ATHENS -- It has been a long, long time since the United States men's basketball team won the World Championship, so long, in fact, that Kevin Durant was a 5-year-old when it last happened in 1994.
The Americans finished third in Athens in 1998, when an NBA lockout forced USA Basketball to send a team of non-NBA players; sixth in Indianapolis in 2002, when Team USA lost for the first (and second and third) time when fielding a squad of professional players,; and third in Japan in 2006, when the team's inability to defend the pick-and-roll against Greece led to a stunning semifinal loss despite a roster loaded with superior talent (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson) than the current team possesses.
Americans tend to look at the Olympics as the end-all, be-all of international competitions, but the rest of the world views the FIBA World Championship as a more prestigious event -- akin to soccer's World Cup.
Team USA is competing this year without a single member of the so-called Redeem Team that won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, but other strong teams are missing prominent players, too (Spain is without Pau Gasol and Jose Calderon; Argentina does not have Manu Ginobili; Germany is without Dirk Nowitzki, and Greece does not have the services of wily veteran Theo Papaloukas, the star of the Greeks' upset victory over the Americans in the 2006 World Championship.)
Here is a look at the roster the U.S. federation is bringing to Turkey in the hopes of winning the gold medal for the first time since Reggie Miller, Joe Dumars, Dominique Wilkins, Mark Price, Shawn Kemp, Derrick Coleman and Larry Johnson were among the primary players.
At 33, Billups is the oldest player on the team, and coach Mike Krzyzewski has been and will be relying upon him -- just as he did with Jason Kidd in Beijing -- to be the conduit providing insight into what the players are saying and thinking amongst themselves. He will usually be paired with Derrick Rose, who is not as good of a shooter, under the premise that the team should always have at least one 3-point threat in the backcourt alongside a pure point guard.
Chandler lost his spot as the starting center after the team's second exhibition game against Lithuania. His primary job will be to rebound and block shots, and he could be used as a spot starter depending on the matchups in each particular game. His poor free throw shooting (61 percent for his NBA career) is a concern, and he can expect to get hacked across the arms or wrapped up any time he grabs an offensive rebound. He appears healthy after missing 68 games the past two NBA seasons with various injuries.
The best pure shooter on the team, Curry not only can he used as a zone buster, but he also has a terrific handle (his ankle-breaking crossover move against Spain's Ricky Rubio last Sunday was an instant classic) and can play either guard position. He'll often be paired with Russell Westbrook on the second unit, but also as an option to receive increased minutes if Billups struggles with his 3-point shot as the tournament goes on.
Durant will be the featured scorer, the go-to guy. And after saying earlier that he will play 24-26 minutes per game, Krzyzewski now seems to realize he will need to rely on Durant to play much more minutes in games against quality opponents. His size makes him a particularly tough player for any team to defend, and his length is an asset on defense -- as witnessed in the exhibition victory over Spain when he blocked the final two shots of the game, both of which were 3-point attempts.
Gay is sort of a mini-Durant on this team, a player who often runs hot and cold from the perimeter but whose athleticism fits perfectly with the uptempo style the U.S. will need to play in order to be successful. Will often have to defend bigger, stronger players, but he clearly has emerged ahead of Danny Granger as the go-to offensive weapon off the bench -- the same role Dwyane Wade filled in Beijing.
After being a primary cut candidate when the team first assembled for mini-camp in Las Vegas in July, the coaching staff has fallen in love with Gordon for his consistent effort both in practices and exhibitions. He cannot handle the ball as well as Curry, which will limit his minutes and chances, but he is the extra sparkplug that'll be kept in reserve for when the team needs a jolt.
A variety of injuries (bruised calf, jammed finger) have limited Granger's playing time opportunities in exhibition games, and he logged a DNP-CD against Spain as Coach K shortened the rotation. But he has size and can score in a variety of ways, and he'll be called upon in a pinch much the same way Tayshaun Prince was on the Beijing Olympic team.
Probably the team's best defensive player, Igoudala will be challenged in this tournament by having to defend opposing power forwards with more size. But Iguodala is quite the physical specimen, a muscular player who will have advantages in speed and athleticism against any player he is matched up against. His inconsistent shooting, however, is a particular concern for a team that needs to make shots when the tempo slows and the opposition utilizes a zone defense.
Best to describe Love as the 10th man in what could end up being a nine-man rotation, but he could move up on the depth chart if Chandler struggles. Another player who will be forced to play out of position, he has five fouls to use and will be encouraged to use them if he is caught deep in the low post trying to stop a much taller player who can exploit him on post-ups. Also, his inside-outside game is especially well-suited to the FIBA style of play.
There will come a point in this tournament when Odom will really appreciate what a luxury it is to have Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol as his teammates on the Lakers. Of all the players who will have to man positions they don't play in the NBA, Odom's role as the starting center is the most glaring example of how the peculiarities of this particular U.S. roster will leave them at a disadvantage against certain opponents. A member of the 2004 Olympic team, he is the only player on the roster with experience in a major international competition.
The book on Rose is that he can't shoot, and opponents will challenge him to show that he can knock down open looks from the perimeter. But the much shorter FIBA 3-point line (20 feet, 6 inches) is well within his range, and his ballhandling and penetration skills are right up there with the very best of the NBA. One of five 21-year-olds on the roster, he seems genuinely stoked to be a part of his first trip overseas for an international tournament.
With the withdrawal of Rajon Rondo, Westbrook will not be looking over his shoulder wondering if he will get the quick hook if he struggles. His versatility (can play both guard positions) will make him an especially tough cover if he is paired together with Rose, but the glut of guards on the roster means it is questionable whether he will get that opportunity very often.
Now in his fifth year as head coach of the national team, Kryzewski has evolved into a coach who is not afraid to scrap Plan A if Plan B is a superior option. Example: He knew his team needed a confidence jolt after struggling against Lithuania in their first overseas exhibition game, so he blew up the starting lineup and leaned heavily on his starting five to lead the U.S. team past Spain in Madrid on Sunday night. Also, he is much more familiar now with the strengths and weaknesses of opposing individual players than he was four years ago in Japan, when he often referred to foreign players by their numbers rather than their names.