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U.S. men may be weaker, but still strongest in Olympic basketball

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A weakened U.S. basketball team believes it’s still the strongest one in the Olympics.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry and enough stars to fill an All-NBA team passed on playing, leaving the Americans with a roster that falls short against the Dream Team comparisons they always face.

But the U.S. doesn’t need to beat the Dream Team, or to be one. It just has to be the best in Brazil.

“I respect the guys that declined the opportunity, but I think we still have a great team here, a lot of talent,” center DeMarcus Cousins said. “We still have the same goal in mind, winning the gold medal.”

The Americans remain favored to do that, which would give them three in a row. Some things to watch as they try:

THE U.S. ROSTER

While they’re not the Dream Team, the U.S. squad in Rio is still an impressive group of players. The team includes: Golden State’s Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green; New York’s Carmelo Anthony; Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving; Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan; Indiana’s Paul George; Dallas’ Harrison Barnes; Chicago’s Jimmy Butler; Sacramento’s Cousins and the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan.

THE FORMAT

Two six-team groups. Each team faces the others in its pool, and the top four teams in each advance to the quarterfinals.

Group A features the U.S., Serbia, France, China, Australia, and Venezuela.

Group B is Spain, Lithuania, Brazil, Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria.

WHICH GROUP IS TOUGHER?

Group A is more top-heavy, with the U.S., Serbia and France finishing 1-2-3 in the Basketball World Cup two years ago. But Group B appears to be deeper, with Spain (No. 2), Lithuania (3), Argentina (4), Brazil (9) and Croatia (12) all among the top dozen ranked teams in the world.

GRAB A SEAT, THIS WILL BE A WHILE

The Olympic basketball tournament runs nearly the entire length of the Games, making the first round of the NBA playoffs seem speedy. Competition begins Aug. 6, the day after the opening ceremony, and the medal games are Aug. 21, the day of the closing ceremony.

ROLLING INTO RIO

The U.S. has won 63 straight games, 45 in FIBA competitions and 18 in exhibition play.

CAPTAIN AMERICA

Anthony will become the first U.S. men’s player to appear in four Olympics, and become the most decorated men’s basketball Olympian ever if the U.S. wins a medal. He has a bronze from 2004 and golds in Beijing and London.

THIRD TIME THE CHARM?

Spain sure hopes this is the year it can break through, after pushing the U.S. deep into the final minutes of the last two gold-medal games. The Americans emerged with a 118-107 victory in 2008 and held on to win 107-100 in London. The Spanish bring back veterans such as Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro for a final shot.

GOODBYE, GOLDEN GENERATION

This certainly seems like the end for Argentina’s greats, who won gold in 2004, bronze in 2008 and narrowly missed another medal when they finished fourth in 2012. Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and Andres Nocioni are back, with Scola chosen as Argentina’s flag bearer.

BEST FIRST-ROUND DAY

Group B has some intriguing games on Aug. 13. Spain meets Lithuania in a rematch of the 2015 EuroBasket championship game, and Brazil and Argentina renew a fierce rivalry that’s seen one knock the other out of the last three major international tournaments. Argentina eliminated Brazil in the 2010 world championship and 2012 Olympics, while the Brazilians – coached by Ruben Magnano, who led Argentina to its 2004 gold – ended the Argentinians’ stay in the 2014 Basketball World Cup. Croatia and Nigeria meet in the nightcap.

MEN IN THE MIDDLE

Spain is keeping Marc Gasol on its roster for now and Australia is doing the same with Andrew Bogut, hoping their centers can return from injuries during the NBA season. France has added Utah’s Rudy Gobert to its Rio roster after his recovery from injuries kept him out of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament it won in early July.

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When Michael Phelps raced Libby Trickett at Duel in the Pool

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At the peak of his career, Michael Phelps was upstaged in a race by a swimmer who went four seconds slower.

Australian Libby Trickett did more than hold her own against Phelps to lead off the opening event of the 2007 Duel in the Pool, a mixed-gender 4x100m freestyle relay.

Trickett, then known as Libby Lenton shortly before she got married, became the first woman to break 53 seconds, while Phelps went 48.72 in a head-to-head at the Sydney 2000 Olympic swimming venue.

“I was trash-talking … asking what he has got and telling him if he is going to bring it tonight. I think deep down he was really scared of me,” Trickett said, joking, according to The Associated Press. “Before the race he said good luck. He is a good competitor to race against, and I will remember that for the rest of my life — that I raced against Michael Phelps.”

Australia went on to win the relay by 2.49 seconds, in large part because Trickett swam .31 faster than the women’s 100m free world record. Normally, relay leadoff swims are eligible to break individual world records.

But FINA later ruled that Trickett’s time was not record eligible because the mixed 4x100m free was not an approved event. (Mixed-gender relays debuted at the world championships in 2015 and will debut at the Olympics in Tokyo next year.)

“I am a little disappointed because I know in my heart what time I swam and that time is faster than the existing world record,” Trickett said in 2007, according to Swimming Australia. “However, having said that, the disappointment can take nothing away from the fact I now know I am capable of swimming under 53 seconds and I will continue to strive to improve every aspect of my swimming.”

Trickett broke the world record officially at the 2008 Australian Olympic Trials, clocking 52.88 to take .42 off German Britta Steffen‘s mark. The world record has since been lowered all the way to 51.71 by Swede Sarah Sjöström at the 2017 World Championships.

Phelps’ time was impressive, his second-fastest 100m free at the point in his career. He raced tired, two days after that year’s world championships finished in Melbourne. Phelps earned seven golds at those worlds, and he has said 2007 was his peak, rather than 2008.

He raced strategically against Trickett, not allowing her to draft off him in the adjacent lane.

“I remember going down the first lap, and she was kind of right at my shins,” Phelps said with a laugh, according to the Los Angeles Times. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is not good.’ I knew she would jump up on the lane line and kind of drag, the smart way to do it. I remember I was going right into the 50 [meter] wall, and I turned and went completely on the other side of the lane.”

Trickett won five golds at the 2007 Worlds and another four medals at the 2008 Olympics, though Steffen edged her for 100m free gold by .04.

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Who is Germany’s greatest Olympian?

Birgit Fischer-Schmidt
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The combined all-time German Olympic medal total (including East Germany and West Germany) trails only the United States and Russia/Unified Team/Soviet Union. Norway owns the most Winter Olympic medals of any single National Olympic Committee, but the Germany/East Germany/West Germany sum is actually greater. A look at five of Germany’s greatest Olympians …

Kathrin Boron
Rowing
Four Olympic Gold Medals

Alternated gold medals between double sculls and quadruple sculls from 1992 through 2004, the last one as a mom, tacking on a bronze in 2008. Boron also earned eight world titles. In 19 total Olympic and world championships starts, she collected 12 golds, five silvers, a bronze and a fourth. An ankle injury kept her out of the 1988 Olympics at age 18, or else she could have been the first woman to take gold at five Olympics.

Birgit Fischer-Schmidt
Canoe-Kayak
Eight Olympic Gold Medals

Considered by some the greatest Olympian in history. Fischer-Schmidt won 12 Olympic medals (in 13 career Olympic events) and 37 world championships medals from 1979-2005, scattered among four retirements, two childbirths and the 1984 East German boycott. Fischer-Schmidt retired after earning her last two world championships bronze medals in 2005 at age 43. Had Fischer-Schmidt extended to one more Olympics in 2008, she could have been on the same team as niece Fanny Fischer, who earned a gold of her own in Beijing.

Georg Hackl
Luge
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only luger with three individual Olympic titles. Hackl was called the “Flying White Sausage” for his build and Bavarian roots, a nickname he opposed. His speed on the sled was not up for debate. Hackl finished second in singles and fourth in doubles in his Olympic debut in 1988. Then he won singles golds in 1992, 1994 and 1998 before bowing out in 2006. He then became a coach for the German team and its next luge great — 2010 and 2014 Olympic champion Felix Loch.

Claudia Pechstein
Speed Skating
Nine Olympic Medals

The only woman to compete in seven Winter Olympics. Pechstein owns Olympic titles in the 3000m, 5000m and team pursuit, the last medal of any color coming in 2006. At 48, she continues to race on the top international level, placing eighth, ninth and 11th at the world single distances championships in February, 28 years after her Olympic debut in Albertville, France. Pechstein served a two-year doping ban from 2009-11 over irregularities in her biological passport. She denied cheating and fought the ban in court for several years after its conclusion.

Isabell Werth
Equestrian
10 Olympic Medals

The most decorated Olympic equestrian with 10 medals and six golds. Werth, nicknamed the “Dressage Queen,” earned her first medals at the 1992 Barcelona Games and now, at 50, currently holds the Nos. 1 and 2 world rankings with two different horses. In 10 career Olympic events, she has never finished worse than second place. No other female Olympian can make that claim.

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