USA Basketball czar Jerry Colangelo doesn't need additional distractions at this point. He's right about that. If this NBA injury epidemic continues, his Olympic team will limp into the 2012 London Games with members of its medical squad afforded superstar status.
LaMarcus Aldridge. Dwight Howard. Derrick Rose. Chauncey Billups. All are ailing and unavailable. Now Chris Bosh has a strained abdomen, which diminishes the Miami Heat's prospects for an NBA championship and makes his presence in London questionable.
What is irrefutable is that Mike Krzyzewski returns as coach, but as he announced Monday, he does so for a final time. After a seven-year tenure that includes gold medals in the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 FIBA World Championship and probably another in the upcoming Games the legendary Duke coach wants to devote his time and energy to his college program.
That means two things: First, the conversation about his successor has started, and second, the conversation about his successor already should have ended.
Taking nothing away from Tom Izzo, John Calipari, Mike D'Antoni, Nate McMillan and others within the college and NBA ranks, choosing the next national team coach should be the easiest decision in Colangelo's tenure.
Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.
If not quite a mulligan and only because Krzyzewski did an absolutely marvelous job after an initial burp in the 2006 FIBA World Championship Colangelo and members of USA's selection committee should be pounding on Popovich's door and demanding a follow-up visit.
Popovich, who was runner-up for the position after George Karl and Larry Brown faltered in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and 2004 Athens Games, respectively, is to the NBA what Krzyzewski is to the NCAA: the premier coach.
Back in 2005, Popovich had guided the Spurs to three NBA championships. He now has four, with a reasonable chance at a fifth. But it's other aspects of his portfolio that distinguish him from other potential candidates, including his unique international experience. After earning a degree in Soviet studies at the Air Force Academy, he served five years of active duty, mostly working intelligence along the Russian border. Don't bother asking for details, though; his lips are sealed.
The two-time NBA Coach of the Year will tell you, however, that he captained the U.S. Armed Forces team that toured Eastern Europe in 1972, and that the relationships he developed overseas have proven invaluable during his years as an NBA assistant and, more importantly, during his 16 seasons as the Spurs' coach and eight as general manager.
"If you recall, Mike and Pop were my two choices in 2005," Colangelo said in a phone interview. "When I talked to Coach K, he almost jumped through the phone. I didn't sense that same enthusiasm in my conversation with 'Pop.' Afterward, he sent me a letter and said I misinterpreted what he said. He felt I had misjudged him, and maybe I did. But that was a long time ago. How can anyone argue with his record, his performance? With him as a great coach?"
While the topic remains a sore spot with the Spurs, Colangelo is as good at maintaining and repairing relationships as anybody in the business. Disagreements are forgotten and perceived slights forgiven. If he wants Popovich, he'll get Popovich. Any lingering tension between the two real or imagined adds intrigue, but it won't dictate who takes over the national team.
But will USA Basketball stick with a college coach? In light of the flood of injuries in the NBA this season, does Commissioner David Stern press for an age restriction on players say 25-and-younger and greater consideration to college stars? And if so, is a college or NBA coach best suited to oversee the national program?
Here again, Popovich fulfills all the criteria. He has the complete game. He has coached in college, won with David Robinson and Tim Duncan, won with Duncan and two guards from overseas (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker). He wins with misfits (Stephen Jackson), trades them away, brings them back, and wins with them again (Stephen Jackson). He wins with rookies (Kawhi Leonard) and with role players, while changing tempo and pacing, but invariably excelling at defense and teamwork.
"The rules can change," Colangelo said. "You have to be able to adapt. Coach K came in and we changed the infrastructure, the culture, the program. After London, we'll sit down and look at everything. Pop would certainly be a leading candidate if it's going to be a pro coach."