LAS VEGAS — They lost Dwyane Wade but gained Kevin Durant. Dwight Howard’s size has given way to Russell Westbrook’s speed.
The Americans know their men’s Olympic basketball team will look much different than the one that captured gold four years ago in Beijing. Three of the most important players from that team were unable to return, but the carryovers keep talking about being better now than they were then.
“I think it has the potential to be that if we learn to use our versatility. It’s a more versatile team than 2008. Now does that translate into being better?” coach Mike Krzyzewski said Sunday. “Although we don’t have the center, that team didn’t have Durant or Westbrook. So it’s a different team and we’ll see if it becomes better, but it can be. It could be.”
In some ways, that’s difficult to envision. Wade was the team’s leading scorer, averaging 16 points in just over 18 minutes per game off the bench. Howard started at center and averaged 10.9 points while shooting 74.5 percent from the field. Chris Bosh, also out this summer, backed him up and shot even better, knocking down 24 of 31 shots (77.4 percent) and leading the team with 6.1 rebounds per game.
How can any team make up for all that?
“Well, we have some guys that can pick that up,” LeBron James said. “I mean, D-Wade was our leading scorer, but we didn’t have Kevin Durant on our team. We didn’t have the activity of Tyson Chandler on our team as well and the athleticism at the point guard position.”
Westbrook is an offensive upgrade over Jason Kidd, the point guard not back from ’08, and is seen by teammates as the player who could most easily fill Wade’s role as the game-changer off the bench. As James sees it, Andre Iguodala is more athletic than Tayshaun Prince, and James Harden can do more things offensively than Michael Redd.
Prince and Redd, along with Carlos Boozer, were reserves on the 2008 team but were not retained. Kidd retired from international competition after winning two gold medals.
“If you match us up, we have so many great pieces that guys can just play to their strengths, and I think we can be better,” James said.
Having Durant is a start. The NBA’s three-time scoring champion had the best tournament ever by an American player at the world basketball championship two years ago, scoring 22.8 points per game. But the biggest difference could be James, who was already a great player in 2008 but has grown into the best in the world by now.
Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Deron Williams, the other young players from that team, have made similar leaps toward superstardom, and Kobe Bryant has held steady where he was.
“First of all, you have to look at the guys who are with us from the ’08 team. They were 21, 22 years old back in Beijing. They’re now in the prime of their careers, so they’re a lot bigger, stronger, better basketball players today,” USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said.
“Those players by themselves are much better and I look at the players we’ve added. We have much more depth, much more talent than we had in ’08 when I look at this roster versus that roster, and I’m not looking to make comparisons, but when asked the question, I’ll put this team up against anyone.”
Center remains the biggest question mark. Chandler was the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year and has become more of a weapon offensively in recent years, but he’s still not quite Howard. Kevin Love and Blake Griffin will have to show they can handle the move to center as well as Bosh did.
The Americans averaged 106.2 points in 2008 and smashed their opponents by nearly 30 per game. Nobody was close to them until the gold-medal game, when Spain was within four points with 2½ minutes left before the U.S. pulled away to a 118-107 victory.
Playing at that level again won’t be easy. So no matter what the expectations are now, none of them matter until the games start in three weeks.
“We didn’t do nothing yet,” Anthony said. “So until we go out there and we win the gold medal, then people are going to talk, going to speculate, but we’ll see after we win the gold medal if we determine if we’re a better team than ’08.”