As the United States celebrated a relaxing blowout win Wednesday night, it was just another win, another box checked on the way to the gold medal everyone expects it to win.
It was far from just another loss for Argentina. It was a farewell to beloved heroes who lost not only to the United States but time itself. Manu Ginobili walked off the court for the last time for his country. Certainly Luis Scola and Carlos Delfino as well. Andres Nocioni too is retiring from international play, and his comments after the game were tinged with nostalgia as the last members of what the Argentinians call their Generacion Dorada – their Golden Generation – grow old.
Spain, too, is in a fin de siecle moment. The U.S. semifinal opponent Friday afternoon and the silver medalist in the past two Olympics faces the imminent international departure of Pau Gasol, 36, Jose Calderon, 34, and possibly Rudy Fernandez, 31. Marc Gasol is injured, but he’s 31 as well. While Spain has a better foundation of younger players than Argentina, including Ricky Rubio and Nikola Mirotic, the players who have brought Spain its greatest basketball success are likely in their final Olympics as well.
Add in Tony Parker, who played his final game for France on Wednesday, and this generation of international players, spawned in large part by the worldwide visibility of the Magic-Bird-Jordan NBA in the ’90s, presented the greatest challenge yet to American dominance in the sport, exemplified by Argentina’s gold in 2004. Now it is receding, a wave pulling away from the beach.
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The popular perception is that there are no generations in American basketball, only a self-replenishing pool of talent, a mobius loop of superstars. That’s absolutely true of the women’s team, which like the international men’s teams brings the same core group back year after year after year, a combination of talent and teamwork that’s absolutely unbeatable, or has been again so far in these Olympics.
The men’s team, though, has seen change and upheaval, more this year than at any point under U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski. There is, unquestionably, a generational divide here for the Americans. There’s no LeBron James, although he remains at the pinnacle of the game in his prime. (“He’s served,” Krzyzewski has said, and may again.) Kobe Bryant is done. There’s no Steph Curry or Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook, although all three may have opportunities in the future.
Like Ginobili, this is Carmelo Anthony’s last go-round, as decorated an American as there is internationally. Kevin Durant, at 27, has another Olympics or two in him, but as James can attest there are no guarantees, especially if Durant goes to the finals as many times with Golden State over the next few years as James has with Miami and Cleveland.
And the rest have undergone a very visible, very public adjustment to international basketball, which should benefit them in the future should they be called again, but created the very discontinuity the entire U.S. program was set up under Krzyzewski to avoid – or, at the least, navigate more easily.
Then there’s Krzyzewski, entering the final two games of his international coaching career. The point, when he came aboard after the 2004 debacle, was to ensure there were no generations, to build continuity and structure into the program so it could survive the kind of defections and withdrawals the national team saw ahead of these games.
How these final two games go will have the final say on the success of that process, although there’s no denying the dominance of 2008 and 2012. Things will be different under Gregg Popovich, even if Krzyzewski is still involved in a leadership capacity. It may be better. It may be worse. It will not be the same.
The United States benefited from a generation of its own, from 2006 to 2008 to 2010 to 2012, players who bought back into Team USA after enthusiasm had waned. Argentina and Spain may mourn the passing of time, but they’re not alone. In its own way, the United States is going through it now.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock