Team USA has been as disappointing as everyone feared it would be at the FIBA World Cup. The Americans’ 3-0 record in group play doesn’t mean much—none of their wins (against Czech Republic, Turkey, and Japan) came against a legitimate medal contender, and they needed a miracle to beat Turkey in OT. The road ahead is much harder. They face Giannis Antetokounmpo and Greece in their first game of second-round group play on Saturday, and it’s unclear when Jayson Tatum (sprained ankle) and Marcus Smart (strained quad) will return. The Americans can still win a gold medal, but they have little margin for error. New U.S. head coach Gregg Popovich has to press all the right buttons for them to have a chance.
Popovich is still figuring out his team. He has kept the same four healthy players in the starting lineup—Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Harrison Barnes, and Myles Turner—but has been doing a lot of mixing and matching behind them. He has used an 11-man rotation (out of a possible 12) and tried almost every possible combination of those players. The problem is that he doesn’t have many well-rounded players to choose from. Pop has to rob Peter to pay Paul with his lineups: Shoring up one weakness just creates another. He needs to lean more on his two most complete players—Khris Middleton and Mitchell.
Middleton struggled in the exhibitions leading up to the World Cup, but has shined since the games started to count. He has come off the bench in all three games, averaging 10.7 points on 47.8 percent shooting, four rebounds, 2.7 assists, and one steal in 18.9 minutes. The Bucks swingman is one of the most underrated players in the NBA because the biggest strength of his game is the absence of any defined weaknesses. He’s one of the only U.S. players in China who checks every box on the court: He can create his own shot, stretch the floor, create for others, compete on the boards, and defend multiple positions.
There is no good reason for why Middleton is backing up Barnes. Middleton is averaging 2.7 assists and 0.3 turnovers at the World Cup while Barnes is averaging 2.0 turnovers and just 0.3 assists. Middleton has a much better feel for reading the floor and making plays on the move than Barnes. The former averaged 4.3 assists last season; the latter has never averaged more than 2.0 assists in seven seasons in the NBA.
Team USA needs to run its offense through a playmaking forward who can pick apart zone defenses. Turkey nearly pulled off the upset by packing the paint and daring the U.S. to shoot from the perimeter. The Americans will see a lot more zone over the next week, and they will need more than just good 3-point shooters to crack them. The key is a player who can see over the top of the defense and make quick decisions in the middle of the floor. Middleton is the only American player who is taller than 6-foot-6 and has an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 2-to-1.
Mitchell, who will turn 23 on Saturday, isn’t nearly as polished as Middleton, but he’s the best two-way player among the U.S. guards by a significant margin. He’s averaging 11.7 points on 45.2 percent shooting, 4.0 assists, 3.0 rebounds, and 1.3 steals in 25.7 minutes per game. His second-half offensive explosion sealed the 88-67 victory over the Czech Republic, and his offensive rebound in the final seconds of regulation against Turkey allowed Team USA to send the game into OT. Mitchell’s shot selection in the half-court can still be questionable, but his energy level has been crucial to the U.S.’s success on both ends of the floor.
Mitchell is the closest thing to a link between this version of Team USA and the way it played for the last decade under Coach K: with dominant defenses that blitzed less athletic opponents, forced turnovers, and got out in the open court. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Mitchell is an elite athlete with the size, explosiveness, and length to defend any backcourt player at the World Cup. He’s not the only good perimeter defender in the U.S. backcourt, but he’s the only one who can defend without taking anything away on offense.
A quick look at Team USA’s other healthy players shows a lot of guys with holes in their games that can be exploited by elite teams:
Kemba Walker: Walker has been as advertised on offense, but his size (6-foot-1 and 184 pounds) makes him one of the biggest weak spots in the U.S. defense. There was nowhere to hide him against the Czech Republic, which started 6-foot-7 Tomas Satoransky at point guard and made a concerted effort to attack Walker in the post. There’s a noticeable difference in the U.S. defense when their star point guard comes out of the game.
Derrick White: White, who is coming off a breakout playoff performance with the Spurs, has balanced out Kemba well as his backup. At 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, White is a huge point guard who can guard players at all three perimeter positions. The issue for him in China is that he has been reluctant to shoot 3-pointers: He is 1-for-5 from 3 and has passed up a lot of open looks. Team USA needs guards who can shoot defenses out of zones.
Joe Harris: Harris, the designated zone buster, started for Tatum against Japan. But he struggled to stay in front of Yudai Baba, an undrafted free agent who averaged four points a game in summer league a few months ago. Harris might not be able to play extended minutes against elite offenses unless the U.S. plays a zone. Turning the medal-round games into a battle of zones would play into the hands of Team USA’s biggest rivals, all of whom have less athleticism on their respective rosters but more shooting and passing.
Harrison Barnes: Barnes, the lone holdover from the 2016 Olympics, can be effective within a more limited role. He’s a solid 3-point shooter and versatile defender who can hold his own in the post and on the perimeter. But featuring such a limited playmaker is not a recipe for offensive success as they advance deeper in the tournament.
Jaylen Brown: Brown was the odd man out among the U.S. wings before Tatum’s injury, playing only six minutes against Turkey. He was dominant against Japan, with 20 points and seven rebounds on 9-for-15 shooting, but it’s hard to take much away from a game against an opponent that was so outmatched athletically. Brown is 2-for-7 from 3 (28.6 percent) at the World Cup and will have to prove that he can make outside shots and be effective in a half-court game. The best way to use him in this setting might be as a small-ball 5 who runs the baseline and takes advantage of cracks in the zone to catch lobs.
Myles Turner: Turner has been excellent defensively, averaging 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 21.1 minutes per game, but playing against a zone negates many of his offensive strengths. He is not comfortable making plays and needs his decision-making simplified as much as possible. Turner has yet to log an assist in China and his crucial turnover in the final seconds of regulation against Turkey should have cost the U.S. the game.
Brook Lopez: It has been hard for Pop to find minutes for Lopez in China, even though the sweet-shooting 7-footer could be an even better zone-buster than Harris. Popovich starts Turner over Lopez because the former is better defensively, and has closed games using smaller lineups without either center.
Mason Plumlee: Plumlee could be useful at some point at the World Cup. He’s a good passer for a player his size, and he’s more mobile defensively than either Turner or Lopez. But he’s mostly here to be an emergency big man if they need to buy minutes against someone like Nikola Jokic.
To be sure, the other medal contenders all have players in their rotations with weak spots of their own. There is no one team in China with as much talent as the U.S. The difference is that most national teams are built around a core of players who have spent years together, some of them for their entire lives. They know how to cover for each other and have a defined identity on both sides of the ball. The Americans, on the other hand, are one of the youngest teams in the field and few of their players have any experience playing together.
The U.S. is in good position to get out of group play. The top two teams from each first-round group are put in a second-round pool with two teams from another group, and the top two teams from that new group advance to the knockout round. Team USA (3-0) and the Czech Republic (2-1) will now play Brazil (3-0) and Greece (2-1) in the second round. Brazil and the U.S. need to split those games, while Greece and the Czech Republic need to win both. In other words, the Americans’ game on Saturday against the Greeks is do-or-die for Giannis Antetokounmpo but not for them. Pop still has time to find answers.
But the U.S. coach can’t afford to experiment once group play ends and Team USA has to face talented and hungry teams like Serbia, France, and Spain. Unlike Coach K, he doesn’t have dozens of lineup combinations that he can cycle between over the course of the game. He needs to cut down his rotation and keep Middleton and Mitchell on the floor for as long as he can. Those are the two guys on his roster who can be the glue to connect a group of flawed players into an effective lineup. Leaning on them is the best path to a gold medal for Team USA. It might be the only one.