Sunday, May 26, 2024

OLYMPICS SPOTLIGHT: 20 years on from disaster in Athens, USA goes for basketball gold again… led by LeBron James and Steph Curry, the Americans are gunning for a 17th title – and there can be no excuses in Paris

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The Olympics are now just 14 weeks away, and Mail Sport is looking ahead to the Paris Games with a series of interviews, flashbacks and deep dives…

When the USA men’s basketball team waltzed into the 2004 Olympics with a roster featuring Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and a young LeBron James, most would have thought that a fourth straight gold medal was a foregone conclusion.

Instead, the tournament started and ended with disaster, as Team USA dropped its first game to Puerto Rico by 19 points (its worst Olympic loss ever) and lost two more times before finishing with the bronze medal.

‘We didn’t have the discipline, we didn’t have the structure to be able to play on a world stage,’ James, who was just 19 years old during the tournament, later told ESPN

‘We had great basketball players but we didn’t have the structure, and I think that’s part of why we finished third.’

LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony had to settle for a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics

The team, led by Allen Iverson at point guard, was clunky on offense and lost three times

The team, led by Allen Iverson at point guard, was clunky on offense and lost three times

Lamar Odom is seen pouting during the USA's 19-point loss to Puerto Rico in the opening game

Lamar Odom is seen pouting during the USA’s 19-point loss to Puerto Rico in the opening game

20 years later, James – along with the likes of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and reigning MVP Joel Embiid – is expected to take his last crack at Olympic gold this summer. 

And while James is far more wise now than the kid he was in Athens, America’s understanding of basketball has also massively evolved.

The 2004 roster featured plenty of elite talent, with the likes of Stephon Marbury, Dwyane Wade and Amare Stoudemire also included. But it didn’t quite fit.

A backcourt of Marbury and Iverson was undersized and ball-dominant, and there was a huge dearth of effective spot-up shooters.

The results were clunky, as the Americans made the fewest three-pointers of any team per game (5.5) and shot the second-worst percentage (31.4).

Nowadays, spacing rules the NBA, and the final roster selected for this summer will be constructed with that thinking in mind. 

The likes of James and Durant won’t be the only All-Stars in Paris, but don’t be surprised if names like Mikal Bridges or Austin Reaves are given the nod over more decorated pros due to their seamless fit alongside primary scorers.

Mikal Bridges, seen at last year's FIBA World Cup, has never been an NBA All-Star but could go to the Olympics as a complementary piece

Mikal Bridges, seen at last year’s FIBA World Cup, has never been an NBA All-Star but could go to the Olympics as a complementary piece

Kevin Durant has confirmed he'll be back at the Olympics this summer if he is selected

Kevin Durant has confirmed he’ll be back at the Olympics this summer if he is selected

Stephen Curry hasn't represented the USA since 2004 but will return to the squad in Paris

Stephen Curry hasn’t represented the USA since 2004 but will return to the squad in Paris

Coach Steve Kerr, ultimately, has some tremendous options at his disposal for Paris, but that wasn’t quite the case in 2004.

Larry Brown certainly had talent on that roster, but it was far from the A-team it could have been. 

Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett (the reigning MVP at the time) and Jason Kidd were just some of the players who didn’t make the trip.

‘I think foreign players feel differently about the NBA as far as winning a championship compared to winning a gold medal and playing for their country,’ James told ESPN in 2019.

‘I think as kids in America and as an African-American kid, your whole mindset growing up is “I wanna be in the NBA.” You don’t really understand the importance playing for your country. It’s not preached about, it’s not talked about, it’s not shown.’

Brown’s relative lack of options in 2004 led to a mishmash of a roster – with little time to prepare.

‘We didn’t get any practice time. They kind of picked the team at random and it’s totally unfair, Brown told ESPN.

‘A lot of people were critical of the coaches – I can accept that – but they’re critical of the players. Well, the players had the balls to go during that time to Greece,’ he added, referencing the heightened security concerns at the time.  

Tim Duncan and Iverson were among the team's leaders but couldn't produce a gold medal

Tim Duncan and Iverson were among the team’s leaders but couldn’t produce a gold medal

Many stars like Jason Kidd, who helped the team qualify, did not make the trip to Athens

Many stars like Jason Kidd, who helped the team qualify, did not make the trip to Athens

Puerto Rico's Carlos Arroyo shocked the Americans in the opening game, and the rest of the tournament would follow a similar pattern

Puerto Rico’s Carlos Arroyo shocked the Americans in the opening game, and the rest of the tournament would follow a similar pattern

With some of the league’s best American players turning down the chance to play for their country in Athens, 2004 was a sort of tipping point for that lack of patriotism – though one that would positively impact Olympic participation in years to come, and add the impetus for the ‘Redeem Team’ to claim gold in 2008.

However, A-list commitments will not guarantee gold this summer.

At its strongest, America still has the best collection of basketball talent in the world. But some power has shifted away from the USA since 2004.

Up to the 2004 Olympics, there had been just one NBA MVP born outside of the United States: Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1993-94 season.

Since then? There’s been five – for a total of eight wins – with Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Steve Nash all two-time winners (Embiid, born in Cameroon, and Dirk Nowitzki were one-time winners as well).

Jokic will be in Paris leading Serbia this summer, while Canada and Germany – who both beat the USA at last summer’s FIBA World Cup – will be there as well. France too, will look to make noise with a supersized frontcourt of Victor Wembanyama and Rudy Gobert.

The USA’s most surprising loss in the World Cup, where they were led by Anthony Edwards and lacked much of the starpower they’ll have this summer, was against Lithuania, to whom they fell 110-104.

Serbia will be led by two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic during this summer's Olympics

Serbia will be led by two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic during this summer’s Olympics

Canada, who beat the USA at the World Cup last year, will also be a force to be reckoned with

Canada, who beat the USA at the World Cup last year, will also be a force to be reckoned with

Rookie phenom Victor Wembanyama is also expected to suit up for France this summer

Rookie phenom Victor Wembanyama is also expected to suit up for France this summer

An upgraded squad with James, Curry etc. would be expected to avoid that result, but it drove home an important point: the international game, with it’s shorter quarters, no defensive three seconds and greater physicality is different to the NBA, and even the best team on paper needs to adjust accordingly.

 20 years on from the failure in Athens, there should be nothing lacking in the ‘structure’ or ‘discipline’ that James remembered from that tournament.

Stars like he and Curry have seen and won it all, Kerr is one of the best coaches in the business, and superstars like Jokic and Canada’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will not be catching anyone by surprise.

Nonetheless, expectations weigh heavy when you’ve won 16 gold medals in 19 tries to date, and the USA will need all hands on deck for No. 17.

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