Changes are afoot that could alter the makeup of the squad—and its easy dominance over the competition.
The most striking thing about the United States men's basketball team is their frenetic pace of play. Professional basketball in the United States tends to unfold with a somewhat deliberate rhythm. Players have favorite spots on the floor from which they operate. Offensive sets are not rushed. Watch enough pro ball and you will become familiar with teams' tendencies—San Antonio's pick-and-roll, Miami's clear-outs for LeBron James. This is not the case at the Olympics. Every possession for USA Basketball takes on its own personality. Nothing is scripted. Players run up and down the floor with almost reckless abandon, looking to create opportunities on the fly. There's more scoring, more physical play and often more artistry.
Since 1989, when the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) began allowing professional basketball players to compete in the Olympics, fans have had the pleasure of watching the NBA's best players form a super team every four years to take on the best that the rest of the world has to offer. It started with the Dream Team, a group that is so routinely referred to as the greatest team ever assembled it's surprising their picture hasn't been incorporated into the official Olympic brand under the words "Faster, Higher, Stronger." And it continues with the current manifestation, a squad with arguably as much individual talent as their 1992 predecessors.
Unfortunately, this situation may soon come to end. NBA commissioner David Stern has been responding to concerns of some his league's most vocal owners by advocating that in the future, the Olympic basketball tournament essentially limit the competition to players 23 and under—which is what the men's Olympic soccer team currently does. If such a rule were applied to the current Olympics, household names like James, Kobe Bryant, and Chris Paul would not be eligible for the competition. Neither would international stars such as Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, or Manu Ginobili.
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The gist of Stern's argument seems to be that NBA owners assume unnecessary risk by lending their best players to the Olympics without getting financial compensation or insurance in return. Players can get injured during competition, jeopardizing the future of NBA teams. Blake Griffin, for example, tore his meniscus while preparing for the Olympics. The men's national team moved on without skipping a beat, while management for the Los Angeles Clippers will spend the rest of the summer worrying whether their $90 million-plus investment will regain his explosiveness before next season.
I understand where Stern is coming from. I suspect, however, that his position, like many labor disputes in professional sports, is as much about controlling what players can and cannot do as it is about money. What Stern and the owners should consider before asking FIBA to adopt their plan is that taking the Olympics away will only mitigate the risk of injury to a certain degree. Professional athletes in all sports hurt themselves in the offseason while competing in non-sanctioned activities from pick-up games to training drills. As Bryant has pointed out, when players are competing for their country they at least have access to top-notch medical care.
From a fan's perspective, the prospect that future Olympics might not feature the best professional players in the world is incredibly depressing. Olympic basketball provides significantly different viewing experiences than NBA basketball because of the logistics of the games and the way people see the competition.
The primary differences between NBA and Olympic basketball have to do with the rules. For starters, there's no illegal defense violation in Olympic competition. This doesn't mean the United States or other countries use a lot of true zone, but it does free opportunistic defenders playing in man-to-man schemes to gamble for steals without having to worry about getting whistled for an infraction. The United States takes full advantage of this situation. Under Coach Mike Krzyzewski, the men's national team plays a style of basketball reminiscent of Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell." Players are always stepping into passing lanes, pressing opponents, and looking to convert turnovers into fast break opportunities. This often leads to breathtaking displays of athleticism. International referees' tendencies to allow more physical contact on the perimeter adds to the helter-skelter nature. There isn't a single NBA team that plays such an aggressive style of defense.
Olympic basketball also features a shorter three-point line. This entices players to shoot a higher percentage of shots from long distance. During the 2011-12 NBA season the Orlando Magic led the league with 27 three-point field goals attempted per game. During group play, the U.S. Men's basketball team was averaging 33.6 attempts per game. Considering that Olympic basketball games are eight minutes shorter than NBA games, that's a lot of three-point attempts.
These elements combine to create a high-octane brand of basketball whose aesthetic fluctuates between the pervasive sloppiness of the college game and the joyous celebration of offensive basketball that was so prevalent in the playoff series between the Dallas Mavericks and the Phoenix Suns in the 2000s. It is equal parts frustrating and exhilarating. Add to this mix the inflated expectations about the U.S. Men's basketball team and you have a tournament unlike any other in the world.
Let's be real clear about this. No other group of Olympians, maybe no team in any sport, carries higher expectations than the U.S. men's basketball team. At every Olympics, they are expected to not only win the gold medal, but go undefeated throughout the two-week tournament while turning every game into an exhibition. Every weak quarter of play is dissected, every misstep draws attention. When Tunisia held a first-quarter lead against the United States during an early game in group play, the NBC announcers calling the game suggested that the Tunisian players ask for a stoppage in play so they could take pictures next to the scoreboard. When the United States only defeated Lithuania by a mere five points, it felt more like an embarrassment for the U.S. than a well-earned victory.
These expectations are somewhat justified. Since the sport was introduced to the Olympics in 1936, the United States' men team has failed to win the gold medal just three times. (This record does not reflect the Olympics that the United States boycotted.) But the assumption that the U.S. must always win—and win big—fails to take into account the current reality of international basketball. Over the past 20 years the popularity of the game has grown exponentially across the globe. The Olympic basketball tournament is no longer a walk in the park for the U.S. It's possible that America will fail to bring home the gold medal again in the near future. Even if that doesn't happen, it's time to accept the idea that the United States doesn't need to win every game by 30 points in order to be considered successful.
The biggest opponent of this year's U.S. men's national team isn't Spain or Russia or Argentina. It's the idea that they should be perfect in every facet of the game, an idea whose creation can primarily be credited to the Dream Team. The legacy of the Dream Team's dominance—their average margin of victory was 43.8 points—has created a strange situation where that particular squad receives more credit than they deserve and more recent United States basketball teams receive less than they should.
Yes, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Co. put on an impressive display of basketball for two weeks during the Barcelona games, but it's rarely mentioned that they never faced any real competition. The Olympic basketball field was significantly weaker 20 years ago. The only country that might have assembled a team worthy of competing with the Dream Team was the former Soviet Union, whose dissolution eliminated America's chief basketball, as well as political, rival. Back then, the United States' best professionals were so superior to everyone else that sending the Dream Team to the Olympics would have been like sending the 1927 Yankees to compete in the minor leagues. The blowouts were impressive but ultimately spoke to the lack of overall depth.
Yet the idea of the Dream Team as the greatest thing since sliced bread persists. When Kobe Bryant casually suggested that the current team could defeat the Dream Team, fans and media reacted as if he was advocating defection to Cuba. Since that moment, people have been poking holes in this year's national team, trying to argue that they are weaker than their record-setting 156-point performance against Nigeria suggests. Strange arguments ranging from a lack of size to the notion that Bryant may actually be the team's weakest link have been bandied about the Internet. Never mind the notion that the team's 42-point third quarter against Argentina was arguably more impressive than anything the Dream Team ever accomplished, because Argentina is actually a very good team.
All of this makes U.S. team games, which are interesting from a purely Xs and Os standpoint, more exciting and dramatic than they should be. It's always a treat to watch Chris Paul find Russell Westbrook on the fast break. Watching that unfold in the context of a game where failure simply isn't an option—Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson's résumés will always be somewhat tainted by their failure to lead the 2004 Olympic team to the gold—creates an even-higher level of suspense. When the United States is winning, it still seems like they are underachieving, and when it looks like they could lose, it feels like a cataclysmic failure. American Olympians lose all the time. But when we show even the slightest vulnerability in basketball it just feels wrong.
These elements will continue to play out when the United States meets Argentina in the semi-final today and, if they are to advance, when they play either an emerging Russian team or an experienced Spanish squad in the final. I expect the games to be frustratingly competitive. And if the United States is once again able to win gold, the tears streaming down my cheeks during the medal ceremony won't be for joy but for the sorrow that this may the last time the best basketball players in the world compete on the biggest possible stage.