U.S. team must up their game
United States basketball. The phrase brings imagery of some of the most amazing collections of talent the world has ever seen. Amazing teams such as the Dream Team of 1992, where Magic Johnson came out of retirement to join arguably the greatest collection of talent ever assembled with Team USA basketball looking forward with 11 of 12 players and three of the four coaches eventually being added to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The redeem team of 2008 where Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul dominated every match en route to a “competitive” 11 point win against Spain — their closest game all tournament — earned redemption for their previous bronze medal finish.
The 2019 FIBA World Cup team was without a doubt the least talented team the US has ever fielded for any basketball event since NBA players were allowed to join international play. The United States’ seventh place finish was the worst in USA basketball history; they were defeated by Team France in the quarter finals and Team Serbia in the consolation bracket. Both of these teams featured only four NBA players, whereas Team USA featured an NBA player at every spot.
What went wrong? Everyone dropped out. James Harden, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, CJ McCollum, Tobias Harris, Kevin Love, Eric Gordon, Paul Millsap, Andre Drummond and Zion Williamson all dropped out. Kyle Kuzma, Marvin Bagley, Bam Adebayo and many more players were added late and still dropped out. DeMar DeRozen’s head coach in the NBA, the legendary Gregg Poppovich, was the Team USA coach and he also dropped out. The last player to drop out, Kyle Kuzma, came to Australia with Team USA, played in their games and looked like an integral cog, then dropped out because of an ankle injury. The lack of continuity Team USA faced for FIBA competition made it a lot harder for them to compete with teams such as France, Serbia and other non-American teams that have been playing together every single summer since those players were 14 to 16 years old. Team USA couldn’t even have the same team for a week before the tournament. I understand what Pop was trying to do by taking so many of the Celtic players — he was trying to build up on their chemistry instead of starting from complete scratch.
Now I know what you, the reader, might be saying: “It’s Team USA; they’ll still have LeBron and KD, they will come and win the Olympics, who even cares about FIBA.” If Team USA can’t win their FIBA games, they might not make the Olympics. This is a problem. Team USA snuck into the Olympics because of their geographical location, as the Americas get two team bids for the two highest team finishes in the Americas region. If Team USA continues to fail to send players to the FIBA World Cup, we could easily see Brazil or Canada beating them. Brazil almost beat them this year at the end of the qualifiers, and Canada has more NBA players than ever and could easily field a team full of NBA players. Both of these teams are serious threats to take that second wild card spot, forcing Team USA to play in the FIBA world qualifying tournament. This tournament takes place about one week into the NBA playoffs. NBA players on good teams won’t be able to partake in this tournament because they will be playing in the NBA playoffs, especially because more than half of all NBA teams make the playoffs. If you thought this year’s crop of players was bad, only two of them were not on playoff rosters, Harrison Barnes and Kemba Walker. This world qualifier tournament would be absolutely destroyed, and have no time to practice or build chemistry. The chance of the USA making it out of that tournament is incredibly low, meaning Team USA would not be able to compete in the Olympics. An Olympic Basketball tournament without Team USA — it would be like a burnt steak. Yes it’s still steak, yes it’s still good, but it's tough to chew on.
How do we fix it? I’ve seen lots and lots of really bad ideas. The one that people are giving the most traction to is letting the players who go to FIBA get priority in making the Olympic team. Imagine telling LeBron “The King” James he can’t come to the Olympics because Joe “Joe Harris” Harris said he wanted to play. This idea is bad. LeBron James is not going to go play FIBA ball and put that extra stress on his body just to guarantee himself a spot in the Olympics.
Instead, a better idea is sending the exact same team of G-League players that qualified for the FIBA tournament to play in it, maybe save a few spots for any NBA superstar that wants to join, but other than that let the boys who qualified for the tournament play in the tournament. They already have chemistry from the previous tournament and previous tournament prep, G-League players are still amazing players compared to what most teams can field and they would still be coached by Gregg Poppovich, famous for making scrubs play amazing. Another idea that would work is giving five players priority on making the Olympic team; we would see a lot more upper-mid level NBA players join to try and get one of those five Olympic spots, and we wouldn’t have to cut any true top tier talent for an average player. For last year's team, this would give roster spots to Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Myles Turner, Khris Middleton — and I’m not sure who that last spot would go to. That open last spot would hopefully attract the CJ McCollumn, DeMar DeRozen and Tobias Harris level players who are insanely good but wouldn’t stand a chance at making the US Olympic team.
All in all, USA basketball is still at the top of the game, but if Team USA doesn’t get creative with solutions to their problems, they could find themselves not even making the Olympics. For a team that has medaled in every single Olympic competition, except in the 1980 Moscow games, it would be incredibly shameful to not even make the tournament.