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Is This the Worst Team USA in Modern History?

The U.S. roster for the 2019 FIBA World Cup is shockingly thin on star power. Just how bad is it? Here’s how this year’s squad stacks up with every Team USA since the Dream Team.

Ringer illustration

First things first: The group heading to China later this month for the 2019 FIBA World Cup is not the worst Team USA roster since the 1992 Dream Team, the squad that overhauled the dynamic of men’s international basketball. Far from it, in fact. NBA players could not play in the 1998 World Championship because of the lockout, so the United States formed a motley roster of professional players outside the NBA and top college players. Jimmy Oliver (career NBA games: 78) and Wendell Alexis (0) led the team in scoring; the U.S. lost games to Lithuania and Russia before winning bronze.

So things could be worse for Team USA after a summer full of roster declines and dropouts. Barring another bureaucratic boondoggle, though, it’s difficult to imagine how. U.S.-born players who were once in the mix to represent their country at the upcoming tournament but opted out include Marvin Bagley, Bradley Beal, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, De’Aaron Fox, Eric Gordon, James Harden, Montrezl Harrell, Tobias Harris, Damian Lillard, Kevin Love, Kyle Lowry, CJ McCollum, Paul Millsap, JJ Redick, Julius Randle, P.J. Tucker, and Trae Young. (No, Carmelo Anthony doesn’t count.)

The new Team USA is, evidently, a mix of starters from the 2019-20 Boston Celtics—a team projected to win fewer than 50 games—and other assorted role players from around the league. By almost any statistical measure, they collectively form the least accomplished Team USA roster with actual NBA players. The final roster is still yet to be announced, as Gregg Popovich and his staff must cut the current group of 13 players down to a final 12 before the tournament begins on August 31, but any possible outcome points to the same conclusion.

To determine where this year’s team stands in history, we set out to assess relative roster strengths across the last few decades of international basketball. We’ll look at two broad measures of individual success: All-Star appearances and win shares. Neither statistic is perfect, but they both work for comparisons across time.

Assuming that Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez all make the final roster, players on the 2019 team will have combined for just five All-Star appearances in their careers. Last Olympics, Team USA players had combined for 33 All-Star appearances; even at the World Cup (formerly known as the World Championship), the total is still typically twice as high as the 2019 group’s.

The same trend appears when looking at only the last season before the tournament, instead of the players’ entire careers: Only two members of 2019 Team USA are coming off All-Star seasons (Walker and Middleton), which ties the low set by the 2004 squad that famously failed to win Olympic gold.

By win shares, the 2019 roster looks even less qualified to represent the U.S. against the world. Depending on which of the 13 remaining roster candidates is cut, the 12 players who make the team will have combined for about 54 win shares last season. The pre-2019 low (not including 1998) was 80.4, from the 2010 squad that relied on up-and-comers like Kevin Durant instead of the members of 2008’s Olympic Redeem Team. (The 2012 team’s win shares are prorated to 82 games here, as that was the season of the 66-game schedule.)

And finally, the same pattern appears again, if not quite as precipitously, when looking at overall win shares at the time each player appeared for Team USA. I’ll spare you the graph because it looks, unsurprisingly, like every other one that’s come thus far.

But, you may quibble, this team is so young, so maybe they haven’t had the time to collect statistical achievements. Not really—the average age for the 2019 team is 25.7 years (using their listed age on Basketball-Reference for next season), while the overall Team USA average age from 1992 to 2016 (not counting 1998) was 26.7. The rosters in 2004, 2006, 2010, and 2014 were all younger than that in 2019.

Another potential caveat is that every World Cup/Championship roster pales in comparison to the Team USA Olympic rosters, so this year’s team was bound to be worse than in 2016. There’s more smoke here; notice the zigzag pattern in the graphs above in every cycle except 2004. Besides that aberration, every Olympics roster has featured more accomplished Americans than the roster before it, and after. Depending on the metric of choice, World Cup/Championship rosters typically lack somewhere between 20 and 70 percent of the plaudits of their Olympic counterparts. (This chart doesn’t include the 1998 team.)

Team USA Roster Composition by Tournament Type

Statistic Olympics World Cup/Championship Percentage Lost
Statistic Olympics World Cup/Championship Percentage Lost
Last Year All-Star Appearances 8.3 4.2 50%
Total All-Star Appearances 42.1 12.7 70%
Last Year Win Shares 116.7 93.3 20%
Total Win Shares 696.6 384.5 45%
Players With Team USA Experience 5.8 2.3 60%

Yet even against that backdrop, the 2019 team is still lacking; all of the previous World Cup/Championship rosters in the sample looked superior to this one—even in the moment. It’s possible that the 2019 roster could look better in retrospect, if players like Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum develop into perennial All-Stars; the 2014 roster, for instance, included pre-MVP Harden, pre-MVP Steph Curry, pre-champion Klay Thompson, and pre-champion Kyrie Irving. But all of the numbers presented thus far look at the players’ careers before the tournament in question, so even the promise of future improvement doesn’t address the core comparative issue.

It sounds trite, but the main problem for the present roster is that, lacking the likes of Harden and Lillard, 2019’s Team USA doesn’t boast a single overwhelming star. Walker is the top player based on his performance last season, but he collected only 7.4 win shares, 34th in the NBA. Win shares may lack some important subtleties in their calculation, but Walker is by no means on the level of previous Team USA leading men.

Even the worst editions of Team USA bettered the 2019 group in this area. The much-maligned 2002 roster featured seven players who finished the 2001-02 NBA season with more win shares than Walker had last year. The 2004 Olympic roster had six. And every squad since the Dream Team, 1998 aside, has had at least one player worth 13-plus win shares the previous season. Walker is barely at half of that total.

Top Player for Each Team USA

Year Last Season Leader Win Shares
Year Last Season Leader Win Shares
1992 Michael Jordan 17.7
1994 Shaquille O'Neal 16.9
1996 David Robinson 18.3
1998 n/a n/a
2000 Gary Payton 13.9
2002 Elton Brand 13.6
2004 Tim Duncan 13.1
2006 LeBron James 16.3
2008 Chris Paul 17.8
2010 Kevin Durant 16.1
2012 LeBron James 18.0
2014 Stephen Curry 13.4
2016 Kevin Durant 14.5
2019 Kemba Walker 7.4

Finally, this next chart shows every one of the 13 remaining candidates to qualify for the 2019 roster, along with their percentile rankings compared to all Team USA representatives since 1992 (again, with 1998 excepted). In terms of performance in the season before playing for the country, not a single 2019 Team USA player reaches the median level for the overall historical Team USA talent pool. In terms of career performance before playing for the country, only Walker and Lopez reach the median.

Team USA 2019 Players, Compared to All Team USA Players

Player Last Year WS Percentile Total WS Percentile
Player Last Year WS Percentile Total WS Percentile
Kemba Walker 38 67
Brook Lopez 34 74
Myles Turner 28 29
Khris Middleton 25 43
Mason Plumlee 22 43
Joe Harris 20 10
Marcus Smart 19 19
Donovan Mitchell 16 9
Jayson Tatum 16 13
Harrison Barnes 8 40
Derrick White 8 3
Kyle Kuzma 6 6
Jaylen Brown 5 8

Even as the statistical worsts pile up, it’s still conceivable that this lackluster roster could win gold. Popovich is the coach; the guard group in particular could shine, with Walker and Mitchell; the wing collection of Middleton, Harris, Tatum, and Brown supplies an enviable combination of shooting and defensive prowess.

But based purely on top-end talent, Team USA is not the best, or even second-best, team at this year’s World Cup. Greece, with Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Serbia, with Nikola Jokic, have an NBA MVP and a player who finished fourth in MVP voting, respectively; Team USA doesn’t have a single MVP candidate from last season or next. The Americans haven’t lost a senior-level tournament game since 2006. Now might be their best chance to lose again.