Seeing how the Unites States Men’s Basketball Team fared in the knock out phase of the just ended Rio Olympics, I can’t shake off the feeling the entourage knew what they were doing the whole time the world thought it was about to see a repeat of the calamity 12 years before. In the Greek capital Athens in 2004, a group of novices stood higher on the podium than the US as Argentina and Italy placed first and second respectively in a sport the US has owned.
The ramifications of that loss coupled with another mediocre showing two years later at the World Championship in 2006 forced the team to make drastic changes which has since resulted in five gold medals at the Olympics and World Championship now World Cup. It almost seemed everything was falling into place for another disastrous showing as factors that plagued the Allen Iverson led team in 2004, reared its head again.
Players including Stephen Curry, LeBron James, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin turned down invitations to deal with lingering injury issues or rest for the upcoming season.
Same way Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and a number of stars declined to play in 2004. Winning by a combined 16 points in three games against France, Australia and Serbia spelt a similar trajectory for the Rio side much like the one in Athens that failed to move the ball rather relying on ball dominant guards in Stephon Marbury and Iverson.
But what transpired in the knock out phase stood in contrast to the form shown in Rio’s preliminary games or in 2004 as Team USA blitzed Argentina, Spain (in a far lesser extent) and Serbia to claim a third straight gold medal. The alarm bells chimed wrong this time around basically due to perhaps the most commonly used cliché in the game; different time, different situation. Back in 2004, the US talent level was prominent despite the absence of Bryant, McGrady and Ray Allen but the team competed against Argentina’s Golden Generation of players that had elite NBA talent in Manu Ginobli, Andreas Nocioni, Luis Scola and Carlos Delfino. Aside the matched talent level, the quartet had been together since 1999 and had put the football crazed nation on the map at the 2002 World Championship by placing second.
In 2016 however, the circumstances had changed as Argentina, fielding a side with an older version of the above mentioned quartet in tow, failed to match up to the Americans speed, strength and size. Australia lost by 10 to America mainly due to a weak bench- 2016 top ten NBA Draftees Ben Simmons and Thon Maker can help with that in 2020- Spain like Argentina also had an old roster and France, like Australia could have had more to trouble Team America had all players turned up (Evan Fournier missed out). The absentees and under par strength from opposing teams made for an easy route to win gold.
Naming a 12 man team with just two players having played the Olympics prior might have troubled Jerry Colangelo in the “experience” department of their game but it certainly didn’t in terms of motivation as players were hungry to prove themselves. Every NBA follower knew Paul George was back to his All-Star best form but was skeptical about his mental state after returning to the site of his gut wrenching leg injury. So George was on a mission to show he was past that incident. Big men DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins’ polarizing careers stung so much, hushing all that chatter with a gold medal was the first thing on their minds likewise Harrison Barnes, in light of his move from Golden State Warriors to Dallas Mavericks.
Despite being one half of the experienced duo, Carmelo Anthony hasn’t come close to winning an NBA title and laid siege on the Olympic tournament as he stated he will be okay without an NBA title with three Olympic golds. Jordan, who is yet to feature in an NBA Conference Final or main Final series, also shared a similar sentiment and attitude in the course of the games.
Lest we forget, this competition was Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last outing with the national team and he definitely didn’t want to leave on a bad note so you were sure he was going to pull out all the stomps to make it happen. Some questioned his ability to make the right adjustments during the close win stretch in the latter half of preliminary games but those tweaks came in time to see the side dominate in three more games like they did against China and Venezuela in the opening rounds.
The Olympic experience begun and ended with expectations met in nonchalant fashion.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah