Here’s the strange thing about Team USA’s surprising, but not really all that surprising, defeat in Wednesday’s World Cup quarterfinal: In six World Cups (née World Championships) with NBA players, the United States has now lost as many tournaments as it has won. Gold medals in 1994, 2010, and 2014 sit alongside disappointing finishes in 2002, 2006, and now 2019.
It may sound as if the sky is falling. But by that logic, the sky has fallen before: in 2002, when a misshapen roster finished sixth, and in 2004, when the U.S. failed to win Olympic gold, and in 2006, when the U.S. lost an elimination game yet again. For three cycles, the U.S. national team was in crisis—and then Team USA rebounded to win every game it played for more than a decade. With the basketball resources at the country’s disposal, the sky can easily be raised again, and the victorious cycle can begin anew. The struggles in this tournament were predictable, however, and reflect a key development for both the U.S. national program and the rest of the world.
From the American perspective, Wednesday’s 89-79 loss to Rudy Gobert and France is merely the latest and most humbling instance of a foreseeable outcome. There were warnings for a month or more, as a lengthy succession of players declined to join, producing the least talented Team USA roster in modern history—and, ultimately, one of the least successful. (Heck, even the 1998 roster, which had to use non-NBA players because of the league’s lockout, at least reached the semifinals and won the bronze medal.) The Americans escaped what should’ve been a loss in overtime against Turkey in group play, and more generally failed to match the highs of their celebrated predecessors. For instance, despite showing the ability to still thump lesser opponents—see: the 53-point romp over Japan—the U.S. didn’t reach 100 points in any game at this tournament. A dozen other teams managed to crack triple digits, but not Team USA.
But again, the Americans have been humbled in international play before, and largely for similar reasons: An underqualified roster short on shooting and the U.S.’s typical talent level, and thrown together without much cohesion or practice time, struggles to compete against more experienced opposition. In 2002, the U.S. lost three games—to rising powers Argentina and Spain, plus eventual tournament champion Yugoslavia—on home soil, and in 2006, an underdog Greece squad famously upset the U.S. in the semifinals.
What happened next? The so-called Redeem Team reestablished American basketball hegemony at the 2008 Olympics, with a stacked roster winning every game by double digits en route to the gold medal. That doesn’t mean the U.S. is a sure bet to win gold next summer. The 2002 humiliation didn’t help efforts in 2004, when the U.S.’s least talented Olympic roster in modern history won only bronze; it took losses at three consecutive international tournaments to yield meaningful changes to the program. It’s also uncertain whether next summer’s competition will prove more attractive to the NBA’s top American stars, who uniformly sat out this September.
More important than those factors, however, is the second broad takeaway from the U.S.’s early exit from China: There has never been better competition from the rest of the world, or a more relatively democratized version of international men’s basketball. Travel back, for a moment, to 1992, birth of the Dream Team, as the U.S. brought NBA stars to a tournament for the first time. A 12-man roster with 11 future Hall of Famers on it won its first game by 68 points, and swept through the whole tournament winning every game by at least 32.
In 1996, when all 12 Team USA players had been named NBA All-Stars the previous winter, the U.S. again steamrolled the competition. No opponent came closer than 22 points as the Americans won gold again. Thus the expectation was set for how the U.S. should handle the international sport; any close game would equal a miniature disaster.
The sport has evolved, however, both in the NBA and on the international circuit. The 1991-92 NBA season featured just 26 players born outside the U.S.; four years later, that number was a still-small 29. (And some of the best non-U.S.-born players of that era, like Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, ended up playing for Team USA anyway.) This past season, for comparison, 118 players hailed from outside the U.S., which represents roughly a quarter of the league as a whole.
That count includes 35 qualified players who averaged at least 10 points per game, plus a handful of All-Stars, three players who received MVP votes (including Gobert), and a number of crucial players on contenders, from Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo to Serbia’s Nikola Jokic to Australia’s Ben Simmons and more. Even if not all of those players (like Simmons) compete at every international tournament, the world’s talent pool is simply deeper than it has been in the past. More opponents can trouble the Americans, like pesky Australia, which even without Simmons relied on Patty Mills and Joe Ingles to upset the U.S. in a pre-tournament exhibition last month.
They can also knock each other out before they even have a chance to upset the Americans. Before the 2019 World Cup began, Serbia was essentially a co-favorite with the U.S., and its coach didn’t bother hiding his excitement for a potential showdown. In a sort of American fashion, the Serbs won their first four group games by a combined 163 points—and then lost to Spain, lost to Argentina, and were gone a day before the U.S.’s defeat. Now, the anticipated semifinal between the U.S. and Serbia will instead pit Argentina against France, which should still prove an entertaining matchup of veterans of the international game.
Even at the Olympics, when the U.S. typically brings a more established roster, the competition has creeped closer over the past decade. In 2012, Team USA tallied its share of blowouts, including a record 83-point rout of Nigeria, but the U.S. also sweated a five-point win against Linas Kleiza’s feisty Lithuania team, then led Spain by just one point after three quarters in the gold medal game before winning by seven. In 2016, the U.S. survived consecutive three-point wins against Serbia and France, and beat Spain by only six in the semifinals. From 2008 to 2012 to 2016, the number of 20-point wins for the U.S. in its eight Olympic games fell from seven to six to four.
Whereas past troubles for the U.S. might have resulted from a generational group of talent, like in Argentina and Spain, or one strange off night, like against Greece in 2006, now Team USA can reliably expect to face NBA-caliber talents in every game, and to have to play hard in the fourth quarter multiple times a tournament. That might be a worry for Americans’ hopes of winning gold every time, but it’s also hard to view this development as anything other than a positive, for several reasons: the growth of the sport, the entertainment factor of games that are competitive until the final buzzer, the notion that occasional U.S. losses might inspire the best Americans to play for their country.
In that light, then, a clean U.S. sweep through the 2019 World Cup field, lackadaisical roster and all, might have appeared to be more of a calamity for the international game than the U.S. loss appears to be for the Team USA program. That the defeat didn’t even come at the hands of the best opponent, but merely one team in a wide and ever-widening field of possible threats to the world’s greatest basketball-playing nation, only emphasizes this point further. In the past, the sport expanded in part because of Team USA’s dominance. But now, international basketball has never looked stronger; ironically, it’s up to the Americans to keep up with the rest of the world.