NEW YORK (AP) – When LeBron James guaranteed gold two years ago, Mike Krzyzewski knew his players could deliver.
The U.S. Olympic team was loaded with everything coaches like: big names who flourished in big games and a veteran roster long on size and international experience.
The team that will take the floor when the world championships open next weekend in Turkey has neither. The Americans are good but certainly beatable, and their coach envisions a way it can happen.
Krzyzewski likes his players but realizes they have shortcomings – starting with the fact that they’re kind of short.
“We like the team that we’re developing, but it’s not a powerhouse. It’ll be very much a developing team,” Krzyzewski told The Associated Press last week during an interview in New York, where the Americans were training. “We hope that we’ll have our best product by the medal round.”
Gone are James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and every other player from the U.S. team that breezed through Beijing without seeing a close game until the final. Had they all returned, as they originally planned, the Americans would have been overwhelming favorites to win their first world championship since 1994.
Once they started backing out, Krzyzewski was left with a roster whose core isn’t much older than the players he coaches at Duke. Yet even though he made some calls, he said he never lobbied any veterans to keep their commitments, even telling Bryant he was better off resting the nagging injuries he fought over the second half of last season.
“We had hoped to get some of the guards, like Chris Paul and Deron Williams. But the fact that we have none of them is probably a little bit surprising,” Krzyzewski said. “But since I’ve been doing this in 2005, I found that nothing should be a surprise. It’s an ever-changing world.”
It’s not the guards whose absence worries Krzyzewski.
The defensive-minded Tyson Chandler is the only true center on the roster, with Lamar Odom essentially the backup. The Americans are loaded with athletic swingmen such as Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Rudy Gay, but no dominant figure in the post.
“We’re very concerned,” Krzyzewski said. “There’s not as much margin for error because you can’t make up for, say we don’t hit from the outside. There’s not this power game you can go to.”
Others have it. Even with Pau Gasol sitting out, Spain can turn to his younger brother Marc of the Memphis Grizzlies. Rugged power forward Luis Scola is back for Argentina. Brazil, which will face the Americans in pool play, can suit up NBA big bodies Nene, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter.
The U.S. Olympic team also had only one true center, Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. But Chris Bosh was a natural power forward who could also handle the center spot. More importantly, James and Anthony were big for their position, and Jason Kidd has long been one of the NBA’s best-rebounding guards.
Howard opted not to return, then Boston’s Kendrick Perkins was hurt in the NBA finals. Throw in the later withdrawals of All-Stars Amare Stoudemire and David Lee, plus twin centers Brook and Robin Lopez, and Krzyzewski knows there’s no guarantee that when the ball bounces off the rim, his team will get it.
The challenge for this group will be what he calls “completing the defensive exchange,” which doesn’t happen until the rebound is controlled.
“We have to have five guys rebound and we didn’t always have to have that with the Olympic team. And if we don’t, then they’ll get another possession,” Krzyzewski said. “The way this team can lose, I think, is by rebounding.
“We never were really hurt rebounding-wise. But we were big at all those positions. Even though we didn’t necessarily have the bulk, we were really tall. This team is not very tall.”
Nor is it very old. Five of the 13 players the Americans took to Europe are 21. USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said the roster is as young as the one from 2006, when the Americans took bronze in Japan at the worlds.
“They’re a young team, for sure. But they’re pretty talented,” France’s Boris Diaw said after the Americans’ 86-55 victory last week at Madison Square Garden. “I think most of them have never played international ball, so it’s a little different game. It’s different rules, so they’re going to have to adapt, but I think they have a pretty good chance.”
With a difficult exhibition schedule in Europe that includes games against defending world champion Spain and Greece, the team that stunned the U.S. team four years ago, there’s the possibility of a loss before the Americans even arrive in Istanbul.
The players realize they don’t have the aura of their predecessors, who even some opponents acknowledged were good as gold. This time, point guard Derrick Rose says “if anything, we’re the underdogs right now.”
Still, the Americans will easily reach the knockout stage, with the hope that by then they’ll have proven that their size doesn’t matter. And they won’t look so short if they’re standing on the center of the medal platform on Sept. 12.
“I love the character of this group really a bunch,” Colangelo said. “It’s young, they’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to be inconsistent. But I just think character and athleticism, and some shots going down, we could be OK.”
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