There is a lot of enthusiasm for this year's Olympic squad and even though Dwight Howard and others are injured they are highly favored. Check out some quotes about the team:
-"Our speed," the reigning NBA MVP said Saturday night after the final roster was announced. "Our speed is one of the best, and also how dynamic some of the lineups can be, [guys] being able to play a lot of positions."
-With the group of core players announced today, we have a strong foundation to the team as the roster contains a great blend of veterans and youth along with athleticism, talent and the all-important factor of international basketball experience."
-"We can play fast; we can play big. We can put a team of shooters on the floor, or go with a slash-and-penetrate lineup. I think defensively, we'll be able to throw different looks out there as well. From my standpoint, it will be fun having so many different ways to play the game of basketball.
-Therein lies Team USA's biggest strength as it gears up for London. The speed and athleticism that Krzyzewski has to choose from is ridiculous.
-"We've added athleticism, defense, three-point shooting, ball-handling. I love the versatility of our lineup, and I think this summer is going to be a lot of fun."
-The Americans will look to run whenever they can and they know that if they can come together as a group and play solid defense throughout they should be walking away with yet another gold medal in London.
-"These players represent some of the top talent in the NBA and the team possesses tremendous versatility and athleticism. I'm certain that these players will represent the United States in a manner that will make all Americans proud."
What's the problem then? Well, those quotes are mixed with ones from the 2002 debacle in Indianapolis where the Americans left with the same record as Puerto Rico and a seventh place finish on their home soil. Only the first, fourth, and sixth quotes refer to the London Games, while the others can be found here and here.When the rest of the world was catching up to the Americans in basketball in the early part of the 00's decade, the US was assuming its talent and athleticism would trump anything another country could produce, even if they had superior chemistry from playing together and being constructed as an actual team. They got through the first preliminary round loss-free, but fell to a superbly talented Argentina team and stained their legacy in the second preliminary round. Sure, they didn't win the world championship in '98, but it was a lockout and college players were used. During the first knock-out stage, however, they lost to Yugoslavia by three points, and subsequently wound up in sixth place overall after losing to Spain.
Very few people were paying attention to the FIBA world championship, so the disgrace of the team spread through the news cycle like an oil spill in a foreign land. People retroactively explained that the team was poorly constructed and stood little chance against teams that often employed NBA-caliber talent in cohesive units who had been playing for years. Like so many things, it took a catastrophe for people to notice, and swift changes were made ... well, they didn't win again until 2008 with the Redeem Team, but the mid 00's regularly featured lots of talk about how the mighty US had fallen in basketball and how to fix it.
What people finally realized is that you can't throw a bunch of big names on a team and expect domination. You need to field a real team without holes and allow them enough time to gel. For instance, here's a list of needs to fulfill while you field a roster (and obviously one guy can take up more than one category):
-True point guards who can pass with at least one back-up in case there are injuries or issues with the starting one.
-A tough, versatile perimeter stopper with a back-up to shut down the other team's star as international teams usually have one very good player.
-Outside shooters to bust zones and take advantage of the shorter line. Need at least three very good outside shooters in case one is cold from the field, and at least one needs to be one of the best outside shooters in the world.
-Shot creators who can carry the offense (we'll never be low on that.)
-Strong low-post defenders and preferably two. USA has been carved up by post players in the past, like with Baby Shaq on Greece
-Two true centers to protect the rim (separate category because they're different skills)
-Rebounders to control the boards including two elite guys with surrounding help.
The problem last decade was the drought of good, "true" point guards. Kidd was slated to be on the 2002 team but was forced out by an injury and the next best guy was Andre Miller, whose lack of a jump shot made him a liability in the international game. Kidd couldn't shoot either, but his passing and defensive skills were great enough to overcome that while Miller has yet to visit an all-star game. Looking at this year's roster we're doing pretty good with a notable exception in the frontcount.
True points guards: Chris Paul and Deron Williams
Perimeter stopper: Iguodala and James (and Bryant since he's had that role before)
Zone busters: Durant and Harden ... and Paul and Williams and Love and Bryant (though he hasn't been shooting well from the NBA three last few years)
Shot creators: every perimeter player except Iguodala
Low-post defenders: Tyson Chandler
Rim protector: Tyson Chandler
Rebounders: Tyson Chandler, Love and Griffin (though you'd also have to mention guys like James too)
Obviously, Howard's injury completely changed the team, but Team USA should have had a better back-up plan than Tyson Chandler and Griffin or Love at center. There were options, and even though Anthony Davis sprained his ankle so they couldn't see him in person you have to be pretty sure he's a better rim protector than Griffin. There was also Cousins who could have provided a big body if need be; coach K commented on his maturity but this is the experience he needs to mature as a person and the coach should be used to guys like that seeing as how he coaches college players (well, it's Duke, but Austin Rivers shows you can be rich and still a pain.) He could have been mentored by Tyson Chandler and other vets on how to be professional. It's too bad Hibbert played for Jamaica because they could have used him as a back-up true center, but he did ask for a release.
Bynum is the only other American center besides Howard and faintly Hibbert with the star label, but with his injury history people keep him far away from the game. There are also a few veterans who could help but are far too old to convince like Garnett or Duncan. It's better to just target guys with a mix of talent who can help you cover all the defensive aspects you need while half will ideally space the floor like Love or Aldridge. Taj Gibson, for example, is a member on the select team and would be a fine addition as a 12th man for his defense.
There are a few players who USA doesn't really need. Kobe Bryant isn't what he once was and not even that great of an outside shooter. He's basically there as the wise old vet like Kidd was, and that's not really the worst pick. Carmelo Anthony duplicates a lot of what they already have, but he usually plays very well in the international games and he wants to be there so it's hard to keep him off. Blake Griffin is probably the easiest to let go because he doesn't have an outside shot and can't defend. Then again, he exists solely to throw down an all-time dunk against a player who has no hope of defending him like Carter over Weis in 2000. However, picking a player just because he's an exciting dunker is precisely the strategy that led to the US's downfall, and in fact in 2000 the team was one shot away from losing. Harden is another favorite to jettison, but his outside shooting is valuable and his beard can merge nations. Actually, I think the easiest guy to let go is Westbrook. They already have two great point guards, and if they're really so upset about losing a third then why don't they care they only have one center who has a history of injuries? With James and Iguodala and others someone else can also steer the ship on offense.
While the US has won the past two world championships from the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 world championships, it is best to remain cautious and not lose sight of how easy it is to lose in a single game elimination tournament. One bad mismatch and a player no American has heard of will play incredibly and Team USA could lose. To avoid that the team needs to be constructed with few holes and utilize the characteristics of the international game. There is a lot of outside shooting because of the shorter line, but an inside player can still wreck havoc like Sofoklis Schortsanitis in 2004. I think this is a good team but there's an obvious hole in the middle and anyone saying it doesn't matter because of the team's athleticism should check history first. With that said, here's my ideal team with no injuries:
(My favorite part is the number of amazing line-ups possible like the defensive juggernaut of Kyle Lowry-Iguodala-James-Garnett-Howard.)
And here's the team constructed in reality:
I'd save Paul for crucial minutes and give more to Williams and Lowry. Allen wouldn't be used all too often and more like a break-in-case-of-fire type of guy. Iggy and Harden would log pretty big minutes because Iggy is a fantastic big defender who pretty's good on offense and Harden is amazingly efficient. With Allen and Iguodala along with the high scorers on the team James wouldn't carry a big load until Spain or another big thread. Durant would likely be the top scorer, and Love would rack up a lot of time unless there was a bad defensive match-up. Gibson would appear mostly in blowout games and when he's needed for his defense. Same is true for Cousins except only when his big body is needed against the largest opponents. Chandler would be rested as much as possible with the US playing small a lot. He would play brief minutes against a team like Angola, for example.