LAS VEGAS – To allow his nation gold medal aspirations again, Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez, one of the fabulous minds of international hoops, had been one of those coaches counting on the dysfunction and disarray of USA Basketball. Three years ago, the world watched Larry Brown embarrass everyone on Team USA with his selfishness, feeding a climate of division and dissension, and the world watched Stephon Marbury run a team that had little practice together, a flawed structure and a fatal understanding of the FIBA game.
The Americans had no passing point guards, no shooters and no leadership, and they turned out to be no match for Puerto Rico – never mind the peerless precision of gold medalist Argentina.
Now, Hernandez understands the trouble for the rest of the world next summer in Beijing after watching Team USA drop one of those old test A-Bombs in the Nevada desert as an unmistakable declaration delivered to the rest of the world: Once more, the gold medal goes through the red, white and blue.
Beijing is far from a sure thing, but you have to like America's chances again.
"This is probably one of the best USA teams that I have ever seen," Hernandez said. "Nobody will ever forget the first Dream Team with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, but I like this USA team very much with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. They really know how to play together."
For him, there was something else too. The Americans played hard throughout the tournament – at tipoff and with a 40-point lead – and that told him they respected the world again. They respected the game. And with that kind of talent, that kind of purpose, there's no stopping them.
This had to be the highest of complements to Jerry Colangelo, the curator of the Team USA renaissance. Under his watch, the Americans have addressed their issues with shooting and defense and proper pre-Olympic preparation. As for coaching, the truest test comes in the Beijing Olympics when there's a tight game and Mike Krzyzewski has to do more than manage these riches.
Bryant is hell-bent on winning something again. James has suddenly added the final devastating element to his game – the jump shot. Carmelo Anthony is impossible to guard for international forwards. Jason Kidd has cultivated an environment of selflessness, inspiring a locker room where he said, "There's no bad apple. There's nobody that wants more shots, or more minutes."
Most of all, Team USA is determined to defend. Penetrators are stopped, and shooters are covered. Magic marveled over the way this pre-Olympic team resembled the original Dream Team in 1992 in that it turned defense into devastating fast-break points. As much as anything, here's what happened in Vegas: USA Basketball manufactured an identity again.
"We know who we are now and we didn't know that coming into the tournament," Colangelo said. "I understand the questions coming in about our outside shooting, our defense, our chemistry. We had questions ourselves and they were answered. "
As Team USA stands now, this should be the United States' best Olympic squad since the forever gold standard of Barcelona 15 years ago. In this world, that doesn't guarantee gold anymore.
Between now and Beijing, there are still players who will return from injuries, and almost assuredly, those who will go down too. From the 12-man roster at the FIBA Americas championship, most insiders believe it's unlikely that Tyson Chandler, Mike Miller and Tayshaun Prince will be asked back to play in Beijing. Dwyane Wade will be the sixth man and Chris Bosh will return for Olympic duty. Beyond that, expect the final fight for roster spots to include Carlos Boozer, Chris Paul, Shane Battier and maybe a rehabbed Elton Brand.
Still, Colangelo warned: "We can never bring enough shooters (to Beijing)."
For Colangelo, there are tough choices to make. He has decided that there will be a final minicamp shortly after the end of the NBA finals in late June to give him and the coaching staff one final look at the team. They'll use the NBA season to measure the progress of young players (Deron Williams and Paul) and perhaps the erosion of elders (Chauncey Billups) to make final cuts.
Colangelo talked about finding role players, about creating a team that used complementary parts to co-exist with stars. He didn't want an All-Star team, but let's face it: This is an All-Star team. Nevertheless, it will still be interesting to watch Wade integrate himself back into the lineup in 2008 because he's obligated now to take a secondary role to James and Bryant. Wade's attitude is marvelous, and the fact that he spent so much time with the team despite a shoulder surgery that sidelined him said a lot about his commitment to the cause.
Through it all, there were still times at the FIBA Americas when Kobe went off into Kobeland, breaking the offensive flow and forcing shots. That's Kobe, and that's what you live with. Yet, he invested far more on defense than he has with the Los Angeles Lakers in recent seasons, largely because he didn't need to conserve as much energy for offense with Team USA.
Forty million dollars wasn't enough to convince Duke's coach to oversee Bryant in L.A., but Duke's coach found Kobe motivated for utter annihilation this summer. In a lot of ways, the tone Bryant and Kidd set with the team has eased whatever tensions lingered over the debacle against Greece in the world championships last summer.
Still, there's going to be some uncertainty surrounding Krzyzewski's ability to make adjustments at the highest level of international ball until he has to do it in Beijing. Among players who were part of the USA Basketball program a year ago, there were private criticisms that Krzyzewski preached team-first mantra while catering far too much to his stars – James, Wade and Anthony.
Now, Bryant and Kidd have taken ownership of the group, and that solved that. Anthony is a great talent, but he's still more of a follower than a leader. Around USA Basketball, everyone was thrilled when Bruce Bowen challenged James for his disrespectful attitude toward staff members a year ago. Bowen never made the cut and maybe ultimately didn't have the star power to command James' respect.
There were some concerns about LeBron's commitment earlier this summer, when he suggested that he might be too tired to participate in the second of the three-year commitment. Colangelo barked back publicly, challenging James to honor his word and show up in Vegas. LeBron was genius for Team USA as its most accurate perimeter shooter and prolific passer.
"What really helped with LeBron this year," one NBA source said, "was having Kidd and Bryant there."
Krzyzewski has a great sounding board on the international game with Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni as his assistant, and the hiring of the Detroit Pistons' crack Euro scout, Tony Ronzone, which promises to make Team USA far more prepared for what's coming in the Olympics. What's more, Krzyzewski has done a terrific job connecting with his players. Unlike Brown, Krzyzewski isn't interested in publicly disparaging them. He knows that these players didn't sign up for that kind of badgering, and he will never turn on them the way Brown did.
As Argentina's coach, Hernandez, and Team USA's only gold medalist, Kidd, both said: This has a chance to be one of the great American Olympic teams ever. The world game has change dramatically since the Dream Team in '92, and yet the United States still has an opportunity to be dominant again. Whatever dysfunction that stopped the Americans in the past two world championships and Athens Games, whatever marginal competition at the FIBA Americas that contributed to our inflated sense of expectation again, there is still no denying the obvious: Once again, the gold medal goes through the red, white and blue.