In the era of American athletic exceptionalism, we’ve become accustomed to the continued success of the U.S. men’s basketball team. Since the failure of the 2004 Olympic team, which was only the third U.S. team to not win the Olympic gold medal, there has been a continuous history of the teams heading overseas and dominating any and every international tournament.
From the 2008 “Redeem Team” to the 2016 Olympics squad, Team USA director Jerry Colangelo has made it his personal goal to make sure stack the rosters with the very best stars that the country had to offer.
However, at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China, that legacy of winning and perfection was nowhere to be found. The days of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony leading their respective teams to glory are over.
Welcome to the days of team USA being led by the likes of — checks notes — Boston Celtics point guard Kemba Walker, Milwaukee Bucks guard Khris Middleton and Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes.
The results of this electric collection of players combined to complete the worst tournament result in the history of the U.S. men’s basketball team.
The cracks were showing early, as they barely escaped against an inferior team in Turkey an overtime win in the group stage. The 93-92 win shocked a lot of people, as the U.S. only shot 35.1 percent from the field against a far less talented team.
Sadly, the straw finally broke the camel’s back in the knockout rounds. After losses to the French and Serbian national teams in consecutive days, the no. 1 ranked team in the FIBA rankings could only finish as high as seventh place.
Luckily, the team was able to pull out a last ditch victory against Poland to salvage any sort of decent result from the tournament, winning by a score of 87-74.
How did we get here, fighting for relevance in the consolation bracket’s consolation game?
The failure of Team USA to live up to the lofty expectations set by past teams can be boiled down to a couple of key factors.
The U.S. team was severely lacking in the aforementioned star power that was once consistently on the roster.
There was a ridiculous number of withdrawals from the team, with the preliminary group of 35 stars dwindled to 12 in a number of weeks. Los Angeles Laker Anthony Davis pulled out on July 15, followed by former MVP James Harden and two-way weapon Bradley Beal no fewer than a couple of days later.
There seemed to be a general lack of interest among the big stars in participating in this tournament, almost as competing was a chore.
Unfortunately, there were also a number of unavoidable injuries that kept stars off of the roster. With NBA champion Kyle Lowry battling a thumb injury and Laker Kyle Kuzma being sidelined with an ankle ailment, Team USA was strapped for talent.
Subsequently, they had to round out the roster with a number of role players who come off the bench for NBA teams, including Mason Plumlee, Derrick White and Marcus Smart.
To make a long story short, U.S. men’s basketball was reduced to not their B team, but their C team, led by four Celtics players, Utah Jazz shooting guard Donovan Mitchell (lol), and Bucks center Brook Lopez.
Even for hall of fame head coach Gregg Popovich, who has made a career of building a successful team with strong role players, this was a tall task.
In the past, the U.S. team could waltz into an international tournament with a particularly subpar roster, by their standards, and still have their way with the field.
However, this is no longer the case. The talent gulf between the Americans and the rest of the world is much smaller than it used to be.
Gone are the days of 1992 and 2008, where they would have average margins of victory of 43.8 points and 32. But, now the international landscape looks more even, with many teams having significant depth.
The Serbian national team, which finished in fifth place after relegating the U.S. team to the seventh place game, was led by Denver Nuggets all-NBA center Nikola Jokić, Sacramento Kings sharpshooter Bogdan Bogdanović and Dallas Mavericks’ gentle giant Boban Marjanović. Australia, which finished in fourth place, was relatively stacked considering the fact that Ben Simmons decided to sit out of the tournament.
They still had NBA veterans Andrew Bogut, Aron Baynes, Matthew Dellavedova, Patty Mills and Joe Ingles. They were by no means left shorthanded. The team that captured the title — the Spanish national team — was the perfect conglomeration of NBA talent and homegrown players to create an astounding chemistry.
Led by NBA veterans Ricky Rubio, Marc Gasol and the Hernangomez brothers (Juan and Willy), and backed by a number of players from Real Madrid and Barcelona, they ran through the tournament, never dropping a game and winning the final by a score of 95-75.
They displayed a chemistry and poise of a team that had history playing together for multiple years. That would make sense, right?
A consistent core for your national team, one that’s rich in experience on the world stage and prolonged success against top-flight competition has shaped them for international glory.
The Spaniards were the antithesis to the American team. The U.S. team was a ragtag group of young players, with few established, top-flight stars to lead them.
It would have made an interesting and exciting story if all of the stars who were approached for the team didn’t reject the invitation and left us with the scraps. What we were shown is a massive failure on the hands of USA Basketball.
There was no clear finisher or go-to player that the team could trust to close out the games. Against the French — who were led by defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert and NBA veterans Evan Fournier, Nicolas Batum and Frank Ntilikina — Donovan Mitchell and Kemba Walker missed a number of clutch shots in the final two minutes.
Now, missed shots happen. They’re unavoidable. But the issue is that they were even in that situation. The U.S. teams of old would not have found themselves down six to France with two minutes left. The fact is that the Americans found themselves in China outgunned, outmanned and completely unprepared.
With the 2020 Olympics coming next year, Team USA is in dire need of the caliber of stars that they’ve had in previous Olympics and World Cups. If they show with the same firepower that they had this year, they’re going to get embarrassed on an international stage again.