Here are four things we’ve learned after Team USA’s first four games:
- 1. USA is to basketball what Brazil is to soccer, and then some.
The hyped Team USA/Brazil match of undefeated teams resulted in Team USA’s fourth consecutive blowout and a thoroughly humbling first loss for Brazil. Even though Brazil was considered a pre-tournament contender, the wise understood that given the personnel in this tournament, Team USA would win this game. Not many people thought Team USA would lead by 47 points entering the fourth quarter though.
On September 9, Brazil’s soccer team will face the United States in an exhibition match. Brazil is the unequaled world soccer power, with more World Cups won than any other nation. Its players, like Pele and Ronaldinho, are the supreme talents of past and present. Its soccer talent runs so deep that not one player on the solid United States soccer team would make Brazil’s roster, much less be a part of the starting eleven. The real beauty of Brazilian soccer is not only the results, but the flair and ease with which they demoralize their opponents. They lose on occasion, but it’s almost always an upset when they do.
Sound familiar if you flip the script, turning soccer into football, and Brazil into U.S.A. basketball? The fact is, despite recent disappointment, Team USA remains the singular basketball world superpower. Their talent level is unmatched, and when the right mix is found, they are virtually unbeatable. They are an even sturdier, prettier superpower than Brazilian soccer, with fewer teams capable of challenging them.
- 2. Kobe can play team ball.
When Kobe Bryant was in his early twenties, leading the Lakers in assists and winning championships, life was all good in Los Angeles. Somewhere along the way, the sidekick grew up to the master (Shaq), at least in ability and ego, and the rest is history... or perhaps a current event in the NBA.
With LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and company at his side, Bryant has seemingly bought into the team concept now more than ever. Through four games with Team USA, Bryant has stood out as one of the most passionate and team-oriented, making it a habit to jump on the floor after loose balls, play squared-up and arms-up defense, and defer to open teammates on the offensive end.
He knows that these national teams are the greatest teams he’ll ever play on, and it’s refreshing to see that he’s genuinely excited by that fact. He also senses that while the degree to which he can succeed from here on out in the NBA on a team level depends largely on the puzzling pieces surrounding him, he doesn’t have that dilemma playing for Team USA. He knows that restoring basketball glory to the United States is firmly within his grasp, and he’s not going to let that opportunity slip away.
- 3. Keep this group together, mostly.
I’ve had some different ideas about what Team USA should like look this summer and in Beijing 2008. I will say now, that even though it’s only been four games against less-than-stellar competition, this is a strong mix of players.
In fact, I spot eight virtual locks on this team for next summer’s Olympic team: Bryant, James, Anthony, Jason Kidd, Amare Stoudemire, Michael Redd, Dwight Howard, and Chauncey Billups. Two of Tayshaun Prince, Deron Williams, Mike Miller, and Tyson Chandler should probably be there as well, most likely the first two. That leaves room for only two guys not in currently Las Vegas, probably Dwyane Wade and a post player, like Chris Bosh.
- 4. Everything looks golden, but...
The wonders of Argentina’s basketball system, rooted in rich talent and dynamic team/player familiarity, isn’t going to be enough this time around. If the Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto, Walter Herrmann-led team couldn’t top Team USA while playing for a medal last summer, it would be a lot to ask for the Argentine’s to pull of a victory without the aforementioned stars.
And I’m pretty sure Brazil isn’t going to make up this much ground that fast.
But what isn’t discussed enough is that the these tournaments are decidedly upset-prone, meaning the best team won’t always win. We are accustomed to the marathon NBA Playoffs, that while sometimes are anti-climactic, always crowns the best team. The one-and-done format of international basketball is exciting, but much more kind to the hot-shooting underdog.
Team USA might not lose for quite a while, and won’t lose more than one game in Las Vegas and Beijing combined. But one untimely loss is all it takes.