IN A practice gym at UNLV, a dozen of America's richest basketball stars scrimmaged against a team of younger NBA players as intently as if they were back in high school. Guards Russell Westbrook and Andre Iguodala trapped the ball in the backcourt, yelling instructions back and forth while their teammates on the bench—led by LeBron James and Chris Paul—clapped and cheered. The scene was telling: If the U.S. is to defend its gold medal, it will have to defend with intensity. And in a tournament that begins six weeks after the conclusion of a taxing, condensed NBA season, every player, from James, the regular-season and Finals MVP, on down to Iguodala, a defensive specialist, will have to contribute. "They are going to need everyone on that roster," says one NBA team executive, "because this is going to be an exhausted team."
Maybe, but they know what's at stake. Twenty years after the original Dream Team changed global basketball, NBA commissioner David Stern has hinted that the quadrennial All-Star roundup may end after London and give way to a system similar to the one used for Olympic soccer, which has an age limit of 23 (with the exception of three overage players). Mike Krzyzewski, 65, has admitted that these Games will be his last as national team coach. No wonder, then, that the players were treating their first practice as if it were their last.
The sixth edition of the Dream Team has a chance to be the second best. "It's very versatile and much more mature than in '08," says USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo. "We think we're deeper, we think we're better." The squad that will try to defend the 2008 gold has fulfilled the original vision of Colangelo, who took control of the national team in '05 with the aim of maintaining a roster of experienced players all committed to competing in multiple international tournaments. James and Carmelo Anthony are each playing in their third straight Olympics. Power forward Anthony Davis and guard James Harden are the only players on the 12-man roster who haven't earned an Olympic or a world championship gold in the last four years.
But the run-up to London has not been without problems. Injuries and other factors knocked out guards Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade; forwards LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin and Lamar Odom; and centers Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum. With 7'1" Tyson Chandler the only true center on the team, James (6'8"), Anthony (6'8") and Kevin Durant (6'9") will have to join power forwards Kevin Love and Anthony Davis, who joined the team when Griffin was lost with a torn meniscus in his left knee last week, in holding down the paint.
The rest of the world is poised to prey on any vulnerability. "You'd better be focused, you'd better be paying attention to these [opponents], because if you're not you'll get your butts handed to you before you know what happened," says Kobe Bryant. "Look, they are just as competitive as we are, they want to win, they believe that they can win—which is different from '92. We're facing teams that want to take us down and believe they can take us down."
The U.S can expect several serious challenges—and they'll begin right away.
JULY 29--AUG. 6
Playing in the tougher of the two six-team groups, the U.S. opens against France, which has a half-dozen NBA players, including Spurs point guard Tony Parker, Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum and Nando De Colo, a promising 6'5" combo guard who next season will join San Antonio, which drafted him in 2009. "If France were an NBA team," says Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards' VP of basketball administration, "they would be in the playoffs."
The U.S. should be able to coast against Tunisia, Nigeria and Lithuania before concluding group play against nemesis Argentina, led by Spurs swingman Manu Ginóbili, former Rockets forward Luis Scola and Bucks swingman Carlos Delfino. Though the game is highly anticipated, the Argentines have lost coach Rubén Magnano (who took over Brazil) and will be without point guard and floor leader Pepe Sánchez, who, at 35, was left off the roster. And if they're already assured of advancing, the Argentines may rest Ginóbili, keeping him fresh for the knockout stages.
Quarters and semis: