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Even with LeBron, Wade, U.S. no sure thing

WashPost: Team USA’s stars are good, but don’t have aura of Jordan, Magic, Bird
SOUTH KOREA WORLD BASKETBALL
Just because the United States has LeBron James and a host of other stars doesn't mean it's a lock to win the title at the World Championships, writes the Washington Post's Michael Wilbon.David Longstreath / AP

We don't want to let the facts get in the way when it comes to how we feel about our basketball. The overwhelming sentiment in this country is that Team USA will breeze to victory in the world championship, which begin Friday in Japan. The old days, if you believe the hype, are back. The oddsmakers have made Coach Mike Krzyzewski's team a big, big favorite. The forecast is for a beatdown, as if this is 1992 in Barcelona.

But it isn't.

Don't get me wrong, the U.S. team is loaded with talented players and it shouldn't surprise anybody if Team USA wins. USA Basketball seems to have made all the smart moves in revamping the way we approach international basketball. Krzyzewski is as smart and as thorough as there is and leaves nothing to chance, not ever. And the players, particularly Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, are clearly the best we have right now, and are just entering their athletic primes.

But they're not Magic, Bird and Jordan. They're not as accomplished professionally; only Wade has won an NBA championship. They're highly skilled but certainly not iconic. And most of all, they begin this tournament without a cloak of invincibility. Remember, the U.S. team finished third at the 1998 World Championship, sixth at the worlds in 2002, then third in the Athens Olympics competition in 2004.

The international players don't come with cameras anymore to have keepsake photos taken with the U.S. players, as was the case in Barcelona 14 years ago at the Olympics. Many of the international players we'll see over the next couple of weeks at the world championship play right alongside the Americans every night in the NBA. Sometimes, they're teammates. They're not afraid.

Manu Ginobili, star of the Argentina team that won the Olympic gold in Athens as well as a starter for the San Antonio Spurs, is quoted as telling FIBA.com: "Basketball has changed and many of us are playing with [the Americans] every single day, so we're getting closer. So, you're not going to see a U.S. team, even though they are very good, beating everyone else by 30 points. That's part of the past."

In the present, close to a dozen teams have big-time, world-class talent (alphabetically): Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Puerto Rico, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovenia and Spain. Argentina, Lithuania and Puerto Rico have already beaten an Olympic team with Wade and LeBron, as well as Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and Shawn Marion, for that matter.

The U.S. team certainly has the biggest stars, and we have always equated that with victory because historically we always won. It's inconceivable to most Americans, even those who follow international basketball closely, that the most individually talented team won't win the competition.

Slovenia has four NBA players, many of whom play a whole lot better in their national team jerseys than they do as bench warmers in the NBA. Slovenia's Rasho Nesterovic comes to mind, in fact, as does Puerto Rico's Carlos Arroyo.

You never really think of France being a threat in international basketball, but look at who they've got in this competition: Tony Parker and Mickael Pietrus in the back court, Boris Diaw, Ronny Turiaf and former Knicks draft pick Frédéric Weis in the front court. Even with Parker a little banged up, France is one shooter away from being particularly difficult to beat, though it could struggle through a Group A that includes Argentina and Serbia and Montenegro.

Spain, playing in Group B, probably has the easiest road, having to go through only one tough team — Dirk Nowitzki and Germany — in the preliminary round. Pau Gasol was probably the best player in Athens two years ago, and he's joined by a shooter named Juan Carlos Navarro whom the Wizards thought enough of to make a second-round pick in 2002. Gasol has all kinds of NBA-level help, including Jorge Garbajosa, José Calderon and Sergio Rodríguez. The Spaniards are convinced they can win.

The U.S. is in a pretty tough Group D, what with Puerto Rico, the aforementioned Slovenia and Italy. But Italy would be a whole lot more formidable if No. 1 draft pick Andrea Bargnani was part of the team, but he isn't because the Italian basketball federation decided the kid would be better off preparing for his NBA debut.

And Argentina, led by Ginobili and Andrés Nocioni of the Chicago Bulls, comes to this tournament with 10 players from the 2004 Athens gold medal team. The question about Argentina, after blowout losses to Spain and Serbia and Montenegro, is whether it is interested enough in playing anybody but the United States.

The United States will romp against teams like Senegal, but not the top teams. Gasol told FIBA.com that the U.S. team is "going to be one of the top favorites. They're going to be tough, but my team is not scared of anybody and we're going to play the same way against whoever we meet, whether it's the United States or Argentina."

That's what it's come to for U.S. basketball, and deservedly so . . . being lumped in a group with Argentina.

Of course, everything Jerry Colangelo and Krzyzewski have done in recent months is designed to stop the recent slide of U.S. teams in international play. And Coach K believes he has the players to pressure defensively, run on offense and shoot well enough in half-court games against international zones, which have in recent competitions really bothered shooting-challenged American teams. "For some reason," Coach K said recently, "the world thinks it's cast a spell on American basketball by saying Americans can't play against a zone. I guess we'll see."

The U.S. players say the attitude of the team is completely different heading into the worlds than it was heading into Athens. Three young Americans — Wade, LeBron and Carmelo Anthony — are the captains of a team that, when it begins play this weekend, will be favored to win the tournament but might find it far more challenging to do than spoiled folks back home are willing to believe.