Not quite a Dream Team, still the Olympic favorite.
The U.S. men’s basketball team heading to London isn’t the powerhouse it could have been, a squad that might have been so stacked that its only worthy rival would have been history.
Injuries have cost the Americans three top players, along with probably any notion they could have won a mythical matchup against the famed 1992 champions.
What remains is good enough to make the Americans golden again.
“I think this team will be a stronger team than we had in ’08,” USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said.
“If we do what we’re capable of doing and we stay focused and have the mental toughness, then we should prevail. I believe that in my heart of hearts, but we have to go out and do it.”
The Americans always face comparisons to the Dream Team, and Colangelo even invited the connection when he named a 20-man roster pool in January.
But Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Blake Griffin have since been lost to injuries, removing four players who started in the All-Star game. What’s left is still potent — how about LeBron James and Kevin Durant in the same frontcourt? — but probably not good enough to beat Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and the rest of their Hall of Fame predecessors.
That’s no big deal for this U.S. team, which is more worried about Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
“It’s possible now that some will say with those losses, well then any discussion about comparison is probably out the window, and you know it’s really not that important or significant,” Colangelo said. “That was then, this is now. That was them, and this is us. You know, let’s go out and do the job we have to do and then people can make any comparisons they wish after the fact.”
Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Deron Williams are all back for the reigning gold medalists. Durant, who had the best tournament ever by an American player two years ago at the world basketball championship, headlines the returnees from that team.
As for the notion that the Americans are so weakened they could actually — gasp — lose?
“They got to get the ratings up, don’t they? They got to ask something, it can’t be all good things,” Anthony said.
Turning serious, Anthony added: “If we go out there and do what we have to do, and prepare for this Olympics like we did in ’08, we’ll be fine.”
Even at full strength many Dream Teamers dismissed the Americans’ chances of beating them. Charles Barkley insists the current group wasn’t deep enough; Johnson saying his team would “crush them.” But Chris Mullin was at least originally willing to consider that this could have been the best team ever, noting that the 2012 squad’s top players were all in their primes, while Bird and Johnson were near the end of their careers in ’92.
“Kobe, LeBron, Dwyane Wade, all the best guys are playing,” Mullin said earlier this year. “Derrick Rose, you name it. Dwight Howard.”
Well, forget Howard, who had back surgery. Forget Rose, who tore knee ligaments. And forget Wade, who needs knee surgery. Fellow Heat star Chris Bosh also dropped out after straining an abdominal muscle during the second round of the playoffs.
Their competitors also have problems, from Spain losing dazzling rookie point guard Ricky Rubio to a knee injury, to Parker’s eye injury in a bar brawl that put his availability for the French in jeopardy.
The Americans are positioned to handle their losses better, thanks largely to the national team program Colangelo began building in 2005. The U.S. reacted poorly to withdrawals before the ’04 Olympics, randomly picking replacements without thought to how they would fit, and the team ultimately finished third.
This time, the Americans can sort through a pool of players who are already in the program. Losing Howard would make things difficult in a gold medal game rematch with the Spaniards, who boast Pau and Marc Gasol along their front line, along with Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka, from the Republic of Congo. He played for Spanish clubs for three years before moving to the NBA in 2009 and became a Spanish national last year.
But Spain and everyone else has to deal with the Americans’ athleticism. James and Durant, the NBA’s MVP and runner-up who battled in the NBA Finals, now get to play together.
“I envision it’s going to be pretty dynamic,” James said. “Two guys who like to get out and get in the open floor, two of the biggest competitors that we have in the game today, so it’s going to be fun.”
This could be the last Olympics with top players. NBA Commissioner David Stern has said the league wants to discuss limiting future Olympics to players 23 and under, similar to soccer.
Just like the Dream Team, the American squad will play exhibitions in Barcelona before heading for London, facing Argentina and Spain, which it beat 118-107 to win gold in Beijing.
The Americans just want to get there without any more injuries. Coach Mike Krzyzewski knows how difficult it will be to have players back on the floor so quickly after the end of the condensed NBA season.
“How we navigate going from that season to the Olympics will be a really important thing for us to do,” Krzyzewski said, “and if we navigate it well, then we’ll have a real good chance at winning it.”