Team USA needs gold for its credibility

The United States basketball team has long been one of the country’s best international squads. For about a decade, from 1992, no one could light a candle next to their bright glow.

Names like The Dream Team or Bird, Magic and Jordan dominate discussion of those squads.

That was until 2004 and the Olympic Games in Athens. The chinks in the US armour became clear. For the first time in over a decade, a US team did not win an international basketball competition.

Now the 2008 Olympics are upon us. With just over a month left before Beijing, Team USA has little time to prepare a run for Olympic glory.

On Monday, the team’s roster was announced. An impressive list of All-Stars was included in the squad including MVP Kobe Bryant and contenders Chris Paul and LeBron James.

It was a huge positive for a team that struggled to field the best of the best four years ago. As most experts will agree, Team USA has always had the most talent since pro players started playing under the US flag in 1992.

On paper, they look like a solid candidate for the gold. They have some of the game’s premier guards, most athletic forwards and most active big men.

Like the team that went to Athens, it’s hard not to see gold when you look at Team USA. Yet somehow that ’04 squad came up well short and the question looms of just how ready this year’s squad is for international competition.

Guys like Tony Parker, Jose Calderon and Manu Ginobli are international playmakers that can get to the lane and basically wreak havoc.

To Team USA’s credit, this squad has the kind of guards necessary for that style of play. With Paul, Bryant and Deron Williams the USA have the forceful players to match up with those international stars.

Also I really feel Team USA has a dynamic group of forwards. James and Carmelo Anthony are a handful all on their own as they can hurt you offensively in so many ways.

Add in the likes of Tayshaun Prince and Carlos Boozer and the frontcourt looks to be the big-block motor that can propel the team forward in a hurry.

Yet there are many causes for alarm. The three key areas that could hold back Team USA from the gold are defense, perimeter shooting and rebounding.

It’s hard to look at the squad and see one sure-fire defensive stopper.

Sure Bryant is an underrated defender and Paul is quick on his feet. Yes, Prince’s long wingspan should disrupt many plays. But I don’t see a Bruce Bowen or Kevin Garnett whose passion or focus is defense.

Then again the NBA these days is built on offense. It seems a squad won’t go far without at least three guys who can give 20 points a game.

As the Boston Celtics and LA Lakers have shown this year, all teams need is to be able to execute zone defense on a regular basis to get far in the playoffs.

Yet the thing about Olympic basketball is that the international game is built a lot on the idea of team defense. Zone defense is often the scheme of choice and games are more slow and tactical than quick and haphazard.

To be successful Team USA will have to break down the international style of zone defense with quick penetrations and accurate jump-shooting. Otherwise the team will end up stymied in the lane and force a lot of ugly shots from all over the floor.

I personally would have liked to have seen Team USA boast a dead-on jump shooter. Granted, Michael Redd lives off his perimeter game. Plus Bryant, James and Anthony can score from anywhere on the floor. But even those players are not catch-and-shoot long-range threats like Ray Allen or Jason Kapono.

Then again to get guys like those going you have to give them plenty of looks. One way is to get the ball when they miss. Team USA has an interesting choice of big men. They do well to score inside and hid the occasional jump shot but they will need to wipe the glass clean.

Guys like Dwight Howard, Carlos Boozer and Chris Bosh will have to snag over 10 rebounds a game to ensure success. If one of those big men can grab 20 rebounds in a game then you know the US is well on its way.

The last Olympic team should serve as a good reference for this year’s squad. Hopefully the US sees from that experience that without focus they will not win gold.

Against Puerto Rico, they lost their defensive intensity and let easy shots in. Meanwhile their offense has trouble against primarily a zone defense. The result was a humbling 92-73 loss in the first game of the tournament.

From there the Americans had embarrassing losses to Argentina and Lithuania. They ended up 5-3 with barely a bronze medal.

The teams that beat the US were not athletically better but merely hungrier and more prepared to play as a team. The US played their best only when faced with the prospect of walking away from the Games with no medals.

Ultimately I feel Team USA’s ‘role players’ will keep this year’s team together. Guys like Kidd and Prince are not the best at their positions but they’re arguably the best at what they do.

Kidd’s passing and unselfishness should be the grease for a well-lubed offense while Prince’s tenacity and length should inspire better team defense.

For me, the squad has so much potential and great players that it’s hard to predict anything less than gold.

In the end, I feel Team USA’s success will depend on how much respect they give their opponents. As Athens showed, they’re not entitled to world glory, they have to earn it. And to do that they will have beat the world at the world’s game.