After defeating Serbia in convincing fashion in Sunday’s gold-medal game, 96–66, Mike Krzyzewski leaves the program in excellent shape with three consecutive golds, 53 straight wins, and one loss in 10 years as head coach of the national team. The Americans finished with an 8–0 record in Rio and a point differential of plus-182, and they cruised through the knockout rounds unchallenged. But the numbers don’t quite convey just how poor the team’s overall Olympic play was compared to past years. It seems silly to nitpick a team that finished on such a tear, but this was as beatable a group as the U.S. has fielded since 2004. There just wasn’t any team in the field good enough to actually do it. From a basketball perspective, that’s disappointing.
When you look at the players that stayed home, it’s no surprise Team USA wasn’t as good as in 2008 and 2012. LeBron James and Steph Curry weren’t in Rio, and neither were Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Blake Griffin, and Chris Paul. Only a handful of players on this year’s final roster would have been guaranteed spots if the U.S. had sent its full complement of players. There were several who made the cut for Rio that actively harmed the team’s chances when they were in games. There wasn’t enough shooting, and there were too many players whose skills overlapped completely, hampering the team’s overall versatility.
Before things finally clicked for the U.S. in the gold-medal game, a lack of consistent two-way play was a theme in Rio. Their starting unit struggled to defend while their bench struggled to space the floor, and Coach K never really found a lineup he could fully trust. Their defense was in shambles by the end of group play, lacking the length, athleticism, and overall awareness that made previous Olympic squads so dominant. They were picked apart in the pick-and-roll, and they repeatedly lost track of their men off the ball. They spent far too much time on offense playing 1-on-1, and they didn’t consistently generate the type of ball movement and offensive flow that could put away lesser teams.
The saving grace for the U.S. was that no other country had a complete team either. Serbia gave them their toughest test, with an NBA-caliber point guard in Milos Teodosic, a first-round pick on the wing in Bogdan Bogdanovic, and a rising star up front in Nikola Jokic. However, they didn’t have the athleticism to handle Team USA’s phalanx of combo forwards, while the combination of Teodosic and Jokic gave up as many points as they scored in the pick-and-roll. Spain couldn’t find enough consistent scoring to complement Pau Gasol, and Australia’s offense faltered when Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills went cold. France, arguably the second-most talented team in Rio, was unable to find consistency on either side of the ball, while rising young teams like Croatia and Lithuania weren’t quite ready for the moment. Argentina was too old to keep up with the U.S. for 40 minutes.
Argentina’s gold medal in 2004 seemed at the time like the world catching up to the U.S., but now it looks more like a perfect storm. What separated their Golden Generation from all international teams since was how evenly their talent was distributed. They had a future Hall of Famer in Manu Ginobili, and they surrounded him with longtime NBA players (Carlos Delfino, Andres Nocioni, Luis Scola, Fabricio Oberto) and brought a male model off the bench (Walter Herrmann). National teams can’t make trades to even out the roster. Countries with smaller pools of talent have to be blessed with a group of players who are not only at the same stage in their careers, but whose skill sets naturally complement each other.
Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo said after Sunday’s game that “we just need to see these other countries get their acts together and become more competitive.” There are a few countries out there with the depth of talent that Argentina had, but whether they can put all the pieces together is anyone’s guess. Australia will add Dante Exum and Ben Simmons to a core of a team that finished fourth in Rio, while Croatia has Dario Saric, Mario Hezonja, and three 7-footers drafted in 2016, most notably no. 4 pick Dragan Bender. France could pair Rudy Gobert with dynamic backcourt playmakers like Evan Fournier, who sat out the summer after getting an $85 million contract with the Magic, and Frank Ntilikina, an incredibly talented 6-foot-5 point guard projected to go in the lottery in 2017. Spain is always dangerous, though they will be counting on the Hernangomez brothers to replace the Gasol brothers. Maybe the most intriguing long-term rival for the U.S. is Canada, which has produced a number of lottery talents in the last five years, thanks to a pipeline that makes them compete with Americans from an early age. Canada is one of the few teams in the world capable of matching, if not surpassing, Team USA’s athleticism.
The U.S. will be heavy favorites in 2020, regardless. The United States is a country with a population of over 300 million people. Serbia has a population of just over 7 million; Croatia has a population of 4.5 million; Lithuania checks in at a little under 3 million. Considering the talent pool through raw population numbers, a fair fight with the U.S. would mean playing a team representing the entire European Union. DeAndre Jordan claimed Olympic golds trump NBA championships, and it’s true for international players — the incredible difficulty of toppling Team USA makes winning gold the most challenging honor in the sport. But the same can’t be said for most Americans. There are only so many times Goliath can crush David before the world is desensitized, but what Argentina accomplished in 2004 is still the most interesting thing to ever happen in Olympic basketball. David only has to beat Goliath once to become a legend.