The first half of the Battle of Beijing is now over. (Getting to the Gold Medal Game)
The second half of that battle will probably be as awkward as the quarterfinal game against Australia. (The looming rematch with Spain.)
Once that game is over--regardless of who wins--then what?
For all the talk about the importance of the short-term mission tasked to this iteration of Team USA, the larger takeaway may be the strategic groundwork that has been laid to re-envision the way our national men's basketball program is run.
(There's also no shortage of talk about Jerry Colangelo's leadership, but humor me here as I break out the crystal ball.)
Assuming that the new permanent rule is to require a multi-year commitment from a pool of 25 or so players who will be eligible to compete for a spot on the national team, what might we be looking at come 2010? Or 2012? Or 2016?
Well, we can expect that at least 4 and as many as 8 (more?) of the guys ballin' in Beijing will suit up in the red, white and blue in London. Certainly for the next World Championships in Turkey.
It's hard to project whom that would be, but you have to assume that Jason Kidd won't be one of them. And you have to hope--or pray--that LeBron James will be.
(Sacrifice 40 goats if you have to, just do whatever is necessary to make sure LeBron plays. And let's pencil in Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, too.)
The key thing is the pool of players who would even be invited. Right now, the bulk of those players would presumably be younger than 30. And, each would have either proven to be capable as an NBA starter or be widely thought to be a franchise-calibre player.
If we throw the names of most of this year's roster into that pool (excluding Jason Kidd), we would probably add the following guys to the short list of possible, future Team USA team members:
(Actually, that's not a very short list at all. It safely covers, like 70% of the best US-born NBA players under 30. Naturally, it omits people like Chauncey Billups and Elton Brand who might also be part of the pool. But those guys are the very, very, very-near future. At best. And that's it.)
I don't know about you, but when I think about those players--and consider them alongside the current Team USA--what jumps out to me is that all of the possible combinations of US-born NBA players moving forward look pretty much the same.
Lots of stupidly freakish athleticism. Most guys somewhere between 6'6" and 6'9". Very few with etched in stone positions on the court. And, most importantly, not much in the way of classic pass-cut-shoot basketball that every other country on Earth seems to play.
(It's almost as if all the best American players learned their games on the streets of Chicago. Too much wind to worry about shooting any Js. So just get out and run and try to jump over the other guy.)
All of this to say that the style of basketball we have watched in the 2008 Olympics (the swarming perimeter defense and the offensive acrobatics) is what we're going to get plenty of during the next 10-12 years. At least. And unless some major revolution takes place in the way teenage basketball talent is developed, (Stephon Curry, please save us!) it's entirely possible that US basketball has forever committed itself to that style. (Forever = until David Stern retires.)
Frankly, as we've seen in these games, that's not entirely a bad thing. Our guys can still perform some amazing basketball feats. And the generations coming up after them will presumably be capable of more of the same. And, clearly, the best American ballplayers can generally still kick the crap out the best players any other country can throw together.
We just need to be sure that we stick to what we're good at. And hope that amazing will always be enough to bring home the gold.
Rather, that controlled acts of the amazing will be enough. 'Cause amazing by itself didn't do too well in '02. Or '04. Or '06.
Which means that the coach (whether his name is Krzyzweski, Popovich, D'Antoni, McMillan, Howland or Izzo) is just as important a choice as the players.
The common thread when forecasting the future players and the coaches of Team USA, I s'pose, is that the fundamental challenge facing USA Basketball is to overcome our own predilections for vanity. Which is basically the thing that caused the semi-final game against Argentina to be so close.
'Cause we really are bigger, stronger and faster. (Mostly 'cause we have LeBron and Superman.) What ails us--if anything does--is a queasy gut. It's just too easy to marvel at our own natural brilliance and neglect the little bits of willful effort that yield great champions.
Maybe that's why some people in some countries hate America. Or, maybe it's just basketball and I'm one member of the sad, but likable mass of hoop fans who cares a little bit too much.
Either way, we have met the future. And it is us. As we are now. And will be.