ISTANBUL, Turkey -- If the U.S. men's basketball team's wildly inconsistent warmup tour accomplished anything, coaches hope it finally delivered the
message they have been screaming about: Winning the gold medal in Athens won't be easy.
The team stuck around Turkey for an extra day Wednesday, getting in a lengthy practice before it travels to Athens for what promises to be the most
competitive Olympic tournament since professionals began playing in 1992.
Coach Larry Brown, both a perfectionist and a pessimist, still doesn't believe his team is entirely ready for what's in store.
"I don't know where we are," Brown said. "We have good moments and bad, but I have a pretty good understanding of who needs to play. Now the job is to
get an understanding of how we have to play."
Already, there is no question of who is the team's most important player.
Tim Duncan has made it abundantly clear that he is the key to winning a gold medal and keeping any further blemishes off an all-time Olympic record of
The two-time MVP and two-time NBA champion will be the most talented big man in the tournament -- although Yao Ming of China is rapidly gaining ground
in that department. But if Duncan gets into foul trouble or goes down with an injury, the Americans' chances will drop precipitously.
Brown has settled on a rotation of Duncan, Lamar Odom, Richard Jefferson, Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury as the starters, with Carlos Boozer,
Carmelo Anthony, Shawn Marion, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade as the key substitutes.
Amare Stoudemire and Emeka Okafor do not figure to play much, and Brown said Wednesday he'll need to shorten his rotation even further. Either James
or Anthony will likely be the odd man out when that happens.
"We're getting there, slowly but surely," Jefferson said. "Easily we're the most talented team in the world, but it's a matter of have we had enough
time to come together as a team, to know each other's tendencies and to understand what coach Brown wants."
The U.S. team's weaknesses have at times been glaring -- especially on the first stop of their European tour when they were steamrolled by Italy and
needed a last-second 3-pointer by Iverson to defeat Germany.
They have no great outside shooters, not a lot of height and only one pure point guard, Marbury, whose career-long proclivity to be a shoot-first,
pass-second playmaker has put him fundamentally at odds with Brown's vision of what a floor general should be.