When the FIBA Basketball World Cup begins in China on Saturday, Team USA will enter the tournament as the favorite. But for the first time in more than a decade, the U.S. is hardly a sure thing to win it all.
It took more than 50 invitations for USA Basketball to find 15 players willing to attend training camp in Las Vegas in early August. Anthony Davis, James Harden, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Bradley Beal, Kyle Lowry, and Tobias Harris are among a host of big-name players to withdraw from the team along the way. That has made the transition taxing at times for new head coach Gregg Popovich, who takes over after Mike Krzyzewski commanded the bench for 15 years. Over the weekend, Team USA lost to Australia in Melbourne in a warm-up exhibition. It was the first international defeat for a roster of American NBA players in almost 13 years, snapping a 78-game win streak that dated back to the 2006 World Championship.
In the nearly 70 years of the event, no team has won three straight World Cups. Team USA has a chance to become the first, but it won’t be easy. Our resident international basketball enthusiasts Rodger Sherman and John Gonzalez look at the challenges facing Pop’s squad, what they like about this team, and what has them concerned.
John Gonzalez: OK, Rodger, we should probably start with the much-maligned roster, which is much maligned for a reason. It is, as they say, not great. After Team USA lost to the Boomers—which we will get to—Marc Stein reported that Kyle Kuzma returned to the States for treatment on the left ankle injury he sustained during the Australia friendly. That leaves the following 12 players to accompany Pop to China:
May God bless America. As our colleague Zach Kram explained, there are lots of reasons to consider this the worst group of professional players Team USA has ever fielded. It should also be noted that if anyone gets injured during the tournament, FIBA rules don’t allow for replacements. They would have to press on with the depleted roster as is.
Rodger, what do you make of this bunch? I think they should have just thrown up the emergency Hoodie Melo signal for fun.
Rodger Sherman: I expected this roster to be bad, but it’s still upsetting to see it laid out! Last year, 19 Team USA–eligible players were in the All-Star Game. (Twenty if we count Dwyane Wade, which we shouldn’t.) This team has one of those 19 players: Kemba Walker. The good news is that Team USA has won recently with some of these randos on the roster—Mason Plumlee was on the 2014 team that won the World Cup in Spain, Harrison Barnes went to the 2016 Rio Olympics—but both were deep bench players alongside a slew of stars. Both will have to play this time around.
The flip side, though, is that Team USA has 12 NBA players. Even if some of those NBA players are mid-tier Celtics or Plumlees, they are NBA players. France has five, Australia, Canada, Serbia, and Spain have four, and no other team in the World Cup field has more than three. I know USA basketball has been felled by arrogance in the past, but I do think it’s fair to say that simply having a lot of NBA players is a sign that the United States has the most talented team in the field.
When Team USA has lost in the past, it happened because other countries had teams that had played together for years. The gap in talent between Team USA and its competition was overcome by cohesion. That danger exists this time, because, hoo boy, this squad is hastily thrown together.
Gonzalez: You’re obviously right that Team USA has more NBA players than any other roster, but more doesn’t necessarily mean better. As you pointed out, a team that is stitched together at the last second can tear apart at inopportune moments.
Which brings us to the loss to Australia. When Team USA was practicing in L.A. recently, Pop said he planned to neutralize Patty Mills by plying him with too much wine and food. Maybe he should have tried harder. Mills had 13 points in the fourth quarter of that game while Walker and Mitchell—by all accounts the two best players on Team USA during training camp—struggled down the stretch. The Aussie announcers called the win “Australian basketball history.” Which I guess it is. I checked with Ben Mallis, an Australian journalist I know who covered the Sixers this past season. He said the victory was like if the U.S. men’s soccer team somehow managed to beat Brazil on home soil. People were excited.
All that is fine, and it’s great for the Boomers and basketball in Australia, but that team is led by Mills, Joe Ingles, Matthew Dellavedova, Aron Baynes, and Andrew Bogut. They also started the game with Jock Landale. No one reading this has any idea whether I made that last name up.
It should be noted that the U.S. rebounded by beating Canada in its next exhibition outing and finished the World Cup warm-up swing 3-1, with the two other wins coming over Spain and Australia in an earlier exhibition. But, let’s be clear: This Team USA is beatable.
How concerned are you by that Australia loss? And beyond that, is there anything you actually like about this particular Team USA?
Sherman: The Australia loss ... was bad! Team USA did not seem very interested in “passing” or “running an offense.” The team had 11 total assists, with Marcus Smart taking the team lead with ... three. This team isn’t as talented as past teams—it absolutely cannot afford to be disorganized and unmotivated as well. But that’s how it felt watching that game. It really did seem like a bunch of players thrown together with no rhyme or reason with little stake in winning or losing.
That said—it was an exhibition game in front of 52,000 fans and likely the only true road game Team USA will play in this tournament, and it was sandwiched between two convincing wins.
The funny thing is, I think it might be good for Team USA not to take gold. I’d much prefer a U.S. victory at next year’s Olympics to a win at the FIBA World Cup. If Team USA coasts to an easy win in this tournament despite sending a bored B-team—C-team? D-team? J-team? U-team?—I think that could be a really bad lesson heading into the Olympics. A loss here would remind USA Basketball that it’s possible to lose in international competition and probably convince a fun roster to show up in Tokyo next year. If this team coasts to a win at the FIBA tournament, I can already see Marcus Smart on the bronze medal podium next year.
Gonzalez: If it’s good for Team USA to lose, I have excellent news for you. They lost two scrimmages to the select team while they were out here in Los Angeles. There were lots of murmurs that day. One exec who was on hand that day told me they looked “like an AAU team—all individuals trying to do their own thing.”
I don’t see this team coasting to anything easy in the tournament. All that said, they are the favorites for a reason. They’re deeper than everyone else—though there will be times, like against Greece and Serbia, when they don’t have the best player on the floor. The big thing for Team USA will be the shooting. If you take out the 2-for-14 performance on 3s against Canada on Monday, they were hitting better than 40 percent from long range in their exhibitions. If they shoot well and play from ahead, I like their chances. (I also like their warm-ups, but not their uniforms.) But if they get into a close game where they’re challenged, which I fully expect to happen, I wonder who the closer will be. I suppose that role will fall to Kemba or Mitchell. Which is … fine. But they’re not Harden or LeBron or Kobe. I also wonder who will guard guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Nikola Jokic in critical big-game situations. The United States has a lot of guards/wings but not many athletic big bodies.
So who do you think represents their biggest competition? (Hint, it’s the team that boasted “may God help them” if the two squads meet.)
Sherman: Clearly their biggest competition is the USA Select Team.
My real take: The U.S. should have sent the G-Leaguers who won the qualifying tournaments to get to the World Cup and won those scrimmages. Maybe they’d win, maybe they’d lose; at least it wouldn’t be an embarrassment either way!
Outside of that, Serbia, which has a legitimate NBA star in Jokic, some decent players surrounding him, and years of competing together. Am I wrong about a loss here serving as a potential wake-up call? Will Team USA be able to get, like, three All-Stars to next year’s Olympics?
Maybe you’re right. Maybe a loss in China would serve as a call to action for all the stars who decided to stay home, tweet out workout videos, and/or complain about being doubled in pickup games.
Gonzalez: Serbia is a legit threat. In addition to Jokic, they have Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nemanja Bjelica, onetime Clipper Milos Teodosic, and everyone’s favorite center/Chihuahua lover Boban Marjanovic. Greece has Giannis, which automatically makes them a problem, and his brother Thanasis, along with Nick Calathes (three-time Greek League MVP and former Grizzly) and Georgios Papagiannis (who spent a hot second with the Kings). Spain has Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio, Marc Gasol, Willy Hernangomez, and Juancho Hernangomez, all of whom have varying levels of NBA experience and have played together for years. I also wouldn’t overlook France, with Rudy Gobert, Nic Batum, Evan Fournier, and, bless his heart, Frank Ntilikina. Frankie Smokes might even get to play for a change.
This is a good, crowded field. I’m very much looking forward to the tournament. With Team USA sending a lesser version of itself, it could make the pending proceedings even more entertaining and competitive. Let’s end with predictions, Rodger. You go first. When this is all over, which team will win the 2019 world championships?
Sherman: Honestly, I think Team USA will take it. (Setting them up for a cataclysmic loss in 2020?!?!?!!?!?!)
Gonzalez: That’s the safe bet. And the patriotic bet. But since I just spent the past two weeks (not to mention this collabo with you) clutching my basketball pearls about this team, I’ll go with the field. I just think there are too many potential potholes, and I’m not sold on Team USA navigating all of them without ending up in a ditch. If I had to pick one specific team to undo them, it’s Serbia. They’re good. Pop didn’t take the bait when he was told about the Serbian coach’s “may God help them” comments—but at this point, a little divine intervention couldn’t hurt.