RIO DE JANEIRO– One of the first things Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo did after the United States soundly defeated Serbia, 96-66, to win its third consecutive Olympic gold medal here was to issue a warning to the rest of the world.
Team USA has won 24 straight Olympic games and are 88-1 since Mike Krzyzewski became the U.S. senior national men’s team coach in 2005. They have shown they can send a B team and convincingly win the 2014 World Cup in Spain. They have shown that can absorb multiple defections of superstars like LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry in 2016 and still win in Brazil with a team that included just two players–Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony– who played for the United States in the 2012 games in London.
“One of the officials said to me, ‘You know the next time you play, you ought to play with four,”’ Colangelo recalled. “I said, ‘No, maybe the other teams ought to get their act together and compete.”
Then, reality set in.
Despite the margin of victory in the gold medal game, this was not a walk In the park. Team USA won half of its eight games by 10 points or less, defeated a depleted Spanish golden generation team that was missing an injured 7-0 Marc Gasol and 6-9 Serge Ibaka by six points in the semi-finals.
“We can’t go back again with 10 new players,” Colangelo said. “That’s not going to happen.
“For me,” he added, “I’m glad we got past this.”
Krzyzewski will likely go down as the best international coach of all time for the way he coached three different collections of NBA stars over an 11 year period and revamped the culture, making it cool to represent your country in Olympic competition again.
This was the weakest of Krzyzewski’s three gold medal teams, but it had the best player in the tournament in Durant, who dominated medal pool once he woke up from a series of all too unselfish performances in pool play where he sacrificed his own skills to make everyone else on the team happy.
Durant, who dominated the 2010 World Championships in Istanbul as a 21-year old rising star and was the leading scorer on Team USA’s 2012 gold medal team, finishing with 30 points in a 107-100 gold medal game against Spain, dropped another 30 on Serbia in the gold medal game here, going off for 24 of his points in the first half. Durant drained 5-of-8 three pointers while contributing 3 rebounds, 4 steals and 2 assists in 30 minutes.
He is only 27 now and will likely be back for one more run as the leader of the 2020 team that will play for new coach Gregg Popovich of the Spurs in Tokyo. Most likely, Durant will be joined on the team by young stars like forward Paul George, centers DeMarcus Cousins and/or DeAndre Jordan and guards Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving.
Ironically, this roster could be much stronger than Rio. Anthony has retired from international basketball after four Olympics. but provided Curry, Davis and Westbrook are healthy, they are likely to rejoin the team. Forward Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs, who finished second to Curry in the MVP balloting this year, should also be part of the mix. The fears of Zika virus are long gone and the potential of selling shoes in basketball crazed Asia is enticing.
Then, there is the X factor– the 6-8, 250-pound James, who was a star in London and, at 31-years old, is the best player on the planet.
James, the three-time NBA Player of the Year who led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA championships in a showdown against Curry’s Warriors, opted to forgo Rio over exhaustion, admitted he missed being part of the 2016 team. He will be 35 in 2020 but he was adamant is has not retired from international basketball and said he remains open to playing for Popovich on Team USA.
“It would be pretty amazing to actually play for the greatest NBA coach of all time,” he said during interviews in Rio. “First of all, coach K and Gregg Popovich are two of my favorites of all time. To be able to play for Coach K in two Olympics and the World Championships and to be able to go against Coach Pop in the NBA, it would be great. Obviously, my body has to continue to be in the that it is today four years from now.”
The rest of the roster likely will be made up from members of the USA Select team like guards Victor Oladipo, Devin Books and forwards Justice Winslow, Brandon Ingram and Jabari Parker– provided they develop and are willing to audition for spots on the roster in the 32-team 2019 World Cup qualifying tournament in China.
The talent will be there. It will be up to Popovich to make sure the character remains. Krzyzewski, who will remain with Team USA as a consultant, has been quick to point out that team cannot grow arrogant and complacent like in the past.
“We can’t fall into that, even though having won a number of times, people want to get back into doing that and that’s not where we’re going,” he said. “We’re not going to lose site of the road that we have to be on.”
Too many other countries out there would like to take the United State’s at the top of the podium. Four years ago, it was Spain. This year, it was Serbia. In the 2020 cycle, it would be Canada and Australia in addition to rising European powers Croatia or France.
Canada has not qualified for the Olympics since the year 2000. But the Canadians has built a strong young talent base that includes Andrew Wiggins, a 6-8 forward who is a potential All Star from Minnesota and go to options like 6-10 forward Trey Lyles and 6-5 guard Jamal Murray, who were both lottery picks the last two years out of Kentucky. Point guard Cory Joseph of the Raptors, center Kelly Olynyk of the Celtics and Tristan Thompson are also young stars who won’t be 29 until 2020. Then there is 6-7 rising high school sophomore RJ. Barrett of the Montverde, Fla. School, who was one of the two best prospects globally in the Class of 2019 and will be 20 when the Tokyo summer games take place.
Australia is also seems ready to make a push for the medal stand for the first time in its history. The Aussies are still smarting from a controversial bronze medal loss to Spain, but they have build a solid system under coach Andrej Lemanis and, even if center Andrew Bogut does not come back, thjey will return four starters from Rio, including NBA guards Patty Mills and Matthew Delllavedova and defensive anchor Aron Baynes. But it is the future that has Boomer fans excited. Forward Ben Simmons, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 who could be the country’s first NBA superstar; point guard Dante Exum, the fifth pick in 2014 should both be part of the rotation and there is every reason to believe 7-0 much traveled Thon Maker, the former Orangeville Prep star who was the 10th pick in this year’s draft, could contribute in in the middle with his athleticism.
Right now, the gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world seems wide. As if we learned anything from Rio, it’s that it is difficult to put together a cohesive team with just two weeks of practice, eve if you have the best and deepest talent pool in the world.