Whenever anyone sees the letters “USA” emblazoned on a basketball jersey, typically the first reaction would be fear. Some might even have a sense of melancholic dread, knowing in 40 minutes time, their team would be annihilated by the preeminent superpower of the basketball world, regardless of who was on the squad.
As demonstrated by the 2018-19 NBA season, the talent gap between the Americans and the rest of the world is rapidly closing: the Most Valuable Player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is Greek; Luka Doncic, the Rookie of the Year, is Slovenian; the Defensive Player of the Year is Rudy Gobert, from France; and the Most Improved Player of the Year is Pascal Siakam, from Cameroon.
Gone are the days when opposing players take pictures of Americans at the free throw line (that actually happened during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona). Now, teams are chomping at the bit to play the U.S. knowing that they can pull off the upset.
That’s what happened in the 2019 FIBA World Cup, when Team USA lost to a Gobert-led French team and Serbia on consecutive days to finish seventh — its worst finish since 2002 when the U.S. placed sixth.
Even with a disastrous end, U.S. head coach Gregg Popovich derided the team’s detractors.
“If you don’t win, some people will play the blame game,” he said to the New York Post. “That’s a ridiculous attitude. It’s immature. It’s arrogant. Whoever thinks that doesn’t respect all the other teams in the world and doesn’t respect that these guys did the best they could.”
To be fair to Popovich, he wasn’t given a lot to work with — only four of the original 35 players initially chosen remained on the squad. Those who elected to sit out stated reasons such as learning to play with their new teams, recovering from the long grind of an 82-game season or dealing with injuries late like Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma.
Meanwhile, Portland Trailblazers star guard C.J. McCollum said that the reason some players dropped out was because they didn’t want to be the potential face of a “losing roster.”
All that in mind, where does USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo and Team USA go from here? With the Summer Olympics in Tokyo less than a year away, that doesn’t give the U.S. a lot of time to try and convince superstars like LeBron James, James Harden, and others, to take a summer off and play for their national team after an already long and arduous season.
Colangelo’s job is made a little bit easier, though, as Stephen Curry has already committed to playing in the 2020 Olympics. However, Colangelo stated he has “noticed and remembered” the players that elected not to play for their country.
“I’m a firm believer that you deal with the cards you’re dealt,” he said via ESPN. “All we could have done, and we did it, is get the commitments from a lot of players.”
“So with that kind of a hand, you feel reasonably confident that you’re going to be able to put a very good representative team on the court.”
Alas, Team USA did the best they could with the players they had. Ultimately, there just wasn’t enough time for the team to gel properly and they were, to put it simply, outplayed by teams with better chemistry.
That said, although the basketball gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world is closing, there’s reason to believe that this outcome is an outlier.
When the U.S. fared poorly in prior international competitions, that set the stage for the creation of the “Redeem Team”, perhaps the second greatest collection of basketball players ever assembled (behind the original “Dream Team,” of course), featuring Kobe Bryant, Chris Bosh, LeBron James, Jason Kidd and Dwyane Wade, among others.
As dire and disappointing as it looks now, maybe this outcome is what was needed to get a fire lit under American players to play for their country again. Who knows, maybe this is what ushers in a new period of American dominance in the basketball world.
Maybe then, will the letters “USA” emblazoned on a basketball jersey strike fear into the hearts of opposing players again.