Mike Krzyzewski’s run as coach of Team USA ends Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, though as more of a limp than a sprint, and certainly no day at the beach.
USA Basketball officials – executive director Jerry Colangelo most notably – return home next week and will probably head straight to the basketball laboratory. Rio has been enlightening, to say the least. At times it has been eerily reminiscent of Athens. Though the U.S. is still heavily favored to defeat Serbia and collect a third consecutive Olympic gold medal, the Americans have been pushed much harder than anyone anticipated.
OK. Maybe Kings general manager Vlade Divac still likes Serbia’s chances, but he is admittedly biased. Few within the industry thought Australia, Spain, France or Serbia would pose much opposition despite the fact several of the NBA’s premier players in recent weeks or months declined to make the trip, a la Athens in 2004.
This has been a truly fascinating week. Team USA defeated Australia by 10 points, France by three points, and was within a Bogdan Bogdanovic three-pointer of being extended by Serbia into overtime. Almost that quickly, what had been a rout of a tournament offered a timely reminder about basketball’s increasing global expanse and provided glimpses into the past and future of Team USA.
Some things stay the same. The ball is still round. But these Olympics once again are demonstrating that rosters that feature a combination of shooters, facilitators, defenders and rim protectors, that include role players and superstars, can be exceedingly dangerous, particularly in a one-and-done format.
“We may come out of this with a gold medal, relatively unscathed,” said Fran Fraschilla, ESPN’s international analyst, “but with some lessons learned. While we still dominate the world, because of 2016, you can’t lose sight of the fact that, when you have high-level talent like Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, you need other players that mix in. This has been hard. While these guys have tried, it really hasn’t happened on the offensive end.”
Team USA’s stagnant offensive performances have been brutal to watch, prompting at least one of the original 1992 Dream Teamers to shield his eyes and open his mouth. “It’s not a good team to put together,” Charles Barkley told The Big Lead. “If you watch all those guys, they’re all good players, (but) they all need the ball. You see them playing a lot of one-on-one.”
Barkley’s perspective is understandably warped, of course. The 1992 squad that included Hall of Famers Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and John Stockton, among others, is the antique that no one will ever touch. The ball seldom touched the floor on fast breaks. Defensive rotations were intuitive, instinctive. The wise and wily old men signed autographs while toying with their opponents, both introducing and popularizing the game worldwide.
That era is long gone. Stunning U.S. losses in the 2002 FIBA World Championships and the 2004 Athens Games caused USA Basketball officials to rethink their approach.
For those who might have forgotten, Larry Brown’s exceptional, balanced squad annihilated the competition in the 2003 pre-Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico. Yet within months and in some cases weeks of the Athens Games, virtually every player except Tim Duncan, Richard Jefferson and Allen Iverson bailed, some citing terrorism concerns.
LeBron James, Anthony and Dwyane Wade were just youngsters when they were hastily added to the roster and exposed to the often treacherous land of international hoops. The Lithuanians of Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis, for instance, and gold medal Argentines had been together since their days in the playpen. Collectively, the 2004 Americans had no answer for their blend of talent, experience and familiarity, which led to Colangelo and Krzyzewski, and the creation of a national program that placed demands on participants.
In the ensuing decade, during which Team USA lost only once – to Greece in the 2006 Worlds – and reclaimed its status, players participated in tryouts and were required to attend annual training camps. For whatever reasons, and one suspects America’s total domination in the 2012 Games and 2014 Worlds are foremost among them, that approach changed this past year. Colangelo and staffers simply selected the team, only to once again be hit with the not unreasonable defections of USA players such as an exhausted James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love.
Though still immensely talented, the roster is clearly missing a few non-ball-dominant role players comparable to former Olympians Lamar Odom, Andre Iguodala and Tyson Chandler,and perhaps even most significantly, doesn’t list a facilitating lead guard. Whither Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Kevin Johnson or Mark Price, never mind John Stockton?
“Team USA is still going to win,” Fraschilla predicts. “The Serbs can take away (defend) set plays, and we don’t run any plays, which in a weird way makes it harder for Serbia to scout. But we definitely have made things more difficult on ourselves.”
But keep this in mind: Krzyzewski, who has done all that was asked, invigorating a program and restoring its luster, desperately wants to go out a winner. He won’t play games Sunday. His decision to start DeAndre Jordan at center instead of DeMarcus Cousins against Argentina is the adjustment of the week. Boogie can pass, score and rebound, but he doesn’t defend like Jordan, whose interior presence was instrumental in Friday’s semifinal win over Spain.
Against a Serbian frontline that includes beefy 7-footer Miroslav Raduljica and the Denver Nuggets’ gifted Nikola Jokic, Cousins and Jordan could see extensive minutes. Cousins, remember, was huge against Serbia in the World Cup finale in 2014.
And after the U.S. captures the gold? Or worse, doesn’t?
It will be time for another change.