inadequate. Westbrook and/or Evans would probably be disasters, the type of scoring, poor shooting, high turnover point guards that have kept Team USA off the top step, or even off the podium altogether (see Davis, Baron, Iverson, Allen).
As for outside shooting, let's hope they choose wisely from the players currently on the roster. Billups would certainly help. At the small forward, Kevin Durant is a lock, and may be the X factor for Team USA that helps them win Gold. Danny Granger would be helpful. Andre Iguodala would be a mistake - the second coming of Shawn Marion at the World's. Stephen Curry would be a good choice as a designated shooter.
Clipper Eric Gordon has a chance, if the team values shooting and defense. Gordon is probably the second best shooter currently in camp behind Curry, and is a much better defender than Steph. There are currently 19 players trying to make the final 12 man roster. The point guard competition is pretty intense, but Gordon and Curry and O.J. Mayo are really the only true shooting guards in camp. Now, they could decide to use Kevin Durant or Andre Iguodala at shooting guard, but they actually tend to play smaller, not bigger, in these things (think LeBron James at power forward). They could also play some of their point guards together... but I'd be worried about the perimeter shooting if, say, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook were out there at the same time. So Gordon would seem to have a chance, if he's having a good camp.
At Vinny Del Negro's introductory press conference, I joked with Neil Olshey that the Clippers could conceivably have four representatives at the World Championships this summer: Sofoklis Schortsanitis playing for Greece, Chris Kaman for Germany, and Gordon and Blake Griffin for the US. Well, we're down to Gordon as the last great hope. Sofo will be there of course, but he's not going to be a Clipper (the rumors that the Clippers made an offer may turn out to be just that, rumors). Kaman has said he's not playing for Germany since his buddy Dirk Nowitzki chose not to play. Griffin would be a lock to make the team given the dearth of quality bigs in camp after various issues and injuries, but in the end he and the Clippers decided not to risk an injury when he has still yet to play his first NBA game. That leaves Gordon.
Eleven of the 19 players in camp are under the age of 22. Will the kids be alright in Turkey? I have to go back to 1988 in Seoul. The US won the Bronze medal that year, when a team featuring David Robinson, Danny Manning, Dan Majerle and Mitch Richmond before they entered the NBA was unable to overcome teams of grown men from the USSR and Yugoslavia. The Soviets featured Sarunas Marciulionis, Arvydas Sabonis and Alexandr Volkov, while the Yugos had Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc and Vlade Divac. (Of course those guys wouldn't all be on the same team now, since the USSR has since broken up into Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine and others, while Yugoslavia is now Serbia and Bosnia and others - how good would those teams be this year if they could recombine along the Soviet era borders?)
The real point here is that the original Dream Team was formed in 1992 for the Barcelona Olympics because of the reality that college kids couldn't compete with grown men. Twenty years later the NBA has changed to the point that most of the NBA players we'll be sending to Turkey will be younger than the college 'kids' we sent to Seoul. I'm just saying.
Here's a little subplot on the Worlds. The winner automatically qualifies for the Olympics. Everyone else has to go through regional qualifying tournaments next summer. Regardless of how you feel about the likelihood of a potential lockout in 2011, there's basically no way that NBA players will be playing during the summer while a contentious new CBA is being negotiated. As was the case during the last lockout in 1998, Team USA will have to be put together from non-NBA players for the Tournament of the America's. Will that team finish high enough to secure an Olympic bid? Probably.
But as for continuity and the 'three year commitment'? Forget it. It's entirely possible that the US fields one team in 2010 at the Worlds, an entirely different team in 2011 at the Tournament of the Americas, and then a third team in 2012 in London when LeBron and Kobe and Wade and everyone else rejoins the program. It's fine. It's the reality of big time basketball in the US. But I'm tired of Jerry Colangelo saying that it's different than before. It's exactly the same.