LeBron James. Dwyane Wade. Allen Iverson. Tim Duncan. Carmelo Anthony. Amar’e Stoudemire.
These were some of the headliners of the 2004 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team, which featured Gregg Popovich as one of its assistant coaches. Though green — James, Anthony, Wade, Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, and Emeka Okafor were all under the age of 23 at the time — the U.S. team was favored to win gold. Instead, they lost their first game to Puerto Rico by 19 points — still the worst American loss in Olympic history — and stumbled to an embarrassing bronze-medal finish in Athens.
The U.S. team hasn’t lost since, and sportsbooks haven’t expected them to. Las Vegas’ Westgate Superbook had the 2016 U.S. squad at opening odds of -1000 . (The line moved to -2000 by the time the Rio Games were about to begin.) The Americans, led by Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and Kyrie Irving, beat a Nikola Jokic-led Serbian team by just three points in the Group Stage before blowing them out by 30 to win gold.
Jokic, who just won his first MVP award with the Denver Nuggets, appears unlikely to play in the upcoming Tokyo Games, telling ESPN, “The simple condition of my body requires a longer absence from the field for recovery.”
Virtually every NBA player could credibly claim the same after enduring what seems like a two-year mega-season with very little down time due to compressed COVID scheduling and the Orlando bubble. That might help explain why, as of the morning of June 25, DraftKings only has the U.S. listed as -335 favorites to win Tokyo gold.
Durant going for third gold medal
Featuring Popovich as head coach this time around, the 2021 team will again feature the services of 2016 alums Durant — going for his third gold medal — and his former Golden State teammate, Draymond Green, along with All-Stars like Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal. But here’s a prickly COVID-related catch: If the Bucks and Suns wind up facing off in the NBA Finals, as current odds favor them to, three American players — Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Devin Booker — could have just three days to change out of their Game 7 shorts and make it to Tokyo in time for Team USA’s first game against France.
Herein lies another potential stumbling block for the 2021 squad: the absence of time to jell. To be sure, virtually every Dream Team has had to mesh on the fly and, with the exception of the Athens disaster, has managed to ascend to the top of the podium. But with the NBA postseason ending about a month later than usual and the COVID-induced grind that has seen so many stars — including many Team USA members — miss extended amounts of time due to injury, Americans have to at least consider wagering against their patriotic interests.
Currently DraftKings’ second favorite to win gold at odds of +800, Spain, led by the Gasol and Hernangomez brothers, seems a bit past its prime. But the Spaniards, like many international squads, feature a fairly static, cohesive roster, including a backcourt rotation of Ricky Rubio, Sergio Rodriguez, and former Portland Trail Blazer Rudy Fernandez.
A live longshot north of the border
In the likely event Jokic doesn’t play, Robert Kowalski, who operates the sportsbook at Baldini’s in northern Nevada, considers Serbia (+1100) “dead money.” In fact, in spite of the aforementioned challenges, Kowalski is so bullish on Team USA’s chances that he said, “If you take out Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, and Bradley Beal, I still think I’d make them $4 favorites. I think the talent level is way too deep. I’d probably offer 25/1 on France, 40/1 on Australia. I don’t even know if I’d get a bite on those prices here in northern Nevada, so I may end up offering, ‘Will the U.S. win, yes or no?’ If I gave you $350 for every $100 you bet, would you bet no?”
Definitely maybe! Consider those Australian and French squads, currently listed at odds of +3000 and +1700, respectively. While the recently humbled Ben Simmons is unlikely to suit up for the Aussies, Joe Ingles (wouldn’t it be a whole lot cooler if his surname bore the Spanish pronunciation?), Matisse Thybulle, Dante Exum, Josh Green, and Aron “House Of” Baynes appear to be locked and loaded. And whenever veteran Australian National Team members Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills play in the Olympics, as they will again this year, they seem to morph into the Outback Steakhouse version of Stockton and Hornacek.
France features a similarly steely cohort of NBA players, led by Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier, Nicolas Batum, Frankie “Smokes” Ntilikina, and Timothy Luwawu-Cabarrot. But if you really want to swing for the fences, grab some action on the Canadian National Team, currently listed at +10000. They’ve yet to even qualify for the Olympics, instead having to compete in a win-to-get-in tournament next week in Victoria, British Columbia, against China, the Czech Republic, Greece, Turkey, and Uruguay.
But should the home team make it to Tokyo — and there’s a good chance it will — Canada will boast a roster loaded with NBA up-and-comers like Andrew Wiggins, RJ Barrett, Luguentz Dort, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Dwight Powell, and Trey Lyles, with journeyman point guard Cory Joseph playing the Dellavedova/Mills role.
Team USA still ‘very, very good’
Vegas’ Westgate Superbook has yet to offer odds on Olympic men’s basketball, but Executive Director of Sportsbook Operations John Murray expects to soon now that the U.S. roster is set.
“It certainly doesn’t look to be as wide of a spread as what we saw in 2016,” said Murray. “Looking at that roster, I would certainly anticipate the team being less of a favorite than they usually are. Not exactly our A squad — although, still very, very good.”
DraftKings Director of Race & Sport Operations Johnny Avello effectively concurs, saying, “The 2021 men’s Olympic team is very, very good, but probably not as proficient from top to bottom as teams in past years. Spain and Serbia may have slightly closed the gap on the historically dominant position of Team USA.”
Photo by Kelley L. Cox / USA Today Sports