After 13 years of international dominance, the U.S. men’s national basketball team is now on a losing streak. One day after a 10-point loss to France knocked it out of medal consideration at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, Team USA suffered a second straight defeat, this time at the hands of a Serbian squad whose coach had, tongue-in-cheek or not, called this particular shot before the teams ever got to China. A dispirited and depleted U.S. unit stumbled out of the gate, a step slow to contest and engage as Serbia raced out to a 32-7 first-quarter lead that it would not relinquish.
The U.S. now heads into a Saturday meeting with Poland that will determine whether it finishes in seventh or eighth place. Either way, it’ll be the second-worst finish to a competition in USA Basketball history. That’s a cold cup of coffee for a national program, the kind of thing that makes everybody involved take a long, hard look in that deep, dark truthful mirror.
This should be a really short article, right? pic.twitter.com/Y4fRbnachK— Robin Lopez (@rolopez42) September 12, 2019
A lot of people may have responded to Team USA’s losses with the same sort of arched eyebrow and yawn implied by the great Robin Lopez here. The answer to how the U.S. gets back on top doesn’t seem all that complicated—just get the best American talent to turn out for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. But there’s a danger in letting “get better players” be the only lesson from this stumble.
As the business of basketball continues to boom around the world, and as international talent gets better and better, future U.S. teams—the ones beyond 2020, which almost certainly won’t still have LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and James Harden in the pool—won’t always be able to rely on having the best player on the court. When those days come—as they did against France on Wednesday and Serbia on Thursday—Team USA will need players who fit together better than this year’s model. The whole process has to be more intentional than just, “Who’s still willing to say yes?” In a sense, the challenge and the project share similarities with the rise of the superteam era in the NBA last decade.
The Celtics became an instant champion by importing two future Hall of Famers to add to the one already in the building. But Boston was an instant monster specifically because its pieces fit so perfectly together: Kevin Garnett commanded the defense and served as the offensive nexus in the frontcourt; Paul Pierce was the primary wing creator and late-game go-to scorer; Ray Allen was the secondary perimeter option, persistent catch-and-shoot threat, and constant floor-spacer. The role players fit, too: Kendrick Perkins set brick-wall (often moving) screens and cleaned the glass, Rajon Rondo initiated the offense and spread the ball around, and everybody else skated their respective lanes.
The story was the same in other constellation cities. The Big Three Heat, the Big Three Cavs, the Strength-in-Numbers Warriors all figured out the championship formula not just by stacking stars, but by finding the right complementary fits around them. Now, though, we’ve reached a new state of play in the NBA, one in which Big Threes and Big Fours have given way to dynamic duos. That’s thanks in part to the ever-quickening pace of player movement, which has made it difficult to hold on to a star for more than a couple of years at a time. But you might also chalk it up to a shift in front-office thinking that sees greater value in surrounding two superstars with a handful of competent role players than in selling out for three stars and scraping to fill out the rest of the rotation while avoiding luxury tax payments.
USA Basketball’s brass doesn’t have those sorts of financial concerns; without salary caps to consider, managing director Jerry Colangelo and Co. just have to get the guys to commit. In the post–Redeem Team era, that’s allowed Team USA to just do what every NBA GM would love to do—hoard as many stars as possible with relatively little worry about fit or function. In the beginning, that was no problem: Multiple megawatt stars made multiyear commitments to show up not only for major international competitions, but also for annual minicamps and meetings and such. But after a decade that saw the U.S. firmly reassert itself as the sport’s dominant global power, and with many players from the recent gold-medal squads aging out of the program or dealing with injuries, USA Basketball needs new blood. As we saw this summer, getting the transfusion is proving tricky.
“Going forward for USA Basketball, we’re going to need the cooperation of teams, agents, and then there has to be communication with players one-on-one to solidify those commitments,” Colangelo told Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press on Thursday. “I am going to be anxious to see how many players reach out early to indicate that they wish and want and desire to play.”
It’s possible that a bunch will, whether because they want to restore the program’s pride after the losses, or because they’re now lining up for one tournament instead of two. The World Cup being moved from its standard every-four-years schedule (which would’ve had it held in 2018) to this summer meant players committing to it would have to sign up to go from a full NBA season to a major international competition, then right into NBA training camps (which start in three weeks), then (hopefully) into a long playoff run, and then right into preparation for the Summer Games. USA Basketball has grown accustomed to building World Cup squads without the top players from the Olympic teams, but such little downtime in a two-year span is a big ask, even for the non-megastar types who typically populate the in-between rosters—especially with “load management” now a watchword around the league.
Whatever led to the dropouts, the U.S. still had more talent top to bottom than any other nation in the field—no other team could boast 12 NBA players—but pounding that point elides another very important one: FIBA basketball is, y’know, not NBA basketball. Case in point: Giannis Antetokounmpo is the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player, and is on the short list of the very best basketball players in the world. Greece still failed to advance to the knockout round because the Greek roster lacked enough shooting to unleash him, and because FIBA’s different rule set, court size, and style of play help mitigate some of what makes Antetokounmpo damn near unstoppable with the Bucks.
Kemba Walker, in a vacuum, is a better basketball player than any of the French guards who carved up the U.S. on Wednesday. But in a structure that prioritizes side-to-side movement and the ability to create for others in the drive-and-kick game, Evan Fournier and Nando de Colo can look like superior options for stretches. Australia beat the U.S. in exhibition play largely because Patty Mills went nuts in the fourth quarter; Mills can go nuts for Australia, in a completely different way than he can for the Spurs, because the Boomers have a bunch of other table-setters, shooters, and screeners to set him free. Turkey, a team nobody pegged to threaten the mighty Americans, came within a free-throw-clanging apocalypse of beating them, because they had the right kinds of players and playing style to give the U.S. problems. As much as the U.S.’s benighted World Cup run laid bare the importance of the U.S. bringing top talent to international competition, it also underscored just how much context, continuity, and fit matter in these tournaments.
For France, Australia, and Turkey—the teams that pushed the U.S., sometimes past its breaking point—the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There’s real talent on all of those rosters, but it’s the harmonic convergence of the individual pieces that created something Team USA couldn’t quite match.
The U.S. needs great guard play, but not just guys who can break down a defender one-on-one and get to the rim. One star point guard and a bunch of solid combo guards—few of whom even have much NBA experience, let alone international experience—doesn’t really cut it anymore; you need multiple bona fide facilitators capable of creating clean looks for others. One wonders how the U.S. offense might have looked had Kyle Lowry, who withdrew to recover from surgery on his left thumb, was able to suit up and calm things down, or if De’Aaron Fox hadn’t pulled out just before the team left for Australia for reasons that remain a bit foggy.
The U.S. also needs shooters who can actually shoot. Non–Joe Harris/Kemba players have shot a combined 29.4 percent from the shorter 3-point line at the World Cup, contributing to an American attack that ranks a paltry 18th in the 32-team field in half-court offensive efficiency, according to Synergy Sports Technology numbers cited by ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry. After watching Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee provide precious little in the FIBA fortnight, the U.S. badly needs bigs who can do more than just be big—centers and power forwards who can make plays with the ball, whether facing the basket or with their backs to it.
Team USA can certainly find those players. Some could come in the form of superstar veterans who have declined recent invitations, like James Harden, Anthony Davis, and Damian Lillard. (A playmaking big like Draymond Green or Blake Griffin sure would’ve been awful nice in China.) Some, as my Ringer teammate Jonathan Tjarks suggested Thursday, could come from young rising stars like Trae Young, Devin Booker, Zion Williamson, and Jaren Jackson Jr. There are shooters, defenders, and playmakers galore in the U.S. ranks, ones whose games can dovetail and overlap to create the sort of scorching offenses we’ve seen in the past but that belonged to countries like France and Serbia this year. But the process of putting them together has to be much more intentional than just “grab the best name left.”
It won’t take much to put USA Basketball back on the top of the mountain next summer. To keep it there, though, the U.S. is going to need a a better plan, and a smarter approach to building a roster than ever before.