Take heart,Americans: For the first time in six years, the world's most talented playersare actually going to win an international tournament. When the FIBA WorldChampionship opens on Aug. 19 in Japan, the NBA millionaires dressed in U.S.colors will be focused as never before on representing their country. They maynot dominate every opponent, but at least their attitude won't be arrogant andtheir tactics self-defeating. And get this--you may even grow to like them. ¬∂In fact, likability will be the truest test of this team. Even when the U.S.was throttling all comers in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, fans were losinginterest in the Dream Team concept because it had more to do with sponsorshipsand the players' celebrity than with doing the nation proud. The misplacedpriorities led to a sixth-place finish at the 2002 worlds in Indianapolis and abronze medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, which in turn forced USABasketball to spend the last year overhauling its senior men's program. Tobuild cohesion, Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo demanded that hisplayers make a three-year commitment rather than just serve a short tour ofduty. "The biggest change is that [USA Basketball has] hired a staff and agroup of players who will work for a few years instead of a few weeks,"says Ettore Messina, an Italian coach who is seen as a candidate to lead an NBAteam. "No more is the attitude that [the U.S.] can pull together a group ofplayers and with a little preparation win anywhere against anybody."
Another sign ofnewfound humility: The 24 who took Colangelo up on his invitation were evenwilling to accept that they might not make the cut. On July 25, after a week oftraining camp in Las Vegas, coach Mike Krzyzewski sent home Charlotte Bobcatsrookie Adam Morrison, Seattle SuperSonics point guard Luke Ridnour and PhoenixSuns forward Shawn Marion, who has a minor left knee injury. (They'll remain inthe pool for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing along with six other players,including Kobe Bryant, who were excused from attending camp for personalreasons.) Three more must be pared before the U.S.'s tournament opener againstPuerto Rico.
What remains isan American roster that is more promising--because the players are hungrier andbetter balanced--than any since the original Dream Team of '92. None of thefinal 15 choices has ever won a major international title; seven have nevereven made an All-Star team. Marquee players Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James andDwyane Wade were largely afterthoughts in the last Olympics. Role players likeswingmen Shane Battier and Bruce Bowen would never have been considered forprevious Dream Teams, but Colangelo believes that name recognition is lessimportant than having a pair of stoppers to clamp down on Argentina's ManuGinobili or France's Boris Diaw. Even Duke's Krzyzewski has something to prove:Having never led NBA players, he has chosen one hell of a time to dispel thenotion that college coaches can't get through to well-heeled pros.
The lack of adominant center such as Shaquille O'Neal or Tim Duncan may make the road moredifficult--"With Shaq they could have killed everybody," says a topG.M. from a Euroleague team who asked not to be named--but British bookmakerWilliam Hill has still made the U.S. a prohibitive 1--2 favorite to win thetournament (followed by Argentina at 13--2 and Spain at 8--1). Here are fivereasons why the U.S. will wind up on top of the worlds:
More man-to-manMessina applauds Coach K's decision to dispense with the double teams and trapsthat were shredded by Argentina's read-and-react backdoor offense in the lasttwo tournaments. "In Europe and Argentina we are not as good athleticallyas you, but we have much better passers and shooters, and when you double-teamand trap, we are able to swing the ball quickly and find the open man,"says Messina. "But if you are playing one-on-one defense and switching,that means you are forcing us to beat you one-on-one--and we don't have theaggressiveness and quickness to do it."
Sweeter-shootingbig men Gone are bruising bricklayers Antonio Davis and Ben Wallace, whosedefenders enticed them to fire away by sagging into the paint. In their placeare Chris Bosh and Brad Miller, capable shooters who will pull big defendersaway from the basket and create driving lanes for Wade and Gilbert Arenas.
LeBron James'sversatility Messina expressed sympathy for the absence of Marion--"That's abig loss," he said--until he heard that Krzyzewski plans to use smallforward James (as well as Anthony) at the power forward slot. "That's agreat idea," says Messina. "LeBron James is quick and strong, and hecan rebound against any four in Europe or Argentina."
Betterbird-dogging Longtime NBA coach Rudy Tomjanovich heads a team of scouts whohave spent the last two months overseas charting the tendencies of the bestplayers. They will follow Team USA to Japan to continue breaking down theopposition. "The coaching staff used to have to do all of this advance workat three in the morning, and it wore us out," says Tomjanovich, who guidedthe U.S. at the '98 worlds and the 2000 Olympics. "Our opponents have hadan advantage because they know our guys from seeing them in the NBA."Consider that advantage erased.
A team in fullHis predecessors felt the need to find minutes for everybody, but Krzyzewskihas made it clear that some players may not get minutes against certainopponents. He vows that there will be no consistent starting lineup and that noone will be stuck at the end of the bench. "I don't want them thinking thatthey're the 12th man," he says. "I want them thinking that they haveusa on the front [of their jerseys, and therefore] I want to play my buttoff."
Join the debate over who should start for Team USA andget reports on its exhibition games in China and South Korea at SI.com/nba.
Photographs by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
FROM THE ASHES OF ATHENS Coach K will rely on Anthony (above, left), James (with ball) and Wade, who all saw action in '04.