USA Basketball has been a staple of greatness in international basketball, especially since 1992 when NBA players got allowed to represent their countries in the Olympics. 7 Olympic golds and three world championships since 1992 are enough to tell you how dominant they have been in every competition, as anything less than gold was considered a vast disappointment.
Losing in the World Cup isn't that rare for them, as they never took that competition as seriously as the Olympics. So losing in the Olympics would be the biggest debacle for the Americans, as the 2004 tournament got immortalized as the worst presentation of USA basketball ever. Like always, the team went into the tournament expecting nothing else than a dominant road to the gold medal, even though most of the best players were not playing.
At first, glance not too bad, but at the time, guys like LeBron, Wade, and Carmelo were just coming off their rookie season and riding the pine for most of the tournament. The head coach Larry Brown relied on the older guys like Marbury, Jefferson, and Marion to help out AI and Duncan, but that proved to be a horrendous idea. Trouble started already in group play as they lost to the huge underdogs in Puerto Rico and a good Lithuanian team, finishing the group phase with a 3-2 record.
After managing to get by Spain, the Americans would run into a resilient Argentian team led by Manu Ginobili. Argentina played a beautiful game and won 89-81, crushing their dream of a gold medal. It was their first Olympics loss since 1992, as the media and fans back home couldn't believe the unbeatable Americans wouldn't be crowned champions. Argentina went on to win it all, while the defeated Americans had to settle for bronze after beating Lithuania in a rematch.
Obviously, the team and coaching staff got heavily criticized by the media, but in the end, it wasn't their fault as they did the best they could do with the personnel they managed to bring. If anything, the fault should have fallen to all the starts that opted not to play. An Instagram account by the name of Rare Sports recently put up this picture, showing how that team could have looked if all the stars came to play.
From the original team, only three players made the cut, as this would have been "Dream Team" like:
That would have been a scary team. A perfect mix at the point guard position with the flashy pace in Iverson and fundamental leadership with Kidd. At the wing positions, you have scoring options in every possible way with guys like Kobe, Carter, McGrady, Pierce, Allen, and LeBron. And to cap it all off, KG, Duncan, Shaq, and Jermain are all in prime years. I personally would put in Ben Wallace or Rasheed Wallace instead of Jermaine at that time, but you couldn't go wrong with either one.
Shaq himself put the picture on his IG story, probably reminiscing how that team would have looked. They easily could have swept through the tournament and won the gold medal, but as always, a few names just can't make it. But that year, too many of them skipped, and the team paid the price. This year's team at the Tokyo Olympics almost suffered the same fate after their shaky exhibition period and opening loss to France, but in the end, they recouped and got the job done.