(AP) - The questions came quickly after the United States lost in the semifinals of last year's world championships.
What if the Americans had Kobe Bryant, or a veteran point guard like Chauncey Billups or Jason Kidd, or a dominant inside scorer like Amare Stoudemire?
They’re all expected in Las Vegas this weekend, ready to help the team prepare for the Olympic qualifier next month.
The U.S. national team opened minicamp Friday, its first time together since finishing third in the worlds and being forced to play its way into the Beijing Games. The Americans hoped for a light summer, but that went out the window the moment they were knocked off by Greece.
“We had a changeup thrown at us,” USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said recently. “Because when we spoke originally about that, the intent was to go out and win the world championships and that ’07 would be a down year, just kind of prepare for ’08. But because we didn't win the world championships, that changes what we have to do. We have some work to do.”
It will be done with a much different looking roster. Six players who were in Japan aren’t available to play this summer, including Miami star Dwyane Wade, one of the U.S. captains.
And coach Mike Krzyzewski won’t have long to get this version ready. The FIBA Americas tournament starts Aug. 22, and the Americans must finish in the top two to earn a place in the Olympics.
“It’s not like we’re just given this. There’s two spots open in the Americas,” Krzyzewski said. “After this summer, there will be nine countries who will qualify for the Olympics. You have to earn the right to be there. That's why we’re playing in this tournament.”
The Americans expected to have 17 players in camp for practices on Friday and Saturday. They will then split up the roster and play a blue-white game today.
The finalists will be chosen Monday, and those players will return Aug. 13 along with No. 1 draft pick Greg Oden, if he is recovered from his tonsillectomy. The U.S. has to be down to 12 players the day before the qualifier begins.
Krzyzewski mentioned Bryant, Billups, Kidd, Stoudemire and Chris Bosh as players who figure to be wearing the red, white and blue in August.
“Unless those guys are hurt, those guys are going to be on the team,” he said.
Throw in captains LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, the best American player at last year’s world championships, and more than half the squad already seems set. Milwaukee's Michael Redd, who was unavailable last year because he was getting married, also should stick with the U.S. desperately in need of better outside shooting.
Bryant had to pull out last year after knee surgery - the third time his USA debut was delayed following injuries in 2003 and a sexual assault trial the next year - while Stoudemire wasn’t at full strength coming off a pair of knee operations. Both looked fine this year, getting voted to the All-NBA first team.
The additions of Billups and Kidd might be even more important. Billups was selected for the original national team roster last year but was unable to play because his wife was expecting a child. Kidd, who helped the Americans win a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics - the last major title for the U.S. - originally declined an invitation for personal reasons, but said he was available this year and was added to the roster.
Billups and Kidd provide experience and size at the point, something the Americans lacked last year when Chris Paul and Kirk Hinrich handled most of those duties.
“Our guards did a good job but the international game, it’s much more physical,” Krzyzewski said. “A lot of these teams have big guards, they can be 6-6, 230. They allow much more physical play. Having a few older guys … they understand that maybe a little bit better.”
Krzyzewski said the minicamp won’t be intense. He will put in some sets and allow certain players to recommend plays they are comfortable running. The Americans will also work on and against a zone defense, which has caused them problems in recent years.
And though the original plan didn’t involve playing games this summer, Krzyzewski thinks the changed itinerary will help the Americans be even stronger in 2008.
“I think we’re moving along well,” he said. “Let’s qualify, let’s get better and let’s get ready for the Olympics.”