Much like a father reprimanding a foolish teenager would say: I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.
Back-to-back losses to France and Serbia (the latter of whom the US pummeled by 30 in the Gold Medal Game back in the halcyon days of 2016) have relegated the world’s no. 1 ranked team to no better than a seventh-place finish at this year’s FIBA World Cup. To anyone paying attention — I know there are a few of you out there — this result shouldn’t be shocking, or even surprising, really. But it is definitely disappointing.
The poor showing will draw more attention than would have a narrow victory, so there may be a silver lining here in that the US got its big humiliation out of the way when the stakes were lower (for us, anyway — don’t tell that to the other teams still competing for the World Cup) and can now regroup before the Olympics next year. But to do that, USA Basketball will need to engage in some serious reflection and try to answer a number of big questions. First, what just happened, and why? Second, how much do we care? And last, what now? Let’s start unpacking.
How did the Americans lose to France and Serbia? Handling skilled bigs was a huge bugaboo for this edition of USA Basketball, and no single player was more problematic for them than Rudy Gobert. The Stifle Tower was a game-changer for France at both ends of the floor in their 89-79 quarterfinal win on Wednesday. He finished with 21 points, 16 rebounds, and 3 blocks, a stat line which still undersells his impact. We know what he is defensively (the NBA’s two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year), and he had several key blocks/alterations down the stretch when the struggling US offense did manage to get near the rim. His imprint on the offense may have been even more important in this one, however. As most international squads do against Team USA, France dissected the defense with a steady diet of high pick-and-rolls. But most teams don’t have a roll man with the sort of gravity Gobert brings to bear. The Americans were terrified of Gobert rolling to the rim, and their continued hesitation to play a hedge-and-tag coverage allowed Gobert’s most frequent PnR dance partner, Evan Fournier, to come off nearly every screen unfettered. The Orlando guard finished with 22 points, and erstwhile Spur Nando de Colo also chipped in 18 out of many of the same actions. Myles Turner, who had an excellent tournament overall, was completely out of his depth, getting roasted repeatedly in the screen game until Pop mercifully benched him to go with small lineups featuring either Harrison Barnes or Jaylen Brown at center. [Brook Lopez offered no answers, either. His spacing could have been a major factor in the tournament, but he was ice-cold throughout, shooting a cover-your-eyes-awful 2-of-16 from three over the first seven games.] The small ball approach led to the Americans’ only dominant stretch of the game in the third quarter, which they won 27-18 behind a flurry of buckets from Donovan Mitchell (29 points), who was Team USA’s undisputed best player in the game. But the overall lack of shot-making on the roster reared its ugly head down the stretch, as the Americans missed six critical free throws in the fourth quarter and couldn’t buy a bucket in the half court. Kemba Walker had his worst game of the tournament at the worst possible time, going an especially egregious 1-for-7 from the field in the fourth. France outscored the US 26-13 in the final frame, Gobert was everywhere, and the French absolutely deserved to win the game. And yes, it’s super-weird to type those words.
Size again proved to be an issue against Serbia, and Team USA’s struggles to defend the interior allowed the Serbs to go wild from the perimeter as well. Nikola Jokic was relatively quiet, playing only 21 minutes due to foul trouble, but the pressure he and Spurs’ draft-and-stash big man Nikola Milutinov put on the defense, along with Serbia’s crisp ball movement, opened up opportunities behind the arc for Sacramento Kings swingman Bogdan “Double Bogey” Bogdanovic, who torched the US for 28 points, including 4 threes in the first quarter. The Americans were embarrassed to the tune of 32-7 in the first, roared back in the second to trail by only four at the break, but could never get over the hump in the second half. Some of the edge was taken off the loss because the US was already eliminated from medal contention, but the blitzkrieg put on by the Serbs to start the game was shocking and humiliating nonetheless.
In the aggregate, the numbers for Team USA end up looking rather ordinary. They outscored opponents by an average of 13.1 points per game (compared to the 33.0 scoring margin of the 2014 World Cup team), and if we discount the JV game against Japan, that margin drops all the way to 6.5 points per game. The team shot merely 33.3% from deep, and Kemba Walker and Joe Harris were the only Americans to shoot better than NBA league average, despite the shorter international three-point line. They attempted only one more free throw than did their opponents, an unforgivable lack of aggressiveness for a team with such an advantage in athleticism. The defensive effort was commendable throughout, but the US simply had no answer for basic screen-and-roll actions, and couldn’t score enough to make up the difference (more on that later). It’s facile to say the roster just wasn’t very good, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
This roster was less talented, but the fix isn’t as simple as it may seem. The thousand-foot takeaway from this tournament is going to be the US sent its C team, which is no longer enough against more cohesive international opponents featuring more elite talent than in previous years. Players like Gobert, Jokic, Double Bogey (I’ll never give up), Patty Mills, and Ersan Ilyasova absolutely ate our lunch during this run, and most of them will still be around next year to try to do it again. Does the US have better players than those guys at their respective positions? Generally speaking, yes. Even with the massive uptick in top foreign-born players, Team USA still has access to the vast majority of the world’s front line talent. Does it though? When we start to consider who the best of the best are and where they fall in the cycle of their respective careers, the path to an overwhelming 2020 roster becomes a bit murkier. A large cohort of the A-list Americans (LeBron, Durant, Curry, Westbrook, Harden) are on the wrong side of 30 and have done multiple tours of duty for USA Basketball. There are various legitimate reasons why these legends may not want to sacrifice their summers to accomplish something they’ve already accomplished.
Along with key 2019 team members Donovan Mitchell, Myles Turner, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown, there is also a huge crop of up-and-coming, under-25 talent in the American pipeline: Trae Young, Jaren Jackson, Jr., Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, Marvin Bagley III, De’Aaron Fox, Jonathan Isaac, John Collins, Bam Adebayo, D’Angelo Russell, Devin Booker, Kyle Kuzma, Wendell Carter, Jr., Darius Garland, and a number of others. These guys represent the next generation of USA Basketball, but as we saw in China, putting too much of a burden on them in the near term can lead to disaster without some apex predators around to pick up the slack when the relative inexperience bubbles to the surface.
The key is to build around 24- to 29-year-olds, the dudes who have reached their physical peak, still have the energy and motivation to put into Team USA, and won’t blink when the pressure mounts in a single elimination game against a well-coordinated opponent who won’t seem to miss a shot. There is a stable of these guys on whom Jerry Colangelo can call. Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Bradley Beal, Dame Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Victor Oladipo, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green all fit the bill. But will Team USA get all (or even some) of them to commit? If Davis endures a long playoff run (no guarantee, as you may recall) and says “thanks but no thanks” next summer, what is our answer for bigs like Gobert and Jokic? Myles Turner (still only 23 somehow) sure wasn’t it, and the ranks of elite, in-their-prime big men get awfully thin after AD. If Team USA can recruit enough overwhelming talent on the wing (a glaring deficiency in this year’s team when viewed through the lens of previous rosters, especially after Tatum’s ankle injury) then it should be able to overcome the dearth of world-class interior players. Even with the embarrassment of 2019, however, the top-end guys may not be clamoring to throw their hats in the ring for Redeem Team II (working title) in 2020. Is the upside worth the risk for them? We can say the solution is to throw talent at the problem until we’re red, white, and blue in the face, but the talent has a say in the matter as well.
Questions about roster construction are heavily tied to the other big question with which Team USA is going to have to grapple: how much do we, as a basketball culture, actually care about international success? The conventional wisdom is there is a cyclical nature to our commitment to the FIBA game, and the disastrous loss is the necessary immolation, the cleansing fire which begins the next cycle anew. If China 2019 is the next “Seoul ’88” or “Athens ’04” and it leads to another decade-plus of international domination, then so be it. But this narrative overlooks the degree to which the cycles may be correlated as much to the generations of talent as they are to our overall level of interest. Sure, no one was going to compete with those first two Dream Teams, but mercy, look at those rosters. The post-Athens rejuvenation also coincided with the primes of LeBron, Wade, Melo, Kobe, and Durant, only five of the greatest scorers the game has ever seen. Those guys were then reinforced with the arrivals of Curry, Harden, Westbrook, Davis, and others. Seriously, this was the roster of the 2012 Olympic team:
Then-28-year-old Andre Iguodala, coming off an All-Star season, was basically an afterthought on this squad, averaging 4.3 PPG in 12.1 minutes a game. Not to put too fine a point on it, but a now-35-year-old Iggy, who was just unceremoniously jettisoned by Golden State for cap space, would have averaged more minutes than that on this year’s World Cup team.
Just look at that roster again. Given the amount of young, all-world talent in their rotation (plus a pre-Achilles tear Kobe), it’s honestly amazing Spain gave them a real game in the Final, with the U.S. prevailing by only seven. There should not be any level of cohesiveness, craft, ball movement, and shooting which can compete with such overwhelming ability, and the international teams have only improved in the interim. Point is, forget about this year’s lackluster roster for a moment. Even if next summer rolls around and we have every single hand on deck, and every major player says he wants to play — the “caring” slider is turned all the way up to 100 — could we possibly construct a roster as good as the one in 2012? This isn’t to say there’s a lack of US-born talent at the moment; there is probably even more now than there was seven years ago. But it’s reductive to accept this argument about the cyclical nature of our teams and conclude it only comes down to how much effort we put into it and whether or not the best players decide to suit up.
The US always has the superior talent in the aggregate, but how it is concentrated and to what degree is not static. There’s a reasonable chance our own “golden generation” has already peaked and is now receding, with another cycle of all-time talent rising to prominence at some TBD point in the future. And with the rest of the world becoming both more talented and more sophisticated in how they approach the game, it’s not crazy to think we could STILL lose next year even with our A-team. Whatever value judgment you decide to place on it, this year’s World Cup demonstrated in no uncertain terms we do have to send our very best in order to win international competitions. As USA Basketball is currently constructed, it’s the baseline requirement, and as soon as next summer, it could even prove to be necessary but not sufficient.
When it comes to competing against countries with infinitely more chemistry and continuity, the Americans’ glut of talent is a blessing and a curse. Stacking stars plays to both extremes, but as we saw this summer, counting on lesser talents to more readily accept roles and develop chemistry isn’t a better path forward, at least in the short-term. Without a fundamental reorganization of how Team USA runs its program and constructs rosters — much like what happened after the debacle in ’04, but even more dramatic — we will never be able to deploy the sort of cohesive units the Serbias and Frances and Australias of the world can. At times during Thursday’s USA-Serbia “May God Help Them” Bowl, Serbia looked like the 2014 Spurs out there. The ball and player movement were so pristine and instinctive. Someone was getting an open shot; it’s just a question of whether or not it fell. It takes years of continuity to build that sort of ecosystem, and that time is the one resource the American program may never possess. The only recourse is to run out athletic superfreaks who have a chance to disrupt their opponents’ surgical precision with blunt force transition trauma and unstoppable shot-making. It may not entirely jibe with Coach Pop’s preferred basketball aesthetic, but as I said before the tournament started, you go to war with the army you have. US players may never figure out how to properly defend an international pick-and-roll (no matter how many times I scream “Hedge!” at my TV screen), but if they can also score at will, it doesn’t much matter.
[The numbers support this. Team USA’s defense is fairly consistent over time; their own scoring average is the big variable. Over the previous five major international competitions (2008-2016), Team USA averaged 104 PPG. In 2019? 86.4 PPG. In the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the US played both Serbia and France in the opening round. They beat Serbia 94-91 and France 100-97, pretty close to their 100.9 overall scoring average for the tournament. Jokic and Gobert may both have been younger and greener three years ago, but it’s pretty clear the USA’s offense is the big difference between then and now. Go watch the Americans put up only five points over the final seven minutes on Wednesday if you need further proof.] It was awesome to see Donovan Mitchell break out for 29 points against France. Only problem is the rest of the roster scored a combined fifty. Gobert is a menace defensively (according to some, right Myles?), but come on.
So what type of roster could put up enough points to take home the gold next year? If I had my druthers (by the way, has anyone actually ever had his druthers, or are they merely something one could theoretically possess?), my realistic twelve-man roster would look something like this:
Guards: Steph Curry, Dame Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young
Wings: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Jayson Tatum, Bradley Beal, Victor Oladipo
Bigs: Anthony Davis, Myles Turner, Zion Williamson
The World Cup may have gone poorly, but it’s a good idea not to throw the baby out with the bath water. The international experience was valuable for the most talented members of the squad (Mitchell, Tatum, Turner), and it may be wise to create some continuity with those guys and give them the opportunity to exact revenge for this summer’s failure. Curry and Lillard have yet to play for an Olympic team, so they may be motivated to serve as the veteran leaders on the next edition. Who knows what Kawhi’s motivations are — he may not even have a “caring” slider, and if he does, it sure doesn’t get anywhere near 100 — but he is obviously the best prime-age wing we could realistically have, assuming LeBron and Durant choose to sit this one out. George, Beal, and Oladipo all bring the scoring, shooting, and two-way impact the ’19 team lacked on the wing. We already discussed Davis, and he’s the linchpin to the whole roster. Affording limited roles to Zion and Trae would begin to bridge the gap to the next generation of stars without weakening the current team, and Zion’s involvement provides the potential for the next indelible “Vince Carter jumping over Fred Weis” moment. [Knicks’ legend Weis wouldn’t even crack France’s roster nowadays, but that’s a different story.]
Given the roster limitations, there was always a good chance this summer would end in disappointing fashion. And if the indifference of the A-list stars towards Team USA participation becomes this generation’s new normal, we could be looking at the start of a fallow period similar to the early aughts. I’d rather look at the glass as half-full and view this humiliation as the kick in the pants Team USA and the American stars needed to begin the next cycle of international dominance. I look forward to having this talk again in another fifteen years.
Top Photo: AP Photos