SAITAMA, Japan -- When the U.S. basketball team was
assembled this year, it embarked on a three-year march to the 2008
Beijing Olympics. Now the road to China must go through South
The Americans won the bronze medal at the FIBA World Championship on Saturday night with a 96-81 victory over Argentina. That will be
their last game until next summer when they will try to earn an
Olympic berth in the FIBA Americas tournament in Venezuela. A gold
medal in the worlds would have punched their Olympic ticket.
"We obviously wanted to get the automatic bid, but we didn't," guard Kirk Hinrich said. "Maybe it'll be good for us. Maybe we
need more time to gel as a team and we'll have more time to play."
The U.S. has a wealth of talent and coaching acumen. But that
combination isn't enough against superior teams groomed for the
international game. The U.S. has failed to reach the final in each
of its last three major international competitions.
As the Americans accepted their bronze medals Saturday night,
many gave military salutes to the Saitama Super Arena crowd of
16,700. But they knew a strong effort against Argentina had come
one day too late.
"Winning the bronze, it's not good," center Dwight Howard
said. "But we can't just look over it. We had to forget about what
happened the other day against Greece and just come out and put our
best effort forward in this game."
Immediately after the Americans' semifinal loss to Greece,
players began fielding questions about whether the U.S. would have
lost with Kobe Bryant, who missed this tournament after having
minor knee surgery.
The U.S. players weren't biting on that one.
"I'm not a hypothetical person," forward Chris Bosh said.
Bryant is expected to be available next summer. On the court,
there's little doubt Bryant would help the U.S. But his presence
could alter the chemistry of a team whose leadership was assumed by
young captains Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.
"We don't know what's going to happen next summer when other
guys come up on the team, if we're still going to be captains or
not," James said. "But I think we did a great job of trying to
get our team mentally focused to play."
On Saturday, coach Mike Krzyzewski started all three captains
together for the first time in Japan, along with Howard and Kirk
Hinrich. They responded by leading the team in scoring, Wade with
32 points, James with 22 and Anthony with 15.
The new lineup may hint at changes for next summer, including
James moving to point guard. He played the position for much of the
Argentina game, battling former Temple star Pepe Sanchez, an elite
James finished with seven assists and three turnovers in 30
"That's something me and coach talked about this morning at
breakfast time," James said. "Hopefully, we could have thought
about it earlier, but it was a great adjustment by coach."
James finished the tournament with 37 assists, second to Chris Paul (44). James said he would be open to more time at the point as
the U.S. moves toward Beijing.
"I think my athleticism and my length can disrupt some of the
point guards' offense," James said. "In FIBA basketball, the
offense on the opposing team is run very crisp, and if you could
just try to knock it off a little bit, it can help us."
Moving James to the point might not be the only change. Had the
U.S. won the worlds, there would be few calls for a roster
shake-up. But there figure to be some new faces after a third-place
USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo asked players
for a three-year commitment in an effort to develop a national
program, as opposed to the previous practice of assembling an
all-star team for each competition.
"These players have put in a lot of time and effort and they've
built equity in terms of being part of this team going forward,"
Colangelo said. "No question about that. But we also have some
players who were on the national team who were not with us. But
we're not throwing the baby out with the bathwater because we love
all our guys."
Other players who could be part of the mix include Phoenix's Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire, Washington's Gilbert Arenas,
Boston's Paul Pierce, Detroit's Chauncey Billups, Milwaukee's
Michael Redd and the Los Angeles Lakers' Lamar Odom.
"I think as long as those guys come in and we're all looking
forward to working with one another and everybody competes for the
12 spots, we'll continue to build," Bosh said. "Everybody has to
have a team mind going into next summer."
The U.S. may need to add a shooter. The team shot 37 percent
from 3-point range. That's not great, although it was 2 percentage
points better than the field's average.
But offense wasn't the problem for the Americans, whose
103.5-point average led the tournament by far. The problem was
inconsistent defense, as Greece showed when it shot 63 percent in
If the U.S. can shore up its defense, it bodes well for Beijing.
But first the Americans have to take care of business in Venezuela.
"This is the start of a process," Krzyzewski said. "We knew
when we started that we were taking a journey, not a short trip."
For the U.S., the worlds turned out to be one day
shorter than expected. The team was originally scheduled to fly
home Monday, the morning after the final.
The revised itinerary called for the Americans to be in the air Sunday -- long before Greece and Spain tipped off in the gold-medal