Now that the Boston Celtics are once again NBA champions, American basketball's next great championship hope falls to the men's Olympic team.
"They need it worse than the Celtics needed a championship this year," Paul Pierce said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press. "The U.S. has been a perennial basketball power and they just need to establish that once again. I think this is the team to do it."
The 30-year-old forward, who won the NBA finals MVP after leading the Celtics to their first championship in 22 years, believes the Americans go into next month's Beijing Games having learned from recent failures.
U.S. basketball changed the selection process and emphasized team building rather than individual skills since going without gold at a major championship since the 2000 Sydney Games.
"We'll see if it works out. I think it's been a great thing so far, but hopefully it carries over to the Olympics," said Pierce, who declined to follow Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and commit to the team three years ago to make the Beijing roster. "It would have been great to be a part of it, especially if they were to win gold. But that wasn't a dream of mine."
Instead, he'll spend the time with his family while preparing for the new season.
"I'll have fun sitting back and watching it," he said.
Pierce knows about the demands on the men's team following his experience at the 2002 world championship, when the U.S. team "woke up" to the talent that lies beyond North America's borders.
"It was only a matter of time that somebody would beat us. It was the worst feeling ever," Pierce said of the embarrassing sixth-place finish in Indianapolis that snapped a 58-game international winning streak. "(Now) Americans can't be surprised. We haven't won (anything)."
The key in Beijing will be to take advantage of the team's athleticism and speed.
"They put together a team of guys who can shoot, so they definitely have the advantage night-in and night-out, it's just how well they play together as a team," he said before brushing off claims that the United States hasn't learned to favor team play over the individual. "That's something they've started to learn now."
And one individual stands out more than the others for the tournament: 35-year-old point guard Jason Kidd.
"He's able to push the tempo," Pierce said. "He's the only guy on that team that hasn't lost a game in international Olympic play. His experience in the Olympics is really going to help."
Pierce is expecting world champion Spain, European champion Russia and a Dirk Nowitzki-led Germany to give the United States the toughest challenge and fans one of the best Olympics "in a long time." The team has to stay focused and not let all of the hype — good or bad — surrounding these games creep in.
"I probably would be a little hesitant (about going to China) knowing what's going on in the country," said Pierce, singling out recent worldwide protests. "Maybe in the back of their minds they'll be thinking about it, but once they get out there and start playing that'll go out the window."
Pierce, who is in the Spanish capital to lend his MVP skills to about 200 kids at a basketball camp, will see some sights and hopefully catch a bullfight before returning to California to get back into shape after helping Boston to a 4-2 NBA Finals win over the Lakers.
"The last month and a half I've been able to enjoy and now it's time to get back to business," Pierce said. "It means so much to me because it took so long to get to this point."
The 10-year NBA veteran hopes for a repeat final against the Lakers and, beyond that, may take the chance to familiarize himself with teams in Spain for his post-NBA days. He already toured the football stadium at Real Madrid, which also has a successful basketball club.
"I don't know the teams," Pierce said. "(But) I thought about playing, once I'm done with the Celtics, overseas and maybe this could be a great place."