At the Rio Olympics three years ago, Jerry Colangelo beamed at the sight of gold medals dangling from the necks of players on a supposedly underwhelming U.S. men’s basketball team. Then the USA Basketball managing director used the moment to admonish critics who had considered the squad too green in international competition and too full of secondary stars.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that might not otherwise have been there for them, so I’m happy for them,” Colangelo said that day. “It bothers me when some of our players are called ‘B’ players or ‘C’ players. That’s ludicrous. They’re all great players.”
Funny how time and circumstances distort perspective. Back then, these were some of the names on that “Is this the best we can do?” version of Team USA: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler. You know, the same guys who helped change the NBA during this landmark offseason.
If that was a B or C team, let’s just skip assigning a letter grade for the current FIBA World Cup roster. This figures to be the least accomplished collection of NBA players the United States has sent to a major international competition since before the Dream Team debuted in 1992.
The 2019 World Cup team has convened in Las Vegas this week to start preparing for the tournament later this month. For the casual basketball fan, it’s a “Who’s that?” list of emerging stars and role players. Kyle Lowry, Kemba Walker and Khris Middleton are the only reigning all-stars available. Harrison Barnes and Lowry (if he is cleared to play following thumb surgery) are the only holdovers from the 2016 Olympic team. It was once thought the team could include significant star power, but a long list of healthy stars seemingly in line to lead the team dropped out, including James Harden, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Kevin Love, Bradley Beal and CJ McCollum.
You have to be careful about characterizing both this roster and the overall state of USA Basketball. Since the back-to-back disappointments of a sixth-place finish in the 2002 world championships and a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics, the U.S. squad has a much better system for team selection and player engagement. So while the 2019 roster lacks superstars on top, it does possess a thoughtful collection of the kind of talent and versatility that suit international competition. Gregg Popovich, a great team builder, is the right fit to coach this group because he will combine a clear and demanding standard with a clever and flexible style of play. We’re not accustomed to a true team representing the United States. Normally, the standard is for all-stars to come together and sacrifice just enough for their overwhelming talent to take over. But this time, the whole truly must be greater than the sum of its parts.
There are some valid larger concerns, however. Most importantly, where are the heads of the biggest American stars? Is this a coincidental one-year issue or the start of a trend?
From 2006 to 2016, Team USA enjoyed a decade of mostly ideal commitment. Mike Krzyzewski went 88-1 as the coach during this span, with the lone loss coming to Greece in the semifinals of the 2006 world championships. Until the 2016 Olympics, the greatest players wanted to participate as much as possible, and there was a considerable waiting list of stars who couldn’t make the team but remained interested. Summer minicamps were highly attended events. The program was stronger than ever. The team was the hardest in the world to make.
While it’s laughable now to look at the 2016 Olympic team and consider it lackluster, that reaction was a testament to the commitment. Remember that the 2008 Olympic squad was referred to as the Redeem Team after the U.S. squad had failed to win gold in three straight major events (the 2002 world championships, 2004 Olympics and 2006 world championships). That redemptive spirit continued for several years, and typical American dominance followed.
But three years ago, the momentum started to fade. Concerns about Zika virus kept some players away from the 2016 Olympics. Some were too tired or banged up. Others were getting too old. Four first-team all-NBA selections didn’t go to Rio: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard. In addition, Olympic veteran Chris Paul didn’t play. Carmelo Anthony was still around from the Redeem Team, and Durant was playing in his second Olympics. But there had been a shift, and it was an uneasy feeling.
The U.S. squad went undefeated and beat Serbia by 30 in the gold medal game. However, with 10 new players, the tournament was a struggle until the team came together at the end. Three years ago, Colangelo noted the difficulty.
“With 10 new people, you only have them for a few weeks; it’s not enough time,” he said. “For me, I’m glad we’re past this. It’s vindication for all that we’ve done. But we need to continue with continuity. We can’t go back again with 10 new players. That’s not going to happen.”
For this World Cup, they have 10 new players. And it took more than 40 invitations to put this team together.
“Honestly, I don’t have any angst,” Colangelo said as training camp for the World Cup began.
Colangelo knows not to focus on who is absent. It’s unfair to the players who will compete. But after the United States had an easier time managing the roster for most of the past 13 years, the World Cup will be a test of American depth. But beyond that, there’s the larger question of what motivates the overall talent pool.
You have to wonder whether the stars have it too good right now. With the introduction of the NBA’s supermax contract, they’re eligible to make ridiculous money, and even without a supermax deal, franchise players make more than $30 million per season. Unlike after the 2004 Olympics failure, the quality of American basketball isn’t on trial anymore. The NBA style of play is entertaining again, and after the flurry of moves this offseason, parity may exist again, too.
There’s a thought that many stars declined Team USA invitations to focus on what could be an epic 2019-20 season. It also didn’t help that the World Cup was pushed back a year, meaning aspiring 2020 Olympians would have to commit consecutive summers to the team, and that’s a huge problem in this era of load management. The tournament also ends in mid-September, just two weeks before the start of NBA training camps.
Colangelo and Coach K had done a good job of getting players to believe in the system and to understand that their commitment required more than interest in competing during an Olympic year. But if the U.S. squad goes to China and wins the World Cup, would it cut a bunch of players on this year’s team to accommodate bigger stars if they want in on the 2020 Tokyo Games?
When the U.S. team had something to prove, participation wasn’t a problem. But where does the urgency come from now?
It’s not a big deal when Davis, during a summer in which he was traded, decides to save himself for his new team. When Julius Randle and Tobias Harris have better things to do, you grow concerned about both priorities and the effects of so much NBA player movement. As New Orleans guard JJ Redick cited in turning down the opportunity, he has to get his family settled in a new city.
No matter how Team USA fares in China, a solid system is being forced to adapt. If the NBA must adjust to the whims of its greatest, power-seeking players, so, too, must Team USA. It was inevitable. You can only hope the stars are motivated to find a greater purpose during such a privileged time.