|USA Basketball approaches the 2012 Olympics with confidence. (Getty Images)|
LAS VEGAS -- How does an undefeated, Gold Medal-winning team get better? Expectations, experience and esprit de corps.
That's the simple recipe for USA Basketball in 2012 as the 12-man team, which was officially announced on Saturday, prepares to defend its 2008 Beijing gold in the upcoming London Olympics.
"We think we have a very versatile team that's much more mature than they were in 2008," USA Chairman Jerry Colangelo said during the announcement of his roster at the Wynn Casino on Saturday. "We think we're deeper and we think we're better."
That's right: the big man in charge delivered the highest possible expectations. The 2012 group isn't aiming to be just a gold medal team. It wants to be better than a very talented gold medal team. And everyone is on message.
Although several key pieces are absent due to injury -- Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, and Dwyane Wade to name a few -- the 2012 roster's core is older and wiser than the 2008 group. LeBron James is a 27-year-old title-winner at his career's apex; four years ago, he was still ascending. Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony all enter the 2012 Olympics in their prime years and with a gold medal to their names. Even 33-year-old Kobe Bryant, the only player older than 30 on the roster, has won two titles since he helped take home gold in Beijing.
The quintet knows what to expect in London and seems to endlessly motivate each other.
James, for instance, was asked on Saturday if he knew where his Beijing gold medal was.
"It's hung up in my office with the rest of my individual and team accolodes," he said quickly.
What about the bronze medal he won as a part of the 2004 Athens Olympics?
"No," he said flatly. "That's not an achievement."
Anthony spoke openly about the USA Basketball climate chance since he joined James on that 2004 team, which played unevent basketball throughout the tournament and lost to the eventual gold medalists, Argentina, in the semifinal round.
"In '04, we didn't have no camaraderie," Anthony said. "We were just this group, bring in this group, bring in young guys. You could feel the separation between the older guys and the younger guys... Right now we don't have that problem. You don't see no separation between the older and younger guys. We open our arms to Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Blake [Griffin], we want them to be a part of what we have going."
To an outside observer, USA Basketball has appeared like one big, happy family this week. The team was joking so loudly behind the stage during Saturday's roster announcement ceremony that they could be heard from the audience. The teasing and horseplay continues after each practice, in shooting competitions and an impromptu dunk-off from newcomer Blake Griffin.
"The team has great success and versatility and athleticism," Coach Krzyzewski said. "But even more than that, it has great camaraderie. They're good guys, they're good guys who are proud to serve their country, play for their country, and bring back the gold."
"We're a pretty fun bunch in terms of joking around and laughing, but we know what's at stake," Bryant said. "We know what's at hand. We know what we're representing. Come Olympics time, we're going to be ready to go."
What drives the laughs, the expectations and the tight bonds, of course, is the high-level basketball that's on display. Despite the injury absences, the final 12-man group has it all: size, speed, quickness, athleticism, basketball intelligence, rebounding, scoring, shooting, play-making, ball-handling passing, individual defense, team defense, shot-blocking, heart and championship experience. It's an embarrassment of riches and it's a group that has no excuse if it loses.
Paul, the likely starting point guard, said that you only need to consider the options on one half-court play to realize what the 2012 team is capable of.
"The thing is, every option is truly an option," he said, his eyes widening. "It may seem like such an easy set. If you set a screen for LeBron, if they pay too much attention to him, [Durant] is wide open in the corner. Someone like [Anthony], who is used to getting double-teamed night in and night out in the NBA, he shoots a lot of wide open shots with this team. That's only good for us."
And that's if teams can get back. With an endless string of aggressive perimeter defenders and open-court finishers, Team USA figures to put a fair share of its opponents away early.
"Our speed," James said, of what sets this team apart most. "Our dynamics -- some of the lineups we can use. We've got guys who can play a lot of positions... If Coach K wants to get freaky with the lineups, he has the ability to do that."
The 2008 veterans have pushed to make each other better and that intensity has had trickle-down effects. The competition simply to make the 2012 roster was fierce, best exemplified by New Orleans Hornets restricted free agent guard Eric Gordon participating in 5-on-5 full-court play despite being in the middle of a major contract negotiation. Gordon was cut on Saturday but will serve as an alternate in case of injury; he'll surely be back for the 2014 World Championships and the 2016 Olympics.
USA Basketball is now into its second or third generation of being a privilege rather than an obligation. The experience of making the team -- or of getting cut -- continues to feed on itself for all involved.
"This team definitely has the opportunity to be better," Paul said. "We're a lot deeper, a lot more versatile. We were very, very hungry in '08. Coming off '04 and '06, those losses, we were very hungry. People may find it hard to believe but I think this team has the possibility of being hungrier than we were in '08."
Durant, for example, was in Gordon's shoes four years ago. Being a late cut then made him arguably the hungriest player on the court this week. He admitted on Saturday that it was painful to watch the Beijing Gold Medal game against Spain.
"Seeing those guys celebrating the gold, I couldn't stand it," he said. "People had to calm me down and tell me I was part of the process. Because if I'm going through something, I expect to win. I expect to make it. To be cut -- which was kind of the first time in my life being cut from a basketball team. It was tough. It was tough. Everything happens for a reason. It made me better, it made me stronger. I'm glad I'm here now."
A tested, more experienced core that's bought into team and country-first, enough younger talent to stave off any complacency and an environment designed to encourage maximum effort. It's no wonder they haven't wasted any time setting the bar as high as possible.