By Bill Simmons
Last Saturday was just another gorgeous day in Southern California, one of those afternoons when you feel guilty if you aren't doing something -- heading to the beach, taking a hike, playing some hoops, lounging by the pool, whatever. Of course, I stayed indoors for my first glimpse of our Olympic hoops team. I needed to know: Is there any reason to be excited about this team? Would LeBron thrive with quality teammates? Would Duncan try to sneak out like DC Dacey in "Fast Break" when he realized that Kidd, KG and T-Mac weren't playing? Would these guys provide my much-needed basketball fix over the summer, or would I have to rely on re-runs of 20-year-old games on ESPN Classic again?
It will be interesting to see how LeBron James handles the Olympic experience.
Well, they won by 25. Crushed Puerto Rico. Dismantled them. A few hours after the game, my buddy House called for a scouting report. Again, we won by 25. The outcome was never in doubt, especially once you saw Jose Ortiz's slicked-back 'do, which made him look like he should be singing at 3 a.m. in a Univision telethon.
"So what happened?" House asked.
"We can't win," I told him. I felt like I was standing atop a stairwell screaming at Rocky Balboa.
"Wait, I thought we killed 'em?"
"We did. We can't win. We're not going to medal."
And so I told him what I watched. How we didn't learn the lessons from the World Championship Debacle two years ago. How we basically threw together another All-Star Team. How we ignored the three essentials for any successful international team ...
1. A pure point guard who can penetrate, create shots for teammates, make open threes and make good decisions in the open floor.
2. At least two pure shooters, ideally three.
3. Big guys who can bang down low, set picks, shoot threes and run the floor.... and trotted out 12 recognizable names, just so we could sell some jerseys and T-shirts.
"Jesus," House said. "How come we know these things and the guys who run USA Basketball have no idea?"
"I don't know."
"This isn't the Dream Team, it's the Nightmare Team."
Believe me, I'm not jumping on the Blame Bandwagon because we lost by 20 to a bunch of Italians. That game was somewhat of a fluke -- between the seven travelling calls, all the moving picks by Italy and their unconscious three-point shooting (including one that actually BANKED IN from the top of the key), it was one of those freak games. It happens. Still, on Saturday at 1:15 p.m. Pacific Coast Time, I knew this column was coming. Hell, I wrote it two years ago. Read the one from back then. You can even chuckle at my shameless pimping for two Celtics in the starting five.
Maybe you don't care. And I don't really blame you. I can only explain why this matters to me so much. I love basketball. It's my favorite sport, one of the few things in life that completely makes sense to me. In basketball, a team of not-so-talented guys can beat a team of talented guys just by playing well together. Doesn't matter whether you're playing in the Olympics, the NBA, college, high school or some court in a park. Just watch a game from the '77 Finals some time -- Portland beating Philly with half the talent. That's the essence of the game, how a collection of diverse talents mesh into a cohesive unit. Why were the '86 Celtics my favorite team of all-time? They didn't just have five future Hall of Famers ... they played well together. And you can't ask for anything more than that.
* * * * *
So this isn't even about the Olympics, or the fact that we're about to get our asses kicked again. This is about a fundamental difference of opinion between two sides:
Side A: Me, House and every other true basketball fan.
Side B: David Stern, Russ Granik, Stu Jackson and every other person who picked the roster for our sixth-place Olympic team this summer.
Tim Duncan and his teammates weren't too pleased with their performance against Italy.
Side A sees the Summer Olympics as a blank canvas. We see a chance to build a superior basketball team from scratch -- not an All-Star team, a basketball team. Choosing from 300 of the greatest players in the world, we would want one dominant big man; one quality point guard; one great scorer immediately designated for Alpha Dog Status, two other good shooters, two other rebounders, one athletic swingman who can defend the other player's best shooter, a backup point guard, two energy guys, and a 12th man who will hustle in practice and just be happy to be on the team. If we pick the right guys, we know we're winning the tournament and possibly ending up on ESPN Classic. It's just a fact.
Side B sees the Summer Olympics as a vehicle to market the players. They want to sell jerseys and T-shirts. They want to promote current superstars (like Duncan and Iverson) and introduce the world to the next generation of younger studs. They don't care if the team is fun to watch, or if they play well together. Deep down, they're praying that the BMW ('Bron, 'Melo and Wade) makes a big splash. And if things go wrong, Side B has a built-in excuse -- they can just blame all the stars who refused to play (KG, Kidd, T-Mac, K-Mart, the O'Neals, Allen, even Bibby).
And that raises the question: Who would you rather have picking this team? Side A or Side B? Yeah, I thought so. You went with Side A. Of course you did. Because if House and I were in charge ...
1. We would play Michael Redd more.
Best dead-eye shooter in the league. Can't miss from 22 feet. Needs about 0.00004 seconds to square up. If he was playing for any other country -- Argentina, Italy, Croatia, you name it -- they would revolve their offenses around him. And yet Team USA isn't using Redd at all.
You know why?
BECAUSE HE'S NOT ON THE EFFING TEAM!!!!!!!!!!!!
For months and months, I assumed he was one of the guys who rejected Team USA because of the whole "I'm afraid of spending two weeks in Athens for security reasons, yet I'm perfectly fine going to clubs frequented by gangbangers and drug dealers" logic that makes the NBA so oddly enjoyable. Nope. They never asked him. Instead, they doubled up at the "3" with Richard Jefferson and Shawn Marion, two guys who give you similar things. They're both great athletes, good open-court players, solid defenders and above-average outside shooters. I like both of them. You only need one. If anything, you're putting them in a situation where they're competing against one another, almost like hiring Keanu Reeves and Paul Walker for the same movie. And if that's not bad enough, 'Melo and 'Bron can both play the "3."
To recap: With the shorter three-point line and the collapsing zone, international rules are specifically designed to benefit small forwards who can reliably drain 20-footers. Other than maybe Carmelo -- and that's a huge "maybe" -- none of our four guys qualifies. And we had over 300 players to pick from. Perfectly logical.
2. You would never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER see someone like Stephon Marbury on our team.
Lemme see ...
With international rules, I need a point guard who can create shots for his teammates ... someone who always makes the right decision in the open floor ... someone who consistently makes 20-footers ... someone who doesn't suck defensively ... someone who isn't careless with the ball ... someone who's a proven leader ... someone with a history of raising his game when it matters.
For God's sake, how does Marbury even enter the discussion here? Didn't anyone on the selection committee watch him play for the past eight years? Didn't they learn their lesson from the Baron Davis Disaster two years ago? You need a certain type of point guard for international basketball -- he's the exact opposite in EVERY POSSIBLE WAY!!!!!! Could someone send a memo to Stephon and tell him that the pilot turned off the "Please entertain the fans" sign? We don't need to see alley-oops and pseudo no-looks when you're actually looking. Just lead the team and help us win. Somebody should force him to watch 500 hours of game tapes from the '80's (Stockton, Price, Cheeks, Tiny and everyone else) before the tournament starts. Maybe he'd learn something.
(NOTE: I KEEP USING CAPS AND EXCLAMATION POINTS BECAUSE WE'RE ON OUR SECOND STRAIGHT WEEK OF STEPHEN A. SMITH HOSTING "PARDON THE INTERRUPTION." I'M JUST TRYING TO GET MY POINT ACROSS HERE! THE ONLY REASON STEPHON MARBURY IS ON THIS TEAM IS BECAUSE HE'S THE BEST PLAYER ON THE KNICKS, THE MARQUEE FRANCHISE OF THE NBA!!! THAT'S IT!!! THERE IS NO OTHER REASON!!!!! MAYBE HE'S AN ALL-STAR IN THE NBA, BUT FOR INTERNATIONAL PURPOSES, HE'S A BORDERLINE TRAIN WRECK!!!!!)
Larry Brown has his hands full with this All-Star squad.
What point guards would work in his place? Kidd would have been the best; and honestly, Congress should have passed legislation and forced Kidd to play for his country, just because. But he's injured, so it's a moot point. Steve Nash would have been perfect, but he's Canadian. Mike Bibby would have been fine, but he turned us down either because he was afraid of the security in Athens, or because the Maloof Brothers asked him to judge a Wet T-shirt contest at the Palms on Aug. 22. Steve Francis would have been a bigger train wreck than Marbury. As much as I like Chauncey Billups, I'm not sure he's the right fit with the international rules.
So you need to get creative. Screw it. Dwyane Wade should be playing point, anyway -- he's one of the best three players on the team. Iverson could back him up. And as my third guy, I'm going with Kirk Hinrich -- superb defensive player, deadly shooter, probably the most underrated rookie in the league last year, and he wouldn't care if he played five-to-10 minutes a game.
3. We would play Brad Miller more.
Certified banger. Comfortable playing at the top of the key. Nice range from 15 feet. Genuinely underrated passer. Sets the best moving picks in the league. Not afraid to whistle an elbow against someone's temple. Every European and South American team has someone like him, and Miller has more talent than any of those guys. He's also played on consecutive 50-win teams, which should count for something.
Oh, wait a second ... we didn't ask him, either.
(I mean, you see why I'm going crazy, right? Just tell me you understand. Please. I'm begging you. Just nod. Nod at the computer screen right now. Give me a sign. Anything.)
4. We would play Rip Hamilton more.
He's only the best scorer on a team that just won the NBA championship. You can run him off picks, he's tireless, never takes bad shots, never goes beyond his means. He gets better when it matters. He's been a winner at every level. And he's a good guy.
By the way? He's not on the team. He turned down an invitation.
(I will now peel the skin off my body.)
5. We would look for underrated players who contributed to winning teams.
In other words, Tayshaun Prince would be on my team. He's the best defensive swingman in the league. So he's in.
Now here's where it gets really interesting ...
I'm the President of the Carmelo Fan Club. The Pistons should have taken him over Darko. I will always believe that. With that said, for this particular team, you can't have Carmelo and LeBron. You just can't. I want to win. I want guys who have proven themselves in big spots. You can't ask kids to adjust to international rules and 11 new teammates in the matter of three weeks; the fact that someone as good as LeBron looked so lost in the Italy game should tell you something. I also think it's dangerous to have two natural rivals competing for minutes on the same team -- I want my guys pulling for one another, not angling to be better than one another.
Anyway, I'm bumping Carmelo and keeping LeBron, for two reasons: A.) LeBron plays more positions; and B.) Even though Carmelo looked much better in the first two games, LeBron is too gifted a passer to be left out. We need him. Assuming his head is screwed on right. And I'm beginning to wonder after last Saturday.
Dwyane Wade's play will be critical to the USA team's success.
(By the way, I just cut Carmelo from my team to keep Tayshaun Prince. You read that correctly. In the history of flip-flops by a sports columnist, this might be the greatest one yet. Remember, I'm a complete idiot. Don't forget this. Not for a second.)
6. We would have two energy guys. Possibly three.
There's an inherent flaw in the "Let's just pick an All-Star Team" logic. In '92, it worked because Larry was crippled; Laettner was happy to be there; Magic was happy to be alive; Pippen, Mullin and Stockton didn't care about points; and everyone else rightfully deferred to MJ and Chuck. Now that's a team. (You also had a number of guys who thrived on playing team basketball, but that's a whole other story.) The '96 and '00 teams seemed chronically unhappy to me, like everyone was trying to be a good soldier, but deep down, everyone wanted to play more.
So let's turn a negative into a positive. I don't want guys sitting on my bench wondering why they're not playing, ticked off because they can't get in a rhythm. I want guys who know what it's like to come off the bench, who know how to affect a game by diving for loose balls, tipping offensive rebounds and banging home momentum-turning threes. Those are the players that get everyone else going. That's why I need Brian Cardinal and Shane Battier on my team. And if you don't understand why ... I don't know what to tell you.
* * * * *
Without further ado, here's how my 2004 team would look. Obviously KG, K-Mart and Kidd would be involved if they were available. But they're not. Anyway ...
Duncan: Not only the best player on the team, he also unveiled a phenomenal "Shaved head, extended fu manchu" this summer for some extra ooomph. Gives him that little extra edge. It's like he bought a Dennis Haysbert starter kit on eBay. Sadly, international rules (those collapsing zones) neutralize him a little bit -- he's reduced to rebounding, blocking shots and getting garbage points. And just for the record, he mailed in that Italy game so egregiously, Michael Olowokandi sent him a congratulatory telegram after the game. If you're afraid to get hurt, stay home.
Odom: Perfect game for this format. Not happy with the fact that he's starting, though -- ideally, he'd be coming off the bench. And if you were wondering if I'm terrified that he's playing in Germany right now, just a stone's throw away from Amsterdam ... I mean, you know me too well.
Redd: (Shaking my head right now.)
Hamilton: Here's why it's short-sighted to name your entire Olympic Team months before the actual Olympics: If somebody breaks out in the playoffs, you can't add him to the team. That's like if US Weekly decided their next 25 covers ahead of time last March, then couldn't adjust when Lindsay Lohan and her breasts had their breakout spring.
He turned down a spot? I'm betting he'd play if he knew he was starting.
Wade: With Kidd possibly on the other side of the mountain and no quality American point guards under the age of 25, you're looking at the key guard for any USA Hoops team for the rest of the decade. There. I said it.
Brad Miller: For the reasons mentioned above.
Prince: Put it this way: You wouldn't see Italian guys getting wide-open looks for 40 straight minutes with Tayshaun around.
(Which reminds me: If we really wanted to win the gold, why wouldn't we just send our defending NBA champions? Imagine the 2004 Pistons headed to Athens in 10 days, completely intact with their coach, only with Duncan sliding into Mehmet Okur's spot and Corey Haim filling the role of Darko? Would anyone be against this? Seriously, anyone?)
The USA squad could use a hustle player like Brian Cardinal.
Iverson: I can't believe I'm saying this about someone who once averaged 30 points a game, but we need his defense.
LeBron: Plays four positions, fits in anywhere ... and, man, did he look dreadful in the Italy game. He even legitimately dogged it on one play (casually jogging back on D while the entire Italian team beat him down the floor for a layup). You could make the argument that nobody has more at stake this month than LeBron, since he's supposed to be the Evolutionary Magic and all. Don't be surprised if you're down on him four weeks from now. And by the way, if you don't think a 19-year-old Magic Johnson would have started for the 1980 Olympic Team, you're insane.
(Just for the hell of it: Kareem at center; Doc and Bird at forwards; Magic and Gervin at guards; Moses, Gus Williams, Bobby Jones, Jamaal Wilkes as the bench guys; ML Carr and Mo Cheeks as my energy guys; and Dave Cowens as the retiring veteran. That's my "Double What-If Team" -- what if we hadn't boycotted the '80 Olympics, and what if pros were allowed to play. By the way, I spent about 45 minutes looking this up. Just humor me.)
Amare Stoudemire: Insurance. Best athlete available at the "4."
(By the way, as soon as this column is over, I'm spending the next two hours figuring out which Dream Team would have been the best one -- '84, '88 or '92. That has all the makings of a future column. I can't be the only one who cares about this stuff, right? Um ... right?)
Cardinal: You bring him in when you need an energy boost -- namely, when you're flat, when you're getting out-hustled and you need someone to make a three and run back up the court screaming and pumping his arms.
Battier: Same with this guy. Although you could easily slide Hinrich or Fred Hoiberg into this spot as the "Steve Kerr Memorial 12th Man." In fact ... screw it. We don't need another swingman. Battier out ... Hoiberg in.
To recap: Duncan, Odom, Redd, Hamilton, Wade (starters); Iverson, Prince, Miller, LeBron, Stoudemire (bench guys); Cardinal, Hoiberg (energy guys).
Now that's a team. Repeat: Team. There's a difference. Some day, we might even figure this out.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.