Ever since the original Dream Team took to the court in Barcelona in 1992, the United States men’s basketball team has been synonymous with excellence and dominance.
That’s if you look only at the overall record. A decade ago, the Americans had lost their traditional spot atop the medal stand and the rest of the world seemed to be catching up. It seemed like the end of an era.
Then, coach Mike Krzyzewski came along.
Since Coach K took over in the wake of a disappointing bronze-medal finish at the 2004 Athens Olympics, the Americans have posted a remarkable 75-1 record.
Seventy-five and one. A win percentage of .987. They haven’t lost since the 2006 World Championships.
And it doesn’t look like they’re going to lose again any time soon.
This year’s team is rolling through its exhibition games ahead of the upcoming Rio Olympics. It certainly doesn’t help that the squad has three members of the best regular-season team in NBA history, the Golden State Warriors, in Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. Subtract Barnes and add the newest Warrior, Kevin Durant, to that roster, and you’d have a team capable of beating just about anybody just with those three. (I think you’ll agree if you read this column again sometime next June.)
But to quote every late-night infomercial ever: “wait, there’s more.” Centers DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins may be overshadowed on this squad despite being two of the best players in the NBA at their position. Carmelo Anthony provides a veteran presence and he’s still capable of scoring in bunches. Paul George is a force at both ends of the floor. Jimmy Butler is an up-and-coming star. Everybody saw what Kyrie Irving can do during this year’s NBA Finals, and DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry very nearly got the Toronto Raptors to the finals over Irving’s Cavaliers.
Most other squads in this Olympic tournament wish they could have just two or three players of that caliber. The Americans’ bench players are at least as good — if not better — than most countries’ starters.
But you can’t just build an all-star team and expect it to dominate like it would in a video game. Look at the 2004 bronze-medal squad, for instance. A young Anthony was joined by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, as well as Hall-of-Famer Allen Iverson and future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan. That squad lost its opening game to a Puerto Rico squad that had just two NBA players — Carlos Arroyo and Daniel Santiago.
Chemistry is always a concern. Players accustomed to being the focal point of their NBA team’s offense suddenly have to take a supporting role.
That’s where a great coach comes in, and whether it has been with the national team or at Duke, Krzyzewski has proven to be a master. This will be his final Olympics before he hands the reins to another coaching legend in San Antonio Spurs boss Gregg Popovich, but his impact on American basketball has been immeasurable.
A gold medal is the perfect way to send the legendary Coach K into the sunset. It would be the crowning achievement for a player like Anthony, whose career is starting to wind down. It’s an opportunity for Cousins, Irving and George to make their mark as the leaders of the next generation of American basketball.
It feels equal parts victory lap and the dawn of a new era.
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. He remembers being shocked at the sight of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird on the same team as an 8 year old watching the 1992 Olympics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.