Will U.S. Win Gold in China? Don't Bet On It
by Trevor Whenham - 05/01/2008
It seems hard to believe, but the Olympics are just over three months away. For the most part I don't get too excited by two weeks of water polo, kayaking, and pole vault, and I am dreading all of the protesting and turmoil we will see from Beijing. I'm all in favor of anything I can bet on, though, so men's basketball has captured my imagination. The schedule isn't set yet because the last of the teams have yet to qualify. That means that we can start to look at the first props available on the tournament with at least a reasonable amount of logic. Pinnacle, and other books for that matter, offer a prop on whether the U.S. will win the gold medal in Beijing. It's not a surprise that yes is favored, but the current price might suggest that nationalism is a bit out of control. The team is -316 to win, leaving the rest of the field at +295. That seems a bit extreme, but how do the team's chances look?
To deserve to be as heavily favored as the Americans are, you would think that they would have to be defending champions. Many people might think that they are, but the American players actually have a bronze medal stashed in the back of their underwear drawers. Argentina was the winner, and Italy took home silver. Argentina's win was no fluke, either - led by Manu Ginobli and stacked with NBA players, the Argentines are ranked second in the world. The American slide in international circles wasn't limited to the Olympics, either. They were a ridiculous sixth at the 2002 World Championships, and only improved to a bronze in 2006. That means that the Dream Team is eight years removed from its last gold medal.
The biggest thing the Americans have going for them is their draw. There will be 12 teams in the Olympics. Nine have been chosen already, and the last three will emerge from the Olympic qualifying tournament in July. The teams are split into two groups of six teams, and the top four from each emerge. Neither group is a cakewalk because world basketball keeps getting stronger, but the Americans are unquestionably in the easier group. Three of the top five teams in the world are in Group A, and the Americans are in Group B. Joining them is third-ranked Spain, 11th ranked China, 14th ranked Angola, and two of the three remaining qualifiers. Unless the Americans stumble against Spain it seems very likely that they will be the top team in their pool.
While having the easier pool is great in the preliminary rounds it's not so good when it comes to the elimination rounds. It means that you have to work your way through the best teams to win the gold. It's possible that the Americans would have to beat the Argentinians, Serbians, and Lithuanians in some order to win gold. No easy games there. At the very least they would almost certainly have to beat two of them. Given that, the price seems even more extreme.
The recent past has been pretty bleak, but at least the team has worked hard to do something about it. After the disgrace of 2004 Jerry Colangelo was appointed to head the team, and he put a coaching staff in place headed up by Mike Krzyzewski, with Jim Boeheim, Mike D'Antoni and Nate McMilllan as assistants. Players were asked for a three-year commitment that included the 2006 worlds and the Olympics. Sounds good in theory, but it is hard to know how it is going to work out when it matters. The team wasn't a total success in 2006, and seven of the players came down with mysterious injuries that kept them out of the 2007 FIBA Americas championship. That means that we have no real way of knowing whether this approach is any better than the one that didn't work well in 2002 or 2004. That's another reason to be skeptical about the degree to which the Americans are favored.
A couple of notables like Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan chose not to be on the team, but there is no doubt that the team has more than enough talent to win if they get their act together. The backcourt is just incredible - Kobe Bryant, Chauncey Billups, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Gilbert Arenas, and others. Add in LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard and you have a team that could be just jaw-dropping. Talent has never been the problem, though. The Americans have always been the most talented international team, and it's not even close. The problem is that the players have played the tournament like they are in a one-on-one tournament, and that just doesn't work when the other teams are playing a tight, team-oriented style. This is not the NBA All-Star Game, so an all-star mentality won't get it done. If anyone can get the team to move past that and play together it is Coach K, but he has a big job ahead of him. It's hard to know how he will do on this stage as well - there aren't a lot of scrawny white guys who like to shoot threes on the team, so the coach won't know what to do.
In the end it comes down to this - the Americans deserve to be favored, and there is no reason that they can't win it, but almost 3/1 on the other 11 teams out there looks pretty darned tempting.