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Embrace the Unknown With Team USA

The U.S. roster may be one of its worst in recent history, but the unpredictability that brings should make the team’s 2019 FIBA World Cup run its most fascinating international competition since the Redeem Team

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Team USA won all eight games it played at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The squad claimed its third straight Olympic gold medal by drilling Serbia—which had given the U.S. quite a scare in the preliminary round—by 30 points in the tournament final. Kevin Durant scored 30 points in the gold-medal game, tied for the third most in a single game in Team USA history; two more performances worthy of the top five were also authored by ’16 members. Overall, the U.S. outscored its opponents by an average of 22.5 points per game, continuing America’s dominance as the world’s premiere basketball superpower. And yet, basketball fans tend to remember that team—when we remember it at all, that is—as something of a shoulder-shrug.

See, the previous edition, which won gold at the 2014 FIBA World Cup, won its nine matchups by an average of 33 points per game. That just outpaced the 32.1 points per game by which the 2012 team smoked the competition at the London Olympics. The 2010 FIBA World Championship team featured no established superstars, relying almost entirely on early-20s talents who hadn’t yet taken The Leap; their average margin of victory was still 24.6. That was down from 27.9 for the 2008 Redeem Team, the star-studded collective intended to restore the established order of things after the fat-and-happy U.S. lost an unthinkable seven games in a three-tournament run from 2002 through 2006 that included two bronze medals and a (gulp) sixth-place finish.

Winning gold isn’t enough. Staying undefeated isn’t enough. Hell, an average margin of victory of 22.5 points per game isn’t enough. Every U.S. side lives in the shadow of the Dream Team, with mind-bending dominance expected and anything short of that deemed a disappointment. After a staggering spate of withdrawals, this year’s Team USA will take the court in China this weekend at the FIBA World Cup with one All-NBA performer, two All-Stars, and a slew of young players without experience in international competition. They will also arrive with more questions than answers, especially after Friday’s 98-94 defeat at the hands of Australia in a World Cup tune-up, marking the first loss by a U.S. team featuring NBA players, exhibition play or otherwise, since September 2006.

And you know what? Thank God for that. Inevitability gets old, and Superman can’t be brave. Let’s try embracing uncertainty and vulnerability for a change. It’s not our standard operating procedure with Team USA, but it might be just what the doctor, and this roster, ordered.

Last week, my Ringer colleague Zach Kram offered a statistical evaluation of whether this is the worst Team USA roster in modern history. It may well turn out to be! That doesn’t really matter, though, because I’ve got good news: Kemba Walker and Donovan Mitchell don’t have to guard Michael Jordan and Chris Paul. Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Khris Middleton don’t have to deal with Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Scottie Pippen. Myles Turner doesn’t have to keep Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal off the glass. This roster doesn’t have to beat the ghosts of Teams USA past; it has to be able to beat the other 31 present-day teams competing in China. And despite Friday’s loss, the U.S. remains a strong favorite to do just that.

This year’s model lacks the megawatt names of its predecessors, but no other country in the field can boast legitimate NBA players at every spot on the roster. When other nations have to reach all the way into the back of the cupboard to fill out the end of their benches, they might find a half-eaten box of stale cereal or an expired can of beans. The U.S. pulls out the NBA’s leading 3-point shooter and a 25-year-old four months removed from putting up 36-5-5 in a playoff game. The sheer depth and breadth of available talent—especially on the wing, and especially when it comes to combining size and athleticism on the defensive end—ensures a higher floor than any other entrant can match, even if the team’s potential heights remain a question mark.

And it’s absolutely fair to wonder what this team’s peak will look like, especially after watching Patty Mills torch the U.S. for 13 fourth-quarter points while Walker and Mitchell clanged contested jumpers. The U.S. is still favored to take home gold yet again, but the fact remains that this roster’s most established player is Walker—a very good point guard, but not a top-10 NBA player by virtually any measure. We don’t know what we’re going to see, especially when the U.S. winds up locking horns with opponents led by MVP-caliber performers, like Serbia’s Nikola Jokic or the actual reigning MVP, Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. I’m really interested to see how the U.S. is going to guard Giannis, now that neither Thaddeus Young nor P.J. Tucker will be on the final roster.

The defensive problems could extend to the backcourt, too. While there’s no Hardens or Stephs in the rest of the field, Mills’s 30-point outing on Friday raises concerns about how much damage other talented guards could do against Team USA. France (Evan Fournier and Nando De Colo), Spain (Ricky Rubio and Sergio Llull), and Argentina (Nicolás Laprovíttola and Facundo Campazzo) all feature a pair of quality creators. Players like Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic, Germany’s Dennis Schröder, Lithuania’s Mantas Kalnietis, and Canada’s Kevin Pangos are all capable of keeping the U.S.’s guards on their toes, too.

All the withdrawals suggested it, and Friday’s loss to Australia laid it bare: For the first time since Manu Ginobili left the basketball-watching world slack-jawed in 2004, there could be one game (or more!) in this tournament in which the U.S. doesn’t have the best player on the floor. And for the first time since an experienced Greece sliced and diced the U.S. in ’06, we’ll get to find out how Team USA responds to a loss. All that introduces uncertainty into proceedings typically marked by the utter absence of it. It also raises the fundamental question of whether, in a single-elimination situation like the knockout-round stage of the World Cup, a team with the right single superstar can overwhelm an opponent with superior depth. The chance to find an answer to that question while watching USA Basketball is something new and, it seems to me, the most compelling reason to watch. Well, that and wanting to find out what kind of international incident Marcus Smart’s defense might ignite.

Maybe this all winds up being much ado about nothing, and a seemingly underwhelming Team USA roasts the rest of the world just the same as always, in a replay of the 2010 tournament that helped propel the likes of Durant, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose, and Kevin Love to stardom. Or maybe this is, as our Rodger Sherman recently theorized, the competition where overall roster degradation passes the breaking point, resulting in a reset-button defeat that will start the whole USA Basketball cycle all over again. Whichever way things break, it feels like there’s more possibility for chaos in this competition than there’s been in ages, and we get to choose how we feel about that. Chase those ghosts and lament how appallingly indestructible this team isn’t if you’d like. If only for the novelty, though, it might be more fun to find out what it feels like not to be Superman for once.