Here’s the lowdown: this current iteration of Team U.S.A. is exceedingly mediocre, and it will not win gold in the upcoming FIBA World Cup tournament.
While most suspected – or at least had an inkling – that that was the case, last Saturday’s loss to a sub-par Australian team in an exhibition match in front of 52,000 fans in Melbourne made the point abundantly clear.
This was an Australian side missing three starters – Ben Simmons, Jonah Bolden and Danté Exum – and led by NBA bit-guys Patty Mills, Joe Ingles, Matthew Dellavedova, Aron Baynes, and Andrew Bogut. A dude called Jock Landale – who is currently plying his trade for Žalgiris Kaunas of the Lithuanian Basketball League – started at power forward. If you’ve never heard any of those words in any context before, you’re not alone.
Sure, maybe the U.S. had an off day. Donovan Mitchell got in to foul trouble early, no one stepped up to carry the load and Mills caught fire in the last quarter, dropping 13 absurdly-clutch points on 5-8 shooting.
Incidentally, to put the San Antonio guard’s 30-point outburst over the four quarters in to context – that’s a total of 8 more points than he managed in any of his 82 games for the Spurs last season.
There remains a pervasive belief amongst Team U.S.A. fans – and probably the players too – that the sheer talent of America’s basketballers will be enough to bring home the gold. That’s certainly been the case in all other competitions at all other times, with Saturday coming as the first international defeat for a roster of American NBA players in almost 13 years, and breaking a run of 78 straight victories dating back to 2006.
However, with Kyle Kuzma the latest casualty – succumbing to an ankle injury and returning to Los Angeles – the current 12-man roster looks markedly short of genuine NBA talent:
Only two members of that squad – Walker and Middleton – have made an NBA All-Star team in their careers. Arguably, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum are the only others with any legitimate chance of ever playing in an All-Star game from this point forward. That may be slightly harsh on Jaylen Brown, but try and mount a case for anyone else. It’s tough.
This is not a team with LeBron James or Kevin Durant or Kobe Bryant who can be unquestionably relied upon in the clutch, or when everyone else has gone cold. You need those guys, particularly with the lack of team cohesion and increased focus on hero-ball which has become a hallmark of Team U.S.A. basketball.
It’s an accepted fact, for example, that the U.S. would not have won gold at the 2008 Olympics if it wasn’t for the last quarter heroics of Bryant.
Which player on the current squad would you turn to in the dying seconds of a tight elimination game?
Walker – who’s never played in any meaningful NBA postseason game in his career? Mitchell – who’s just 22 years old and shot less than 32% from the floor in a first-round playoff series against the Rockets four months ago? Tatum – who’s coming off an underwhelming sophomore campaign in which he and his team drastically underperformed and which evidently caused significant confidence issues? Middleton – who’s never been “the guy” at any stage in his seven year NBA career? Etc.
Without needing – or wanting – to go in to the full specifics as to why Mason Plumlee may not be the ideal person to rely on to score you the ball at the death, the point is made.
Of course, the strength of the American team is only particularly relevant as a relative metric; to put it simply, they only need to be better than the other 31 teams in the tournament in order to win the gold.
In most other years – indeed, in most other eras – this would not be a problem. Aside from the infamous 2002 / 2004 disappointments – a run which included defeats at the hands of Argentina (twice), Lithuania and Yugoslavia – the U.S.A has rarely been tested at international level.
The 2016 Olympics team, for example, had just two players with previous Olympic experience, and still romped home for the gold medal with an average margin of victory of 22.5 points, punctuating their dominance with a 30 point demolition of Serbia in the deciding game.
Even though that team still had the likes of Durant, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson etc., the real point to be made is that the standard of international basketball has improved exponentially – unrecognisably, in fact – in the last decade, and particularly in the last three years.
Chew on this for thought – even in an alternate universe where Gregg Popovich has a full roster of NBA All-Star talent to pick from, thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic Team U.S.A. arguably still wouldn’t even have the best two players in the tournament.
“I always feel something special when playing for the national team,” he explained recently.
“When you are starting the tournament and listening to the national anthem, the emotions can’t be described… The feeling of winning with the national team is incredible, and I have said before that I will always be part of the team, as long as I am healthy like this summer.”
He is joined on Team Greece by his two brothers; Thanasis and Kostas, both of whom are exceedingly talented Euro-League and aspiring-NBA athletes.
Greece famously beat the U.S. in the World Cup semi-finals back in 2006, and will fancy themselves to repeat the dose. If Giannis’ recent performances on the international stage – he dropped 28 points on 88% shooting against the Dominican Republic this week – are anything to go by, they’re as good a chance as any.
Jokic, similarly, is committed to bringing gold to Serbia, who are currently the tournament’s number 1 ranked team in FIBA’s unofficial Power Rankings.
The Serbs have a formidable front-court with Jokic and Boban Marjanovic, but are stacked across the board with Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nemanja Bjelica and Milos Teodosic.
Spain – fourth on the rankings (Australia are third) – boast NBA champion Marc Gasol, Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio, Willy Hernangomez, and Juancho Hernangomez, while France have Rudy Gobert, Nic Batum, Evan Fournier, and Frank Ntilikina.
What all these teams have – and what Team U.S.A. is so desperately lacking – is chemistry. These guys grew up playing together, they came through the national team system together, they live and breathe for their country and they are students of the game of basketball. International players didn’t grow up playing AAU ball and trying to impress scouts; they grew up trying to make district, or state, or national teams.
Check out, for example, some of the systems the Australians ran the other night. This kind of stuff is only possible from a team that knows – like really, really knows – each other’s game inside and out.
That kind of passing and movement is so far beyond the Americans’ isolation, one-on-one, street-ball style of game it’s not funny.
When you’re the best team in the world – and have been since the dawn of basketball time – the challengers will come thick and fast. The sole goal of every team in the World Cup is to beat Team U.S.A., but for Kemba Walker and co., this is effectively just an offseason training camp.
Team U.S.A. won’t win this World Cup, because a) they’re not a good enough team to coast through on talent alone; and b) the talent of the nations they’re up against is now at a level where talent alone won’t be enough to get the job done.
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