BILBAO, Spain – The bad news just kept coming, the only difference whether the culprit was injury or interest.
Some stars couldn’t play. Others wouldn’t. Then the losses really started piling up for the U.S. national basketball team.
Kevin Love pulled out while awaiting his recently completed trade to Cleveland. Paul George broke his right leg in a horrific collision that shook up teammates, and perhaps the future of international basketball. Finally, Kevin Durant, the Americans’ best player and the NBA’s MVP, changed his mind about taking part in the FIBA Basketball World Cup.
The U.S. team that remains is good enough to win, but vulnerable enough to lose – perhaps to the Spain squad that was so close against much more powerful Americans in the last two Olympics, and could get a third shot on its home court.
“We still have a goal, and that’s to win gold, and we can’t [say], ‘Oh, Kevin dropped out, Paul got hurt, so this is going to be tough for us,’” U.S. center Anthony Davis said. “We hear everybody saying that. We’re trying to prove that wrong.”
The former world basketball championship begins Saturday at four sites throughout Spain and the Canary Islands. The Americans start a fairly benign group here in Basque Country against Finland, with Spain facing the most powerful pool in Granada, joined by European champion France, Brazil, and Serbia.
Eight teams will advance to Barcelona, and the other eight to Madrid for the knockout rounds. The gold-medal game is Sept. 14 in Madrid, the only time the U.S. and Spain could meet.
The Americans held off the Spanish in Olympic thrillers in 2008 and 2012, fueled by LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony. It would now be up to a much younger U.S. squad – its youngest featuring professionals – led by Davis, Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving.
And if they win, USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said it would be even sweeter than the Olympic victories.
“When you have expectations based on what you think you had, and you get dealt those blows and you recover and you’re able to still get the job done, it’s sweet,” Colangelo said. “That’s why I said what I did.”
Other contenders are also short-handed.
Tony Parker is taking the summer off instead of playing for France, and Spurs teammate Manu Ginobili can’t suit up for Argentina because of a lingering leg injury. Lithuania starting point guard Mantas Kalnietas was lost to a shoulder injury Tuesday.
That could leave Spain as the team arriving in the best shape, a skilled and veteran unit featuring Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka up front, with guards Jose Calderon, Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez, and Juan Carlos Navarro.
The Americans were beaten by Greece in the semifinals of the ’06 worlds, but haven’t lost since, running off 54 straight victories.
“It’s a very special opportunity to try and achieve something big, which is nothing other than to be world champions again,” Pau Gasol told FIBA.com recently. “It would be incredible to achieve this at home, but in order to do that, we need to follow a lot of steps, compete at the highest level, give everything, and enjoy every moment.”
The U.S. is the only team deep enough to withstand the kind of player losses they’ve faced and still be considered by many the team to beat.
“They have a great team, and I think they are the favorite in this world championship,” Slovenia’s Edo Muric said after the Americans’ 101-71 exhibition victory in the Canary Islands on Tuesday.
But they are young, with an average age of just 24.08 years, about a half-year younger than the 2010 championship team that featured holdovers Curry, Rose, and Rudy Gay. That might seem old in the future if NBA owners, in the wake of George’s injury, push to re-examine the policy of allowing veteran players to compete internationally.
For now, youth is another obstacle the Americans face as they try to repeat as world champions for the first time.
“I feel old. I’m like the third-oldest guy on the team compared to back then,” the 26-year-old Curry said. “We were all 21- and 22-year-olds, couple of vets, so we’re all at different parts of our career right now. More experienced, and having that experience in Turkey to rely on for myself, D-Rose ... and Rudy, hopefully can lead this team where we want to go.
“We definitely have high expectations for what we’re trying to do.”