Losing is no longer a novelty for the United States Men's Basketball program. The organization's chiefs memorized the stench of defeat years ago and hired Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski to provide the necessary air freshener.
The new regime's impact is indisputable. Team USA has not lost a game since the 2006 World Championship semifinal. Greece won that affair, 101-95, to steal away the Gold Medal. Try getting those results with Glade, Febreze, or Lysol.
The squad's 2002 and 2004 showings were ones fit for the Dumpster, not the history books. The Americans finished in sixth place in an embarrassing World Championship effort on U.S. soil. The worst indignity of all, a bronze medal, followed in Athens.
Krzyzewski and Colangelo drowned the arrogance and mortiferous practices that spawned those international disasterpieces in an Olympic-size swimming pool and have since installed a winning culture. No one can deny it: This iteration of USA basketball wins, and it wins a lot. Can anyone argue against a tandem that has overseen just one defeat in four years?
The great basketball minds in Spain, Greece, Argentina, and other countries with powerhouse programs cannot compete with that. All gold medal contenders lose at some point. Since that fateful 2006 ouster, though, with two-and-a-half competitions under their belts, a rotating cast of Americans haven't.
Here's a look at all of the international competition rosters since 1998, when the country's aura of invincibility dissipated.
- 1998 World Championship—finished third among 16 teams: Trajan Langdon, Michael Hawkins, Wendell Alexis, Brad Miller, Bill Edwards, Kiwane Garris, Ashraf Amaya, Jason Sasser, Jimmy Oliver, Jimmy King, Gerard King, David Wood (Coach: Rudy Tomjanovich)
- 2000 Olympic Games—finished first among 12 teams: Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Gary Payton, Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning, Steve Smith, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Vin Baker, Allan Houston, Antonio McDyess (Coach: Rudy Tomjanovich)
- 2002 World Championship—finished sixth among 16 teams: Reggie Miller, Paul Pierce, Ben Wallace, Jermaine O'Neal, Shawn Marion, Baron Davis, Antonio Davis, Michael Finley, Andre Miller, Jay Williams, Elton Brand, Raef LaFrentz (Coach: George Karl)
- 2004 Olympic Games—finished third among 12 teams: Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Amar'e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Carlos Boozer, Carmelo Anthony, Stephon Marbury, Richard Jefferson, Lamar Odom, Emeka Okafor (Coach: Larry Brown)
- 2006 World Championship—finished third among 24 teams: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Shane Battier, Brad Miller, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Elton Brand, Antawn Jamison, Kirk Hinrich, Chris Paul, Joe Johnson (Coach: Mike Krzyzewski)
- 2008 Olympic Games—finished first among 12 teams: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Carlos Boozer, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul, Tayshaun Prince, Michael Redd, Deron Williams (Coach: Mike Krzyzewski, Assistant Coaches: Jay Triano, Mike D'Antoni, Jim Boeheim, and Nate McMillan)
Name another nation that could achieve the above results with that kind of turnover. You'd also be hard-pressed to find one that could not compete for gold with that stable of talent in reserve.
Of these squads, only the 2000 and 2008 men walked away with the ultimate prize. The rest disappointed and, in some cases, disgusted viewers.
The Athens group was, by far, the worst of this not-so-funky bunch. Even Marky Mark could not have created any Good Vibrations. Brian Wilson would have vomited.
Remember that the 2002 team, filled with a number of then second-tier ballers, lost three close contests. Sure it was shocking, considering Yugoslavia was the first opponent to beat a U.S. unit composed of NBA players. Sure it was offensive, given that a group of Americans—college or pro—had never failed that miserably.
The Athens implosion was downright disgraceful. Tim Duncan, one of the sport's all-time best winners and competitors, does not deserve to be associated with that outrageous outfit. His teammates did not use him enough or in the right ways, and refs routinely slapped him with bogus fouls, thus limiting his effectiveness.
Larry Brown was forced to assemble a roster on the fly when many of the top players (nine of 12!) opted not to participate. Even Marie Callender and Rachael Ray could not have concocted successful recipes that year. That team seemed destined for the trash pile like incinerated steak. In that sense, the Americans did not disappoint.
Puerto Rico hammered Team USA by 19 points. Lithuania and Argentina also emerged triumphant. Those recent stalemates have prompted a fair question: How can anyone expect the 2010 squad—with an overall talent level closer to 1998 than 2008—to avoid another nightmare finish?
Kobe Bryant might not have traveled to Istanbul, but it says here, this roster boasts enough raw talent, leadership, and the right attitude to accomplish what the 2002, 2004, and 2006 squads could not.
Here are some justified reasons for concern:
Eric Gordon, Kevin Love, Rudy Gay, Stephen Curry, and Danny Granger, a sizable contingent, have not tasted the playoffs.
Derrick Rose, Chauncey Billups, Tyson Chandler, Lamar Odom, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Andre Iguodala have been to the playoffs, but just three of them have reached the second round or beyond. Odom and Billups boast championship rings.
The abundance of youth could prove lethal in a knockout round loaded with experienced opponents. How would the youngsters fare against pedigreed Argentina and Spain, or worse, Turkey in a gym packed with Turkish fans? Could they ascend in that kind of environment?
The team relies too much on its perimeter shooting. The lack of a dominant post presence necessitates that three-point festival. The Americans launched 38 triples Monday against Angola and made 18 of them. What happens when those shots do not fall?
Tyson Chandler is the lone seven-footer on the roster. Only one of the squad's six tournament foes to date has featured an imposing frontline (and Brazil was missing Nene Hilario and Anderson Varejao). That added challenge will come as soon as Thursday against Russia.
The team relies on run-outs created by steals and turnovers to manufacture many of its points. The other medal contenders can limit the U.S. transition game with continuity and precision half-court execution. Has Krzyzewski practiced enough sets to combat that inevitable plan of attack?
Some final turnover numbers from several contests this summer: 17, 27, 22!
The 2002 team went 6-0 and then lost. Pool play means nothing now.
The 2006 roster featured newly crowned NBA Finals MVP Dwyane Wade and lost.
Yet, after giving this some thought, I found many more reasons why this Durantula-led squad CAN win gold:
Colangelo and Krzyzewski built this winning culture by demanding commitment from all participating players. Don't be surprised if one or two members of the Beijing cast petition for inclusion in London and miss the final cut. Team USA's brain trust will reward any standout player this summer who wants a spot. It could happen.
With Dimitris Diamantidis and Greece gone, the remaining guards and small forwards will not bother Durant enough to contain him. If he cannot connect from the field, he will get to the line and make most or all of his freebies.
Krzyzewski excels at on-the-fly roster construction. George Karl and Larry Brown, who coached the 2002 and 2004 teams, never have. Krzyzewski can whip an inexperienced group into shape fast. If this one captures gold, it might rank as one of his finest works.
The U.S. still boasts the best collection of athletes. That might matter more in this tournament than it usually does.
Most of the players have accepted and embraced their roles. The ones who have not are darn close to figuring them out. Love and Gordon, for example, know what they are supposed to do and carry out those instructions in admirable fashion.
None of the remaining squads are as loaded as Greece or Spain in 2006. The Spaniards are without Pau Gasol, one of the best players in the world, and Jose Calderon. That has to hurt them at some point. It just does. (I am aware that Gasol missed the 2006 gold medal game, which Spain won, but he did grab the tournament's MVP honor.)
The 2004 lineup was infested with cancerous egomaniacs. This group, by comparison, is modest and polite. These Americans know they are not favorites and act like it. They know anyone can beat them on any night in any gym. You do not need to tell them that. As Krzyzewski said in a recent presser, the days of Team USA underestimating any opponent are long gone.
This iteration does take off plays, throw careless passes, and jack up awful shots. Yet, when focused, the unit plays grimy, stifling perimeter defense and has demonstrated an enviable unselfishness. Sometimes, the players are too unselfish.
Expect the lethargy displayed against Iran and Tunisia (which I slammed last week) to subside. The U.S. knew it would win those laughers. It was a matter of when, not if. I would be more concerned about those efforts had Spain not done the same thing, to a worse degree, in pool play.
No Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, Andrei Kirilenko, or Mehmet Okur, either. Enough said.
American viewers tend to get caught up in the quest for style points. Do Argentina fans care much that Brazil shot better than 55 percent Tuesday night, or that three of those four pool play wins were too close for comfort? I doubt it. They get to watch a still-alive medal contender with the competition's MVP front-runner, Luis Scola.
That might provide the most important lesson of all: the Americans do not have to be perfect, just victorious.