Moments after the U.S. Olympic team had been humiliated by the unheralded Italians on Tuesday, coach Larry Brown wondered aloud to reporters whether his team was lacking in experience and outside shooters.
These, of course, are accurate concerns heading into next week's Olympics. They also beg a simple question:
Weren't you one of the guys who picked the team, coach?
We all know about the NBA stars who turned down the chance to play in Athens. But we also know that there are more than enough great American players to field a team capable of winning gold – or at least a squad that can avoid a 17-point loss to Italy and not need an Allen Iverson half-court buzzer-beater to down the Germans, who didn't even qualify for the Olympics.
Instead we have a group that must have looked like a dream to NBA marketing, Nike and their agents who want to transform budding stars into worldwide icons.
But the United States needs a team, not a Gatorade commercial.
Friday, Team USA faces its greatest pre-Olympic challenge in Belgrade vs. Serbia-Montenegro, the No. 1-ranked national team in the world, according to FIBA.
The U.S. is obviously still capable of winning gold. But through three exhibition games, its flaws also are obvious:
Youth: The average age of the team is 23.6, which calls for us to ask, why? Everyone loves the rookie class of 2003, but wouldn't we be better served with some older heads who better understand the game?
In three exhibition games thus far, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade, for all their talent, have shown a complete lack of familiarity with ball movement, how to attack a zone defense, and time-and-score situations.
Immaturity: Brown suspended James, Amare Stoudemire and "team captain" Iverson from an exhibition game vs. Puerto Rico for being late for a meeting. During games, every time a referee calls traveling (which is all but legal in the NBA) the players look like they sucked on a lemon.
Defense: The Italians scored 95 points! Things were better against the Germans, but with this much athletic ability, depth and young legs, there is no reason every opponent shouldn't be locked down on every possession. Defense and rebounding are critical to winning this thing.
Point guard: We have only one, and his name is Stephon Marbury. My goodness, our Olympic fate rests in the hands of Starbury?
Steph's fun to watch in the NBA, but only because he's never played for a good team in an important game. Otherwise he might drive you crazy. We don't need entertainment here, we need someone who protects the ball, thinks pass (not no-look pass) first and doesn't believe the best way to beat a zone is the alley-oop. Once Jason Kidd quit, the U.S. was in trouble.
Redundant talents: You tell me – what significant difference is there between Lamar Odom, Richard Jefferson, Shawn Marion, James and Anthony's games? I said significant, not slight. So why have five guys who are good at basically the same things?
Shooting: Privately, Brown and USA Basketball's Stu Jackson must already be cursing the day they used the last roster slot on rookie-to-be Emeka Okafor (did we need more marketability?) instead of big-time shooter Michael Redd. Iverson (and maybe Anthony) are about all we have from behind the arc.
Intimidation: There is none. No one fears this team. There is no longer an aura of invincibility.
Most strikingly, other than (occasionally) Carlos Boozer, I haven't seen anyone play physical. Can we please hammer someone? Can we stop allowing shaggy-haired white guys drive unimpeded to the basket? Anyone have Charles Oakley's cell number?
Confidence: With the way Team USA seems absolutely baffled by zone defenses, any team that can line up in the 2-3 is going to believe it has a chance.
- We have Tim Duncan.
- We have guys like Iverson capable of calmly drilling game-winners from mid-court.
- The fear of national scorn always is a great motivator.
- Ironically, Brown now can make these rich and famous megastars believe they are us-against-the-world-underdogs because, not only is the entire world rooting against them, about half of the United States is too.
So we have that going for us. Which is nice.
Unfortunately, that's about it. The roster is complete and Redd, Tayshaun Prince, Shane Battier, Brad Miller, Kirk Hinrich, the guy who played Jimmy Chitwood, and other less interesting but more valuable team players will be watching on TV.
"We have a long way to go," Brown said Wednesday.
And he wasn't talking about the trip home if they don't medal.