RIO DE JANEIRO – The United States’ failure to win a gold medal in men’s basketball in Athens during the 2004 Olympics led to an overhaul of the national team.
Jerry Colangelo became the CEO. He hired Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski as his coach. They recruited the NBA’s best players and demanded commitment, loyalty and a sense of national pride from them.
In 2008 in Beijing, the U.S. went undefeated and won the gold medal as the players called themselves “Redeem Team,” a play on the 1992 team’s nickname of “Dream Team.”
In 2012 in London, the U.S. went undefeated and won gold again.
In 2016 in Rio, the U.S. is once again undefeated and preparing to play for gold, at 1:45 p.m. Sunday against Serbia. In terms of talent and dominance, perhaps the correct nickname for this squad is “Second Team.”
This group of players has been less dominant than its two Olympic predecessors, and has struggled to find lineups that can produce both offense and defense. The players who did not travel to Rio — including LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin — probably would beat the U.S. team that made the trip.
For a team that is undefeated, this tournament has been a relative struggle, but the coaching staff has found player combinations that have led to improved defensive performance.
DeAndre Jordan has replaced foul-plagued DeMarcus Cousins in the starting lineup, giving the first unit fierce rebounding, rim protection and dunks. Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry have become the team’s other defensive stoppers.
Asked about the decision to start Jordan instead of Cousins, Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau, one of Krzyzewski’s assistants, said: “We need both of those guys. It was to give us a different look. He and DeMarcus have been dividing up the position anyway.
“They’re playing in four- and five-minute segments. I think it’s good. It’s worked well for both units — a little more offense with the second unit and DJ’s great defensive presence with the starters. The last two games I think we’ve played a lot better. Defensively, we attacked.”
And while the American offense often looks disjointed, as a group of stars learns to play together while competing, competent defense allows the offense time to figure out who will take the scoring lead.
It was Klay Thompson in the semifinals against Spain, and Kevin Durant in the quarterfinals against Argentina, and frequently Carmelo Anthony before that.
“I haven’t won an Olympic gold medal yet,” Thompson said. “When I was a kid growing up, my goals were to win an NBA championship and an Olympic gold. That’s what we’re here for.”
The Americans were unable to pull away from a Spanish team that hasn’t played as well or looked as talented as the teams that faced the U.S. in the two previous gold medal games. Spain misses center Marc Gasol, and has key players who are past their prime.
With Manu Ginóbili retiring from Argentina’s team, Tony Parker nearing the end of his career and Spain looking vulnerable, the U.S.’ competition for gold is not what it once was.
That doesn’t mean that winning the gold is ever easy. Even with Kobe Bryant and James, the United States did not have an easy time with Spain in 2008 and 2012.
“For me, this has been great,” Jordan said. “You’re starting for your country’s team — and just being a player on your country’s team is amazing. It’s a huge honor. At the end of the day, it’s not about me, it’s about us achieving our goal.
“We’ve been together for two months, and I feel like I’ve played with these guys my whole career. It’s been special. You watch as a kid and you say, ‘I want to go to one of those games.’ Now I’m playing in these games. It is an honor.”