Gone, too, is a long list of stars who declined invitations to play at the World Cup, which will be hosted by China from Aug. 31 to Sept. 15. Indeed, the team’s withdrawals — which include Bradley Beal, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Kevin Love, Damian Lillard and Zion Williamson — probably would have walked to gold.
Left to navigate all of this change is USA Basketball Managing Director Jerry Colangelo, who in 2016 named San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich as Krzyzewski’s successor. Although Colangelo acknowledged the difficult circumstances facing USA Basketball this summer, his confidence is hardly shaken.
“I recognize that people feel we might be vulnerable,” Colangelo said from Chicago in a telephone interview. “That should give us even more incentive to go out and get the job done. A lot of players have an opportunity to make their mark. This is an important time for Coach Pop. This is something he longed for. I’m very excited."
Multiple factors influenced the projected roster this year, which is headlined by lesser-known all-stars such as Kemba Walker and Khris Middleton, plus rising stars including Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum. Kyle Lowry, one of just two returning players from the 2016 Rio Olympics team, is recovering from thumb surgery but remains in the mix.
The biggest factor is timing. FIBA, the global basketball governing body, used to run the World Cup, previously known as the world championships, on a four-year cycle that cleanly alternated with the Olympics. When the Olympics were held in 2012, the World Cup took place in 2010 and 2014.
In hopes of raising the tournament’s profile, FIBA expanded the field, altered the qualification process and changed the schedule for this year’s event, holding it one year after FIFA’s soccer World Cup and one year before the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. That change was felt by USA Basketball more than most countries, with the NBA’s 82-game schedule longer and more intense than those in international leagues.
“Playing in back-to-back years, with full NBA seasons before and after, in a real hurdle to overcome,” Colangelo said. “FIBA is not concerned about us. They’re concerned about what’s best for basketball internationally. FIBA got exactly what they wanted. They’re getting a lot of games, a lot of attendance. There’s more interest in a lot of countries. Personally, I didn’t like the change. I knew it would have a negative effect on us.”
This summer’s sheer volume of free agent moves and trades also contributed to some of the defections. With the Warriors weakened by Kevin Durant’s departure and Klay Thompson’s ACL injury, the 2019-20 season projects to be more wide open than any in recent memory. Some stars, especially those eyeing a spot on the 2020 Olympic team, preferred time off to rest for the upcoming season or to work out with new teammates.
Colangelo added that the NBA’s financial growth has also left a mark. When Colangelo joined USA Basketball in 2005, the NBA’s salary cap was $43.9 million. That has ballooned to $109.1 million, with an elite player such as Curry capable of earning $40 million per year. The new economics can change the calculus for players who have yet to receive their major payday.
“It’s a little bit of a different culture today than it was 10 or 12 years ago,” Colangelo explained. “The money is huge, much larger than it was then. There’s also power vested in certain agents, who control players and advise them accordingly, and in some cases justifiably, that it would be best for them to prepare for the season.”
Colangelo and Popovich will nevertheless plunge forward in selecting a 12-man squad during two weeks of training camp in Las Vegas and Los Angeles before departing on an international tour that includes multiple stops in Australia. The group they select will enter the tournament as strong betting favorites, and will face daunting “gold-or-bust” expectations.
USA Basketball’s message to the 30 NBA players expected to be in Las Vegas, which includes 14 designated for a “select team” of rising prospects, is straightforward: This is an open competition with no guaranteed spots.
While Popovich will install his own systems and schemes, USA Basketball plans to stick with its goal from past tournaments of blending rosters with veteran toughness and young athleticism. Krzyzewski will be on hand for multiple days in Las Vegas to advise his successor.
P.J. Tucker and Lowry, if he is cleared to return, would fit in the former category, while Mitchell, Tatum, Kyle Kuzma and Jaylen Brown could be part of the latter. Walker — whom Colangelo called “one of the top scorers in basketball” — projects as the roster’s lead guard.
“We want to pick the 12 guys that are going to give us the best chance to win,” Colangelo said. “We foresee a competitive camp. We think some of the young players on the select team may have an opportunity to have a chance to crack that 12, too. [De’Aaron] Fox from Sacramento may be the quickest guy in the group and is a true point. It’s possible the cards might fall just right for him.”
USA Basketball is sending a B-team to China, where it is bracing for stiff competition from longtime rival Spain, Australia, Canada, Serbia, Greece and France. But it doesn’t anticipate similar roster-building problems for the Tokyo Olympics.
James, who skipped the Rio Olympics after winning the 2016 NBA title, said in April that he is open to a possible return in 2020. Colangelo added that he has heard from “many, many players who want to play” next summer.
Even so, USA Basketball appears to be at a crossroads: It must identify a successor to James, whose commitment restored credibility and excitement to the program.
“As we look forward to who is going to be participating, it’s going to be those with equity,” Colangelo said. “The people who have put in the time, the effort and the commitment, that all stands for something. Someone from that group is going to stand out and lead. We’ll wait and see who that might be.”