LAS VEGAS -- Carmelo Anthony and his USA teammates want to make one thing clear as they get set for the London Olympics in the next few weeks. As proud as they are of the gold medal they won in Beijing during the 2008 Games, this team, the one that had its first practice Friday afternoon at UNLV, is going to go into these Games with a different mindset.
Of course they want to prove they have the best team in the world again, but Anthony and company know that the path they had to break through in 2008, after being embarrassed in the 2004 Athens Games with a bronze, is different this time around. They know what it takes to win a gold medal -- now they just have to prove they remember the formula again.
"Last time around we were trying to figure everything out," Anthony admitted. "We were trying to redeem ourselves from '04 and '06 (bronze at Worlds), and we did that. We came together and it was one thing: Team USA. And now we understand that journey. We want to experience that journey again and for the young guys to have that experience, too. That's just going to make it that much better."
With the injuries to former 2008 standouts like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, combined with the injuries to players like 2008 alum Dwight Howard and former MVP Derrick Rose, among others, this American team is shaping up much differently than coach Mike Krzyzewski could have imagined several months ago. Just five players remain from the Beijing experience, and the Hall of Fame coach knows it's going to be a challenge to develop this team's identity in such a short amount of time, with such a different batch of players. But it's a challenge he is looking forward to.
"The very first thing is we know all the guys," Krzyzewski said on Friday. "They know us. So there's a familiarity. You don't wait two years for something to happen. You keep in touch with them. Not daily or weekly, but I'll call guys during the season or text them and they'll call so you maintain a friendship. Then when they come I try to watch them on TV, which gives you a decent appreciation but then when you see them, you get to see a growth; they all get better. And then you talk to them about that growth. You just try to get to know who they are right now. It's a process. We're not a team yet. Hopefully, by the time we get to London we'll be a team."
With that in mind, let's take a look at how the breakdown of this team might look after the final cuts are made on Saturday to bring the roster to 12.
• Kobe Bryant: The Lakers' star hit some clutch shots for Team USA in the Beijing Games, and he is looking forward to playing the closer role again this time around.
"Let them do all the work, all the heavy lifting," Bryant said. "I'll go out there and do what I can do for this team to be successful in spots, get open shots and knock them down. Down the stretch, if the ball comes to me I'll knock it down. Just kind of do what I did in Beijing, same old thing."
• LeBron James: After winning the regular-season MVP and the NBA Finals MVP this year, it's hard to argue against James being the best player in the world right now. He should be playing with more confidence than ever given his recent success and the fact that this will be his third Olympics.
• Carmelo Anthony: The Knicks' star has been a scoring machine during his time with USA basketball. He struggled to see the floor in Athens and made up for it by being a key cog on some of the World Championship teams and the Beijing squad. He has also spoken highly of the Team USA experience and should be one of the leaders for this group.
• Deron Williams: The Nets' point guard gained valuable experience during the Beijing Games and should play with peace of mind knowing that he just got a max deal to lead his team into Brooklyn this fall.
• Chris Paul: Yes, he left Friday's first practice with a thumb injury, but USA brass didn't seem that concerned. If he checks out OK medically, he will be on the team and should provide it with a stabilizing presence -- a la Jason Kidd in Beijing.
• Kevin Durant: The Thunder sharpshooter dominated the 2010 World Championships in Turkey, proving he could score at will in international competition. He was one of the last cuts for the Beijing team and will surely enjoy being a leader for a team poised to win another gold medal.
• Tyson Chandler: With Dwight Howard out, Chandler is the only true center on this team. As the reigning NBA defensive player of the year, he will be tasked with shoring up the middle for Team USA.
• Russell Westbrook: Given the explosiveness and power with which he plays with, and the fact that he seems to have no fear going to the rim, Westbrook gives Krzyzewski a change of pace whenever he needs one.
• Kevin Love: The Timberwolves' big man is a rebounding machine and can stretch the floor and knock down threes when needed. Both of those skills could be beneficial in the international game for a big man. Love understands that this may be one of his only chances to win a gold medal and he wants to take advantage of it. When asked whether he would rather have a gold medal or an NBA championship, Love seemed to lean towards trying for the prize that goes around his neck, not the trophy that he could hold over his head.
"Wow, it's tough to say because the Olympics, for a guy like Kobe, could probably (play) in it three or four times, and that's Kobe Bryant. For a guy like LeBron, same kind of thing, he's still relatively young, and for a guy like myself especially in today's day and age where we might go to a 23-and-under rule, I only have probably one time to do this. I might only have one time, so an NBA championship could come every year for me, barring injury, barring the team I'm playing on, but I think both are kind of mutually exclusive.
"An NBA champioship really brings bragging rights, but to be able to put on the red, white and blue, USA across your chest, it's a way to feel patriotic whether you're a sports fan or not. I grew up watching the Olympics and I watched the gymnastics and the swimming, and the track and field. It wasn't just the basketball. It's definitely different, but it's equally as great."
• Blake Griffin: The high riser is famous for his dunks, but on this team he will be viewed as an important piece off the bench as long as he rebounds, defends and gets his offense where he can.
The question marks:
• Anthony Davis: The freshly minted No. 1 draft pick would give the Americans another huge boost in the middle, but his ankle injury is limiting him in practice. Krzyzewski said Davis had a hard time running up and down the court Friday and was "probably less than 75 percent."
"I feel badly for him that he hasn't been able to really scrimmage at this point because he came up with the little sprained ankle recently," Team USA chairman Jerry Colangelo said. "But he's such an intriguing player even at this point. And I say that because of his length and his rebounding; we can't make a judgment based on where he is today. We have to look at the future and say, 'Where would he be two weeks from now?' if we really made that kind of a decision and maybe we will and maybe we won't. That's what we're going to deliberate tonight."
• Rudy Gay: The Memphis swingman can score and is very long and athletic, but Team USA already has a guy like that who figures to play major minutes in James.
• Andre Iguodala: Like Gay, Iguodala has the ability to score, but his greater value may come on the defensive end. He must show the Team USA coaches he can contribute when called upon in order to stick.
• James Harden: The Oklahoma City sharpshooter had a terrible time finding his stroke in the NBA Finals, but could really help the Americans from the outside if he can find it. He seemed to be in good spirits Friday, performing in a post-practice shootout with Deron Williams.
• Eric Gordon: Gordon dealt with a knee injury most of last season and actually got poked in the eye during Friday's practice. While he appears to be fine, his status for Team USA all depends on whether the staff feels he is the best perimeter shooter of the remaining bunch.