July 8, 2012; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Team USA guard James Harden, guard Chris Paul, guard Kevin Durant and forward LeBron James during practice at the UNLV Mendenhall Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE
USA Basketball is, correctly, heavily favored to win it's second consecutive Olympic Gold Medal, but a lack of size and perimeter shooting could open the door for another squad to turn the tables on the Americans.
When the initial roster was announced, there were whispers that, on the 20th anniversary of the original Dream Team featuring Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, this years Olympic basketball team might have as much or possibly even more talent. With a talent pool featuring as many as 11 sure-fire hall of famers like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and more, that argument could have had some merit. Now though, the injury bug has struck and diminished some of the depth that the team possessed. Even still, this group should still dazzle when pool play begins later this month.
Make no mistake, despite the injuries, this team is still loaded with athletic ability that will likely overwhelm the bulk of its potential opponents this year, but there are still some holes and some questions that will be asked by some of the better teams in the field.
The most pressing question is in the front court, where defensive stalwart Dwight Howard is still recovering from back surgery and will not be competing. In addition, Chris Bosh will also sit this one out while he continues his recovery from an abdominal injury that cost him seven games during the recently completed NBA Playoffs. This leaves only Tyson Chandler to man the center spot.
Chandler will be just fine in this role, just as he was in 2010 at the World Championships in Turkey. But, the question looming is what happens if (when?) Chandler gets into foul trouble. The only two other players on the roster that even qualify as "bigs" are incoming rookie Anthony Davis and Kevin Love. Neither is the defensive anchor that Chandler is capable of being (though Davis has that potential), and both are going to be heavily undersized against a team like Spain, which features a powerful post combination of Pau and Marc Gasol. In addition, Oklahoma City shot blocker specialist, Serge Ibaka is on the roster and will likely come off the bench at both forward positions.
While they may not be very deep at the center spot, Coach Mike Krzyzewski has a weapon at his disposal that absolutely nobody else in the tournament does, and it represents the most glaring difference between the US and its international counterparts, multi-tool athletic ability at the power forward spot.
In 2008, the US finally abandoned it's more traditional line-ups based around size and strength, and implemented Carmelo Anthony at the power forward spot. International clubs have been utilizing three point shooters at the power forward spot as a floor stretching tactic forever, but the Americans had been reluctant to abandon their size advantage. When Coach K made 'Melo the 4 man in Beijing, the results were incredible. Nobody else in the tournament had players versatile enough to match his speed and athletic ability, and Anthony ran roughshod. In addition, he was big enough, at 6'8 and 240 lbs, to match size and strength with most clubs. The move to these types of players at the PF spot makes them virtually unguardable.
During the 2010 World Championships, Andre Iguodala, Danny Granger and Lamar Odom rotated at that spot with varying degrees of success, and this year, LeBron James will likely get the assignment. James made the move to the PF spot with the Miami Heat late last year and created the same kind of havoc that Anthony did in the Olympics. With that experience in his back pocket, expect him to be utterly dominant in this tournament. Anthony and Iguodala are also on the roster and will likely see time at this spot.
At small forward, the embarrassment of riches continues, as Kevin Durant will get the nod and provide the same all around play that helped lead the national team to its first Gold Medal in the World Championships in over a decade. At 6'11, few teams, if any, will have an answer for him at that spot. Even if Durant does struggle, Coach K has the option to rotate players like James, Anthony, Iguodala and maybe even James Harden (in smaller line-ups) at the spot also.
Where it all starts for the Americans though, is in the back court. One of the most defining characteristics of the Gold Medal team from 2008, was the defensive presence of Kobe Bryant. Bryant spent most of the tournament in the opposing teams back court hounding sub-par point guards. Kobe rarely shot the ball, except in transition, preferring instead to use his energy to disrupt the other teams offensive flow. Only in the Gold Medal game against Spain, when things looked on the verge of collapsing, did Bryant take over the offense.
Bryant is back this year, and the focus on defense will be even higher this time around, as he'll be paired with one of the top defensive point guards in the NBA, Chris Paul. Paul is a little banged up, but is expected to be fine. Between the two of them, they'll be expected to destroy rhythm and prevent bigger teams from utilizing their size against the aforementioned undersized front court. In addition, Harden, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams will rotate at the guard spots.
The guards will need to be on their games though, because it's definitely the strongest position across the board in the tournament. Players like; Tony Parker (France), Leandro Barbosa (Brazil), Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Sarunas Jasikevicius (Lithuania), Patty Mills (Australia) and Alex Shved (Russia) are just some of the talented guards that the US will face. While some of those names may not be familiar to American fans, the international game can be a totally different animal, and these players can and will be effective against their more well known opponents.
So, we've established that Team USA is the most talented team in the field, that's pretty much irrefutable. So, who are some of the teams that have a chance to overthrow them?
The big one that everyone keeps mentioning is Spain, and with pretty good reason. Spain has the most talent at the front court positions, and has just enough on the wings to give the US some issues. Pau Gasol and his brother Marc will be dominant, and Serge Ibaka will be a defensive force the likes of which they've never had. However, injuries have damaged them on the perimeter and will make them vulnerable against some of the more guard heavy teams in the tournament. Point guard Ricky Rubio is still recovering from ACL surgery and will not be available, and Rudy Fernandez is also banged up and will be limited. Still, Jose Calderon will run the show, Juan Carlos Navarro will lead the scoring from the perimeter from both wing spots, and Sergio Rodriguez will back up at both guard spots. Spain is definitely the most prevalent threat to a US Gold Medal, and an early preview of the match-up will come on July 24th in Barcelona in a tune-up.
Other teams to watch out for would include Brazil, who boasts an NBA caliber front court of Nene, Anderson Varejao, and Tiago Splitter. Brazil nearly beat the US during the World Championships in 2010, leading for much of the game before missing two free throws with a chance to tie the game in the closing seconds. The absence of strong guards could damage their chances though. Only the aforementioned Barbosa and team captain Marcelinho Huertas are capable of playing extended minutes against the US. The Americans also have the Brazilians scheduled for an exhibition on July 16th in Washington DC, their last warm-up game here in the states.
Also, keep an eye on Argentina, France and Lithuania, all of whom are in the US' six team preliminary pool and have produced consistently solid teams. Argentina, while aging, continues to be a threat with Ginobili and Luis Scola leading the way, and have beaten the Americans before in international competition. The French will cause some problems on both sides of the ball, thanks to Tony Parker, Joakim Noah, Nicolas Batum and Boris Diaw. They have all the requisite pieces necessary to spring an upset, but depth is definitely an issue. Finally, Lithuania, the perennial Bronze Medalists, are always a threat despite almost never fielding a single player that NBA fans would recognize. It's a basketball crazy country that produces a lot of quality international players and has battled the US tooth and nail before and will continue to do so. Sarunas Jasikevicius is their top player, even at 35, has NBA experience and a killer three point stroke.
Ultimately, the US is the overwhelming favorite to win this tournament for the second consecutive time and with good reason, but as opposed to 2008, I'd argue that there is more talent in the field this year and thus, more chances for catastrophe.
Also, don't underestimate the rule changes that are being implemented as of this year for international basketball. Gone is the high school three point line, replaced by one a little bit further away than the college line. This is significant because, the US team lacks dead eye long range shooters outside of Kevin Durant. While playing primarily zone defense, opponents will BEG the Americans to fire away from the outside while packing the lane and trying to neutralize their athletic advantages. Also gone is the trapezoid lane that was a staple of the international game. That has been replaced by the more traditional rectangle lane. This affects the Americans because it will make post play more of a factor for international teams. Players like the Gasols and Luis Scolas of the world will use this to take full advantage of the lack of size on the US side.
It's important to remember all that because, once you get to the quarterfinals, it's single elimination, and as with the NCAA Tournament, that means pretty much anything can happen (see: Greece, 2006 World Championships). Against some of the teams mentioned earlier, the US will need to be very sharp in order to avoid a stunning upset.