Saturday, July 13, 2024

USA Hoops Hands Keys to Kerr Amid ‘Dream Team’ Olympic Hopes

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LAS VEGAS — Steve Kerr has won nine NBA titles—five as a player and four more as coach of the Golden State Warriors, plus a gold medal as an assistant coach on the 2021 men’s Olympic team. But the latest task ahead of him is his most challenging.

The job: Figuring out how to mix and match 12 of the world’s most talented players on this year’s U.S. men’s basketball team with the goal of winning another gold medal next month during the Paris Olympics.

This year’s team has gathered this week at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas campus to practice for five days, culminating with a game Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena against Canada. Then the team travels for more exhibitions before heading to Paris to defend its Tokyo gold. The U.S. has won the last four Olympic tournaments, and 16 in all.

The roster is packed with superstar names, including LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis. Jrue Holiday, a member of the 2021 NBA-winning Milwaukee Bucks, the 2024 NBA champion Boston Celtics and the 2021 Olympic gold medal-winners, called himself “a utility player” on this team, which tells basketball aficionados everything they need to know about the talent on this roster. Holiday may not be LeBron, but he’s not Swiss cheese, either. 

“My role? The whatever-I’ve-got-to-do role,” Devin Booker said, echoing Holiday.

Kerr said this past weekend that he doesn’t need to size up this team. He plans to juggle the starting lineup during the first few exhibition games.

“They are all Hall of Famers,” he said. “It’s remarkable to see the talent in front of me as I’m addressing the team. … They all deserve to start, but only five of them can.”

Sure, he knows there’s only one ball to distribute and five starting slots to go around. Plus, there’s the matter of adapting to international rules—for example, players can swipe the ball off the rim. It’s not goaltending, like in the NBA. Kerr will see who adapts best when determining his lineups, while the players’ consensus seems to be helping the team wherever they can.

Some, like Curry and Durant, have played for him before, winning championships with the Warriors. Curry, who has teamed with Kerr to win four NBA titles, still does play for him. They know him as a players’ coach. Guys who haven’t—like Davis, who teams with LeBron on the Los Angeles Lakers, are already saying Kerr’s reputation has preceded him. James is all in.

“My game is whatever the team calls for I can provide it,” James said. “I can score in bunches, or I can hand out assists. I’ll have my game ready for whatever the team needs. Nothing changes for me. It should be easier. I’m playing with 11 other potential Hall of Famers.” 

Team USA was led in the last Olympics by Gregg Popovich with Kerr as one of his assistants in Tokyo—and the COVID-impacted tournament was far from perfect for the U.S. Those games were delayed a year thanks to the pandemic, and when that basketball tournament finally happened, players were isolated in a bubble—and many chose to stay home, including James, Curry and Davis. 

Because the start of the 2020-21 NBA season was delayed, the Finals dovetailed right into those Olympics. Five players on that roster didn’t practice with the team when it gathered in Vegas.

After Milwaukee finally vanquished Phoenix in six games to win the 2021 Finals, Holiday and Khris Middleton of the Bucks and Booker of the Suns jumped on an overnight flight for Japan.

“There was no time to practice,” Booker recalled. “We got off the flight and went right into playing a game. There were a lot of things I missed the last time around.”

The team that landed in Tokyo never practiced together—and it showed as Team USA lost the opening preliminary round game to France and faced elimination. The U.S. figured it out and ultimately defeated France to win the gold medal.

That shouldn’t happen this time. USA men’s basketball has transitioned from Jerry Colangelo to Grant Hill as managing director and from Popovich to Kerr at head coach. They’ve assembled the greatest group of American NBA players since the Dream Team of 1992.

That team had aging stars Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen, and they demolished every opponent on the way to winning gold in Barcelona. The total point deferential of the six games was 309, an average of 51.5 points per game.

This Dream Team isn’t going to have it that easy, Kerr told the team on Saturday.

“That was the big part of the message: This is not 1992,” he said. “[Curry] and I aren’t going to be like [then coach] Chuck Daly and Mike. We’re not going to be playing 36 holes of golf on game days. Those days are long gone. Despite the amazing roster we have, FIBA’s tough. We all know that. We have our hands full.”

To Kerr’s point, the U.S. had a disappointing fourth-place finish last year in the FIBA Men’s Basketball World Cup. 

Kerr said he considers that to be “a learning experience,” but a lot of the players on the current roster didn’t compete in the World Cup.  

Anything can happen, Kerr knows. But he also knows his job is to unquestionably win the gold. With expectations that high, he’s facing his toughest job yet.

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