LAS VEGAS — In their continual quest to keep up with American talent, the serious basketball countries in the world have relied on fundamentals, intelligence and, well, Yankee stupidity.
The U.S. has always had better basketball players and more of them than any other country. Sometimes, however, talent doesn’t translate to gold. International teams have proven that experienced teams playing with skilled unselfish players can cause problems for the U.S.
The 2012 U.S. Olympic team is aware of history – losses in the 1972, 1988 and 2004 Olympics that they’ve seen film of and/or participated in.
The players will go to London with a bit of an attitude and a determination to prove they are not only the best in the world, but also that the U.S. plays superior basketball.
And they will not make the mistake made by past unsuccessful teams, most notably those in 1972 and 1988. They will not rely on the set offenses and deliberate styles employed by the respective head coaches of those two teams, Hank Iba and John Thompson.
The 1972 loss was no doubt tainted by the controversy at the end of the gold medal game that gave the Soviets two additional chances to win the game. But the fact is the Soviet Union was in position to win, and the game probably should not have been that close.
The differences in talent were less in 1988 because international teams had players in their mid to late 20s and even in their early 30s playing against U.S. collegians. The approach of a halfcourt offense and pressure defense simply did not work against an experienced, veteran Soviet team. That victory was not tarnished.
“Style of play is important,” Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo said. “That ’72 team did not take advantage of the athleticism it had. The ’88 team didn’t have enough shooters.”
If there is one possible deficiency in the makeup of the current team, it was the presence of only one true center – 7-1 Tyson Chandler of the New York Knicks.
Blake Griffin of the Clippers and Kevin Love of the Timberwolves – both 6-10 – are prototypical power forwards but each will get time in relief of Chandler. Love finished second in the league in rebounding with 13.4 a game and Griffin was sixth at 10.9, so they do not figure to be overmatched.
The U.S. also has the ability to field a lineup of superior athletes that could put extreme pressure on opponents. Imagine a lineup of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony. It seems doubtful that any team in the world could withstand the offensive pressure of that unit.
And make no mistake. Team USA will run.
“The main thing is athleticism,” Griffin said. “Having players who can get above the rim and really play missed shots and run.”
Or as Colangelo said: “When you have thoroughbreds, you’ve got to let them go. And we have a lot of thoroughbreds playing basketball in the United States.”
While style of play contributed greatly to losses in 1972 and 1988, there were different problems in 2004. Perhaps the largest was that as many as nine players withdrew from the team either because of injury or concerns about security in Athens, Greece, where the Olympics were held.
At the time, a selection committee was responsible for inviting players and their replacement choices indicated they either had twisted senses of humor or were more suited for lead roles in The Three Stooges.
Some of the replacements were James, (19) Anthony (20), Amare Stoudemire and Emeka Okafor (both 21) and Dwyane Wade (22). There was little doubt that forces within the NBA had campaigned for players primarily for future marketing purposes.
“They young players weren’t ready for prime time,” Colangelo said. “They were put into a position they weren’t ready for.”
The 2004 team, led by Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson and coached by Larry Brown, lost three times and settled for the bronze medal, which was not even as good as the silver medal won by Italy. (Argentina with Manu Ginobili won the gold).
A year later, Colangelo – who had been a successful NBA executive and owner since the late ‘60s – was asked to take over the program.
“I said I would do it with full autonomy,” Colangelo said, “which means no more politics, no more I want this guy on [the team] because of – whatever.”
In building the coaching staff of Mike Krzyzewski, Mike D’Antoni, Nate McMillan and Jim Boeheim, Colangelo also went for a group that knew how to utilize player strengths.
So the U.S. will run. And it will take advantage of athleticism that can be partially, but not totally matched by international teams. Because there is a smart blend of youth and experience that results in an average age of 27.2, Team USA will have no problem running on offense and playing pressure defense.
“One thing you have to be prepared for in life is adversity and we’ve had our share of it,” said Colangelo, talking about injured players such as Wade and Chris Bosh, who will not play. “But we’ve put together, in my opinion, a terrific team with great versatility. We believe we’re going to be successful.”
The roster is well designed, the approach is thorough, the style of play will be ideal, and the message to the rest of the world is simple: If you win, you have to beat the Americans. They will not beat themselves.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.