6 reasons to be worried about Team USA men's basketball in the Olympics
And one reason not to be worried.
Good morning. Let’s basketball.
Map, Jasper Johns
The USA Basketball men’s senior team lost another exhibition on Monday night, their second straight defeat in warm-ups ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. This loss came to Australia, a medal contender, and came more convincingly than Saturday’s loss to upstart Nigeria.
The United States men’s team had not lost two straight exhibition games since pro players joined the party in 1992. In fact, the United States men’s team was 54-2 in exhibitions since 1992 before this week. In exhibitions in most years, Team USA would destroy its opponents without breaking much of a sweat. That carried over to the tournaments, be they the Olympics or FIBA World Cups. Team USA simply did not lose.
Things have changed, obviously.
Here are five reasons to be legitimately worried about the United States men’s team ahead of the Olympics along with one reason not to be worried.
6 Reasons To Be Worried
1. A lack of continuity
Powerful people in American basketball — David Stern and Jerry Colangelo, more or less — did an autopsy of sorts on the last American men’s team to fail to win gold in the Olympics, after the dreaded bronze year of 2004. And one of the major factors the power brokers pointed to was a lack of continuity during any given Olympic cycle among players.
Back then, the FIBA World Championship (rebranded as the World Cup more recently) was held in even non-Olympic years, a continental tournament was held the following year and then there were the Olympics. The idea was that a core group of players would stick together for the full cycle. If you wanted to play for the Team USA men’s squad, you weren’t committing for one summer: you were committing for three summers. Because the team was so good, you’d really just need to play in two tournaments — instead of playing in FIBA Americas in the odd year between World Cup and Olympics, there’d be a training camp and maybe some exhibitions.
The “Olympic cycle” gambit worked for a while. Even when it failed, players who had Team USA experience filled the roster. This was always a huge ask for NBA stars, to give up three straight summers between grueling, long NBA seasons. The 2012 Olympic team was notable because it was basically half players from the 2010 World Championship team (a ripping success) and half players from the 2008 Olympic “Redeem” team who skipped 2010 and thus the cycle. This is really the actual new model: you don’t really have to commit to the cycle, but it helps if you’ve played in a prior tournament.
It’s all mostly out the window now. Much like the 2002 to 2004 span, Team USA will take who it can get. Only two players on the Olympic squad, Jayson Tatum and Khris Middleton, played for the damned 2019 World Cup team. (That team finished No. 7, a terrible omen.) Only three other players on the 2021 squad have ever played in a major international tournament with the senior men’s program: Kevin Durant, star of the 2010 World Champs and 2012 and 2016 Olympic teams; Kevin Love, who did well in limited minutes in 2010 and a substantial role for the 2012 Olympic team; and Draymond Green, who shot a cumulative 5/22 as the last player off the bench in the 2016 Olympics.
So to recap, instead of a group of stars who have played together for three straight summers we have Kevin Durant; two guys who played together for the seventh-place finisher two years ago (one of whom isn’t in camp yet because he’s still in the NBA Finals), a guy who last played internationally almost a decade ago, a guy who was the Human Victory Cigar for the last Olympic gold team and a collection of new faces.
This was exactly the problem identified in 2004. Meanwhile, other top nations’ programs typically have the same core of players for several cycles.
2. The world has caught up
I actually think this is a bigger deal. There have been exceptional international-born players since the late 1980s. But the share of NBA stars who come from abroad grows every year. The last three NBA MVPs have been won by players who hail from outside the United States. Neither of those MVPs, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic, will play in the tournament as Greece didn’t qualify and Jokic is resting. But the point stands.
Not a single member of the first team All-NBA for 2021 will play for Team USA. Luka Doncic is the only member of the first team who is in the Olympics, with Slovenia. The All-NBA second team has a single Olympian: Damian Lillard. There are two on the third team: one for America (Bradley Beal) and one for the world (Rudy Gobert). Four All-NBA players will be in the Olympics, and just two of them will be on Team USA.
France has five NBA players. Australia has six. Nigeria has eight. Spain has four in the NBA, but a bunch more at the tippy top of the European club level. Team USA still has the best roster on paper, bar none. But basketball isn’t played on paper, and with Luka Doncic out there on a good, solid squad, it’s not a given that Team USA will have the tournament’s best player. (We’ll get to that.)
3. The best players are all scorers
You put together a team of players who have been alpha scorers 99% of their basketball careers, who stands down and does the other stuff? That’s an eternal question in the post-1992 era for USA Basketball. This is why odd roster choices get thrown on, as if having a Plumlee at the end of the bench will help solve the puzzle of distributing possessions among a lineup of players accustomed to average 25 points per game.
Team USA’s best players are Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum. What are those four players’ top basketball skill, the thing they are known for most? In order: scoring, scoring, scoring and … scoring. Durant is much more than that, but he is first and foremost a scorer. The other three can do other stuff, of course, especially against non-NBA or low-NBA talent. But scoring is their best skill.
Devin Booker, due to join after the Finals, is probably the fifth best player on the team. What is he? A scorer. Zach LaVine is an All-Star caliber player on this team. He’s a scorer.
So to help balance the situation, you give someone like Draymond Green (an incredible defender who has no record of individual success in international play) lots of minutes. You rely really heavily on Bam Adebayo knowing full well the only shots he’ll get will be on putback opportunities or lobs. (There really isn’t anyone to toss lobs, to be honest. Remember: scorers.) You ask Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, coming off of NBA Finals triumph or heartbreak, to do the dirty work. You ask Jerami Grant, newly minted as a scorer in Detroit, to do the dirty work as a center against mammoths. (The Olympic field always brings some 7’2 beasts who it does not feel good to box out.)
This might all sell Durant, Tatum, Beal and definitely Adebayo short. But it’s a consistent concern with this team.
4. Size matters
Adebayo is the only center on the U.S. team. Green, Tatum and Grant are not international centers. Durant is not an international center. Love is probably not going to play much, but regardless he is not a center in FIBA play. Jokic sitting out and eternally large Greece and Brazil missing the cut lessens this issue quite a bit. But it’s still an issue that you’re going to have Tatum, Grant or Green playing major minutes against Rudy Gobert. Even the centers on good teams who aren’t near the U.S. players’ level — guys like Aron Baynes and Hamed Haddadi — are BIG. It’s not fun to work hard to keep those guys off the glass, especially with the unfamiliar live ball rules in play.
Nigeria had 13 offensive rebounds against Team USA on Saturday. The odds that happens again and again in this tournament are high.
Even the 2016 Olympic team had DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan playing major roles. Two true NBA centers — All-NBA centers — to vacuum rebounds and score in the paint. The 2021 Olympic team has Bam. That’s it. One ankle tweak, one game with foul trouble and that’s a huge problem. It’s a red flag.
5. Fouls and threes shrink the margin
Let’s go back to Point No. 3 for a second. The top four players on the squad are unimpeachable scorers. But all four, especially Beal and Lillard, rely to some degree on drawing fouls to put up so many points in the NBA. International referees absolutely do not call the game as tight as NBA refs call it these days. The plays that earn reliable whistles in the NBA will largely disappear in the Olympics. And if history is a guide, other teams will take that as an invitation to be very physical with the relatively small U.S. team.
The other major feature of the basketball avant garde is a bigger reliance on three-pointers. You know what taking a lot of threes means for Team USA and its opponents? Higher variance. You know what you don’t want if you’re the better team on paper in a tournament that features single-game elimination? Higher variance. As has always been the case in international play, a single player getting hot for a single quarter can flip a tournament on its head. It’s not just Luka Doncic that Team USA has to worry about. It’s Patty Mills or Joe Ingles, it’s Evan Fournier or Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, it’s Tomas Satoransky, it’s Mo Wagner or Isaac Bonga, it’s Gabe Vincent, it’s Nico Melli or Nico Mannion (Nico Mannion! imagine if Nico Mannion got hot and knocked out Team USA!), it’s any number of players who star on high-level European clubs.
And it’s also Luka Doncic.
It just takes one player for one quarter at the wrong time, if you aren’t up by 20, and it’s over. As more players (on Team USA and on their opponents) take more threes, the potential for this to happen grows.
6. Luka Doncic
Slovenia won the European tournament in 2017 behind Luka. The team didn’t qualify for the 2019 World Cup despite that (FIBA gonna FIBA), but Slovenia made the Olympics by dominating their mini qualifying tournament in recent weeks. You may recall that in the game against powerhouse Lithuania to decide the Olympic berth, Luka had 31-11-13.
Slovenia doesn’t have pecking order issues: it’s Luka, then Goran Dragic, then everyone else. The Slovenians have largely played together for a long time. Eight players from that 2017 Euro champion team are on the roster for the Olympics, including four players who started the 2017 Euro final. And Luka is one of the best basketball players in the world, period.
Slovenia can beat any team in the tournament. Any team, including the Americans. And it’s primarily because they have Luka Doncic.
1 Reason Not To Be Worried
And now, the one big reason to not be worried about the U.S. men’s team in the Olympics.
1. Kevin Durant
Is Kevin Durant the best player in the tournament? It’s him or Luka. It was just a few weeks ago, but hopefully you haven’t forgotten how incredible Durant was in the NBA playoffs, carrying the injury-riddled Nets to the brink against the eventual East champs (and maybe NBA champs). There’s no one in the world who can stop Durant, frankly there’s no one who can slow him. And none of the defenses Team USA will face in the tournament are as good as that of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Durant has excelled in international play in the past. That 2010 World Championship run was legendary, a foundational piece of KD lore. I had honestly forgotten he was the star of that 2016 Olympic team, a team people like me openly worried about. (Forgive me, I was mostly paying attention to Boogie Cousins.) That was just after KD joined the Warriors. He played with Klay Thompson and (in theory) Draymond in the tournament. He was awesome. He’s always awesome.
If Luka is a reason to be worried about Team USA’s fate, Durant is the equal and opposite reason to not be worried. His individual greatness can cover up a whole lot of issues. It hasn’t so far in these exhibitions but then these games don’t even count, right? If Team USA loses in the group stage without Durant taking over, then I’ll be really worried.