America will be challenged in the London Olympics.
The majority of the 2008 Beijing Olympics “Redeem Team” — the gold medal squad led by LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul — returns to defend its global roundball crown. This time, the team will also include Kevin Durant, the NBA scoring champion, Finals runner-up and MVP of the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey (leading a roster with no ’08 Olympians).
At first glance, Team USA appears poised to claim its 14th Olympic gold medal in men’s basketball. That, however, is not necessarily a given. There are several potential problems that could derail the overwhelming favorites.
Dwyane Wade (knee), Dwight Howard (back) and Derrick Rose (knee) will be sitting out with injuries. Wade was the leading scorer on the “Redeem Team,” Howard was the national team’s starting center and Rose was the NBA’s MVP in 2010-11. This leaves Team USA without three of the top 10 players in the world.
Andrew Bynum and Rajon Rondo would be potential replacements for Howard and Rose, at center and point guard, respectively. But both have made it clear that they do not want to play basketball during the NBA offseason. “I love my summers. I’ll leave it at that,” said Rondo, the NBA’s assists leader last season.
LeBron just won his first NBA title. Both Durant and Russell Westbrook are fresh off a disappointing defeat. Who knows where the focus of that talented (yet emotional) trio will be in the weeks leading up to London?
Without the imposing 6'11", 265-pound Howard patrolling the paint, Team USA will be forced to lean on reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler for heavy minutes or go small, with LeBron playing more like Karl Malone than Magic Johnson. A quicker lineup lacking size down low may run into a problem against Spain’s wall of 7-footers.
LeBron, Kobe, Carmelo and Durant are all scorers, but Team USA lacks the pure outside shooters that are emphasized under FIBA rules — which include a shorter 3-point line (22'1" compared to NBA’s 23'9" distance), wider lane and no basket interference (unlike NBA). The team’s top playmaker, Paul, may also be its best jump shooter.
In 1992, the “Dream Team” avenged the humiliating 1988 bronze-medal showing. In 2008, the “Redeem Team” got payback for the shocking bronze-medal finish of 2004, while also securing hardware for first-time gold medalists like Kobe and LeBron. Heading into London, the only motivation appears to be national and personal pride. Hopefully that will be enough.