It is no Dream Team, for sure. It is more like a Dare to Dream Team.
The players dared. They were denied: one exhibition loss to Australia, tournament losses to France and Serbia, a humbling trip through consolation bracket hell. All that’s left is a thrilling battle for seventh place, and when their run ends, they will have just two weeks to rest before reporting to NBA training camp, where most of them will return to the comforts of being complementary players.
A disappointing outcome was inevitable, and if you didn’t realize this, you haven’t paid enough attention to the sport’s global talent sprawl. Placing seventh or eighth — guaranteed to be the worst U.S. finish in 45 appearances in major tournaments — is a disastrous result. But they were the favorites only because of the tradition of USA Basketball. In reality, a team relying on Harrison Barnes as its veteran leader was destined to be a coin flip once it advanced past group play.
So on Wednesday, the Americans lost to France, 89-79, in the quarterfinals. The French squad has five players with NBA experience on its roster, including Rudy Gobert, the two-time defensive player of the year. Gobert, who finished with 21 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks, was the best player on the floor. It’s true not just for that particular game but in general: Gobert impacts winning in the NBA more than any of his U.S. counterparts.
And on Thursday, lumbering through the consolation round, the United States lost to Serbia, 94-89, an opponent with five current NBA players and others expected to arrive soon. The best Serbian player, Nikola Jokic, made the all-NBA first team last season. This version of Team USA again had fallen to a foe that featured a superior top-end star and possessed fairly comparable talent overall, especially after you factor in FIBA experience.
These were not upsets. Strip away the tradition — of which only Barnes is connected to because he played all of 31 minutes during the 2016 Olympics — and you’re looking at pick ’em games. France and Serbia were foaming at the mouth because they didn’t see LeBron James or Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry on the other side. This was their chance.
“I’ve been dreaming about this for a while,” Gobert said to reporters in China. “I was thinking there was going to be a short window of time when we were going to do it. I was thinking that before the game and thought we might never get the opportunity again.”
For the first time since USA Basketball had been “fixed,” there’s a situation to manage. It’s not the crisis that it was in 2006 after the United States had failed to perform like the United States in three straight major tournaments. It embarrassed itself during a sixth-place finish in the 2002 world championships, its previous worst showing and the first time an all-star collection of American NBA players had failed. Then during the 2004 Games, the United States struggled and earned the bronze medal, which is the one time in seven Olympics that NBA players have failed to win gold. After some major revisions, a better roster coached by Mike Krzyzewski lost to Greece in the semifinals of the 2006 world championships and settled again for bronze.
Back then, it felt like every major international tournament was a referendum on the state of American basketball. The game was not as aesthetically pleasing as it is now. It was more about physicality than skill. The rest of the world was improving rapidly, but this was before Dirk Nowitzki became an MVP and NBA champion, before Giannis Antetokounmpo staked a claim as the world’s best player and before the number of international NBA players reached triple digits. It felt like our status as the basketball superpower was in danger — and because of our own mismanagement and inadequate player development.
It led to the formation of the 2008 Redeem Team — the best U.S. squad since 1992 — and an approach that stabilized the entire program. Since the 2006 bronze, the United States had won gold in five straight major tournaments (three Olympics and two World Cups) and posted a 58-game tournament winning streak.
So what does this failure say? Well, this time it’s not about the system or the quality of play. The problem is the lack of star commitment. The United States probably can win with its A, B or C teams. But its D team? That’s not going to cut it. During this era of NBA player empowerment, the concern should be that star players are thinking too much about themselves and lacking the sense of mission needed to help Team USA prosper.
But this summer also represented a perfect storm of roster-building challenges. Rampant player movement contributed to some needing to decline invitations to get settled in new cities. The roster shuffling also led to the perception that this upcoming season will be one of great parity, and some players preferred to prepare for a great championship hunt. Load management has become a popular concept in the NBA, so some athletes are worried about wear and tear on their bodies. Major injuries to Durant and Klay Thompson made it impossible for them to play, and others such as James, Curry and Draymond Green have played too much basketball over the past five years to expect them to sacrifice time off.
Some of those issues can be minimized. In fact, this World Cup setback might inspire several superstars to recommit and pursue American redemption again. They could be considered saviors. But there is one issue that won’t go away: FIBA adjusted the World Cup schedule rotation, moving it back a year and creating a situation in which its championship and the Olympics are in back-to-back years. From 1970 to 2014, the event was perfectly in the middle of the Olympic cycle. That made it easier for players to make the multiyear commitment to the program that Jerry Colangelo, the managing director of the men’s national team, wants. It didn’t require consecutive years of, in essence, year-round basketball.
FIBA plans to play its next World Cup in 2023, the year before the Paris Games. If it continues to play this championship so close to the Olympics, Team USA will be forced to revise its strategy with the men’s national team. Colangelo has floated the possibility of going with a 23-and-under team for World Cups and reserving a few of the Olympic team spots for young players. That way, the United States could have some continuity without requiring its most established superstars to be all-in for multiple years.
It is not a USA Basketball crisis, but it raises a couple of existential questions: Should the men’s national team, the only one in the world with the pressure to win every game, start prioritizing the Olympics over comprehensive dominance? And with the league thriving, will its empowered players feel the responsibility of maintaining the American gold standard at a time when the success of the “global” NBA isn’t dependent on the Americans constantly flexing their superiority?
The game has changed. Sometimes Team USA can lose with NBA players and it’s not merely about American ego and underestimating the competition. The rest of the world is too good now. The United States has lost to three different teams this summer; it could have lost to three or four others. The margin for error was that small.
While there is no constant threat to our status as the sport’s most powerful force, the message should be clear: To stay the best, bring your best. Dominance can no longer be assumed. It must be earned and reiterated.