This week, that dynastic period ended. On Wednesday, Team USA lost a game in an international tournament for the first time since 2006. The next day, it lost again.
Wednesday’s 89-79 loss to France in the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals eliminated Team USA from medal contention, and the group followed with a second loss Thursday, 94-89, to Serbia. The Americans, once expected to compete for gold, can now place no higher than seventh in this World Cup. Team USA was burned Thursday by Sacramento Kings swingman Bogdan Bogdanovic (28 points, six assists), while Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic had a relatively modest impact for Serbia (nine points, seven assists). Bogdanovic’s NBA teammate Harrison Barnes led Team USA with 22 points, and Kemba Walker added 18 points and eight assists.
Such a disappointment doesn’t qualify as a surprise. This version of USA Basketball was noticeably short on star power — while the 2008 national team fielded 11 all-stars and a league MVP, this summer’s roster featured just two current NBA all-stars and probably (at best) three future all-stars. None of them should be considered a surefire, or even probable, Hall of Famer at this point, unlike past iterations.
In this age of load management, the marquee names that populated past tournaments largely stayed home to prepare for the upcoming NBA season, leaving Coach Gregg Popovich as Team USA’s biggest star. (No offense to Walker.)
Then there were the early signs of structural instability — a bizarre scrimmage defeat to a team of NBA hopefuls and hangers-on last month, a loss to Australia in a World Cup tuneup game on Aug. 24, and an overtime win against Turkey in group play that almost definitely should have been a loss on Sept. 3. Those stumbles exposed depth issues, particularly among the team’s big men and outside shooters. And an ankle sprain for Jayson Tatum, who could be anywhere from Team USA’s best to fifth-best player, depending on the day, compounded all these issues and temporarily made some stars look smart for skipping the tournament.
So, as many feared, the team that traveled to China simply wasn’t good enough, not when the rest of the world has gotten markedly better. Serbia won with an MVP candidate (Jokic) and four other current NBA players. France rolled out six current or former NBA talents, including a two-time defensive player of the year (Rudy Gobert). Walker, meanwhile, served as Team USA’s alpha dog, flanked by Milwaukee Bucks all-star Khris Middleton and a trio of promising pups (Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Jaylen Brown).
Praise the guys who showed up for Team USA, because they did exactly that, unlike many others. But with the Americans already locked into a spot for next summer’s Tokyo Olympics, it’s now time to wonder what the response to these losses will be.
Popovich, as sure of a basketball legend as there is, has extra motivation to get this team back to the top. He is somehow still chasing national team success, after serving as an assistant on the disappointing 2002 and 2004 teams.
“I still haven’t gotten over [Athens],” 2004 head coach Larry Brown told the New York Times, “and I’m sure Pop hasn’t, either.”
Team USA could build a pretty formidable roster for Tokyo out of just the guys who dropped out this summer — James Harden, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Tobias Harris, De’Aaron Fox, Kevin Love, CJ McCollum, and so on. Will some of them be tempted by a shot at an Olympic gold medal and the fact that the team clearly needs their help to reestablish its dominance? If so, who from this summer’s roster survives for a chance in the Olympics?
There are many ways this could go, and the national team could be completely reshaped following this finish in China. Is another Team USA renaissance in store? Will we see a Redeem Team 2.0 in 2020?
The Americans can be disappointed by this summer’s result, but now it’s all about how they respond in 2020.