- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- NBA pros representing the United States have never lost an Olympic game. They have never lost an Olympic qualifying game, either. Added up, in both arenas, Team USA is a tidy 50-0.
Just don't call it an unblemished record.
You really can't anymore. Not when the Yanks will soon arrive in Athens as -- gasp -- co-favorites.
Hearing that won't hurt as much as actually losing a game, whenever that comes, but co-favorite status is still a stinging first for USA Basketball. It represents a loss that even the ultimate global sympathizer, NBA commissioner David Stern, says he didn't think we'd see happen until 2008 at the earliest. "The growth of the elite player internationally," Stern said, "happened faster than anybody expected."
Couple that progress overseas with a third-choice American roster and ... voila. Just over a decade since the original Dream Team changed basketball all over the world, we suddenly can't claim to be anything more than one of the three top bets to win the gold medal. The experience and chemistry possessed by Argentina and Lithuania make those nations just as gold worthy, and only a U.S.-style string of pullouts and injuries threatens to keep Serbia and Montenegro from creating four contenders for the big prize.
"It's gonna be hard," Team USA co-captain Allen Iverson concedes.
Referring strictly to Argentina, the foe he knows best, Iverson added: "It'd be hard to beat 'em with an experienced team."
Added swingman Richard Jefferson: "If we put our best 12 out there, it still wouldn't be a competition. But the rest of the world is getting better, and it's just a matter of time before they catch up."
Iverson and Jefferson, along with Tim Duncan, represent the veteran core of a squad that isn't close to the best 12 this country possesses. Instead, with the selection committee forced to turn to exuberant youth after widespread reluctance to make the journey to Greece, their squad has combined to log precisely zero minutes of previous Olympic experience. That is just one of coach Larry Brown's problems.
There are actually several issues Team USA will have to diffuse for Brown's group -- though eager and athletic as ever -- to restore the fear factor once generated by those three letters on a jersey. The following are simply the first five issues that come to mind, one for each Olympic ring:
Team USA lacks even one dependable perimeter shooter.
In the international game, where even a big man as good as Duncan can be engulfed by zones, shooting is more of a precious commodity than it is in the NBA. Duncan's Spurs blew a 2-0 second-round lead against the Lakers because they couldn't find anyone to make a jumper and loosen things up for their post man, and he's about to discover that his Team USA experience probably won't be much different. Brown's best shooter just might be Iverson, who is not exactly known for hitting at a high percentage. The absence of a legit zone-buster -- where art thou, Michael Redd? -- is why Brown can be heard several times a day reminding his players (loudly) that they have to win with defense. By forcing turnovers and hurried shots, Team USA gives itself a chance to control tempo. It needs to get easy baskets via the fast break because nothing will be easy in the halfcourt without shooters to stretch the opposition. Don't forget that Brown also doesn't have a true point guard on his roster, which raises questions about this team's passing abilities on top of the perimeter worries. Intent on playing Iverson at his natural position of two-guard, Brown says he plans to use Stephon Marbury, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James as primary ballhandlers. Of those three, James is best at creating shot opportunities for teammates, but they're all going to have to be willing to drive and kick to create the most open looks they can. "It's a concern," Duncan said when asked about the absence of a proven three-point threat. "With our athleticism, hopefully we'll be able to counter that."
Team USA is short on size.
Besides Duncan, Brown has only three power players on the roster: Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer and Emeka Okafor. And the latter two aren't expected to play much; Boozer and Okafor presently rank 11th and 12th in Brown's rotation. As a result, Lamar Odom and Shawn Marion will have to play some power forward, which becomes troublesome when the Yanks see teams with multiple 7-footers on the floor at the same time. Thursday's scrimmage against Puerto Rico provided an early example, when Duncan was asked to guard Milwaukee's Daniel Santiago, forcing Marion to shadow Jose Ortiz, a quality international post player.
Team USA will have less preparation time than any other team.
This is a longstanding problem, and you'll hear plenty about it even though this team will have spent more time together -- just over a month -- than any of its Dream Team predecessors. The length of the NBA season means it will always be an issue, but it doesn't stop Brown from lamenting that he feels so rushed. In the wake of a humbling sixth-place finish at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis, USA Basketball tried to address this one by securing two-year commitments from nine "core" players, all from the NBA's elite. It's not the federation's fault that marriages, childbirths, legal travails, injuries and, of course, security fears stripped Team USA of all but Duncan and Iverson. Seven withdrew and several others declined the opportunity to fill in, which essentially forced Brown to start over when the squad convened in North Florida last Sunday. "I had six weeks with the '76 Olympic team, and I really thought we needed that much time," said Dean Smith, the North Carolina legend. "I don't see how they do it now." Said Brown, the Smith disciple: "If we're going to continue to have the success we've had, we can't do this in 30 days. I was there (as an assistant coach at the Sydney Olympics) in 2000 and we were lucky to win. These teams are much better now. But this is what we have."
Team USA isn't just young, with an average age just under 24, it's also virtually bereft of international experience.
The game is played differently overseas. The game is called differently overseas. The games are shorter overseas. And overseas crowds have a much bigger impact on the game, especially in raucous hoops hotbeds like Athens. Brown's players hear these things every day, but no one knows how they will react to any of it until the Olympics actually start. Or at least until next week, when Team USA embarks on an European exhibition tour that will stop in Belgrade, Ireland, and Istanbul, Turkey, for warm-up games in the most Greece-like cauldrons USA Basketball could arrange. "Everything is going to be against us over there, and we've got to know that," said Iverson, who admits that many of his young teammates "honestly might not know" what they're in for. AI got his first taste last summer when the Americans won a regional qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico.
Team USA has never faced competition this tough since pros were cleared to participate, starting in 1992.
Yes, back to the competition. Argentina is a co-favorite because it's essentially bringing the same team that stunned Team USA in Indianapolis ... only with a more mature Manu Ginobili and a better backcourt partner for Manu: Carlos Delfino, the soon-to-be Pistons rookie. Lithuania is a co-favorite, even without Arvydas Sabonis or Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Lithuania gave the Yanks two scares in Sydney four years ago and has grown significantly as a team since then, having dominated last summer's European Championships. Serbia and Montenegro, meanwhile, remains a danger even without Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac because no European nation has more depth. You also can't discount Pau Gasol's Spain -- Gasol is predicting no less than a top-four finish. Because they're playing at home, Greece also is dangerous. After their unfancied football side won the European Championships last month, in one of the biggest international soccer upsets ever, who would dare bet against the Greeks springing a hoops surprise or two? After all, they do have what might be the most daunting home-court advantage in basketball.
Michael Jordan has tried to help ease some of the pressure Brown's kiddies will be facing by announcing recently that "we spoiled everybody in '92" with the original Dream Team. His Airness is urging us all to "stop comparing this to '92."
Problem is, co-favorite status will bring this edition of Team USA more attention than it wants, not less. Dream Team comparisons were suffocating for the Olympic teams of 1996 and 2000, but such comparisons will seem a pleasure compared to the finger pointing sure to follow Olympics loss No. 1.
"This ain't pressure," Odom counters. "Pressure is being in the military in Iraq. Pressure is having an AK-47 on your back and wondering if you're going to live or die today. Playing basketball, this is what we'd be doing anyway. And we get to come home after the Olympics."
You certainly can't argue with Odom's view. This is only basketball.
Yet that doesn't stop you from wondering which shade of medal will be coming home with him.
5dScott Burnside and Craig Custance