It’s too easy to make excuses for the Team USA men’s basketball team as it stumbles, and stumbles again, on the court.
It’s too easy to point out that this is international play, and these are international referees and rules, that this isn’t the NBA, that the points and fouls aren’t coming the way they do at home.
Then there’s the jet lag, the exhaustion, the lack of pre-Olympics practice time for the guys who played in Milwaukee last Tuesday night during the NBA finals. Those finals gassed one quarter of Team USA’s roster, forced three key players to fly to Japan on the heels of a grueling six-game series that ended not five full days before their first Olympic game.
There’s Covid, which disrupted training over the past 16 months and convinced some of the US’s top players to just stay home.
But those excuses – or are they just common-sense explanations for Team USA’s break with dominance? – all pale in importance to one difficult truth for many American fans: Basketball is an increasingly international sport, and some of the NBA’s top players become Team USA’s rivals every fourth (or fifth) summer. In 2021, it takes the best of the best the US has to offer to win decisively on the international stage.
And the best of the best are watching from their couches at home.
Yes, the US roster features NBA All Stars Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Devin Booker and Jayson Tatum. But consider who’s not playing: LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Zion Williamson and Jimmy Butler.
And consider who’s playing for their home countries at these Olympics: arguably the best young player in the NBA (Luka Dončić, Slovenia), a three-time defensive player of the year (Rudy Gobert, France) and one of the most experienced players in the league (Marc Gasol, Spain). Consider, too, the international players who aren’t even competing: Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Ben Simmons, Pascal Siakam. Remember that the Nigerian and Australian teams that beat the US in exhibition games – the horror – have rosters stacked with NBA talent.
Realize that Team USA can’t just piece together a roster of very good players, sprinkled with a few truly great talents, and expect to win.
On Sunday in Japan, Team USA snapped their 25-game Olympic winning streak, which dated back to 2004. They fell to France, 83-76, after blowing an eight-point lead with four minutes to play. Down the stretch, Evan Fournier (an NBA veteran and former first-round pick who happens to be no slouch on the court) hit a decisive three-pointer, and Team USA couldn’t get a single shot to fall. Durant, Jrue Holiday and Zach LaVine all had wide-open looks.
So yes, criticize their shooting. But remember: LaVine is by no measure a top-25 player. Holiday is, but he’s also 31 and coming off the finals. And Durant, as the Brooklyn Nets learned during this spring’s NBA playoffs, can’t always be perfect.
For more than a decade, ever since the 2004 squad lost three games en route to a bronze medal, Team USA have been unbeatable, invincible, inevitable. (The US women have been just as dominant; they’ve won gold in every Olympics since 1996 but have also struggled in the leadup to Tokyo.) That’s fun for patriotism in this country, but not particularly interesting for the rest of the world. It’s also left America complacent, positive that any mix of NBA talent can mosey into Tokyo and take gold. This summer has shone a glaring spotlight on that hubris. Not only is this year’s team not good enough to overwhelm the rest of the world, it also has yet to prove it can close out a big game.
And it may still. There’s still a path to a medal for the US team, but it won’t be an easy one, and gold is certainly no longer a foregone conclusion.
After his team lost to Nigeria earlier this month, coach Gregg Popovich said that he was “kind of glad it happened.” He framed the defeat as a learning opportunity, a wake-up call for a more talented group. After the blown lead against France, though, he was more realistic, critical less of his team than the expectations. “There’s nothing to be surprised about,” Popovich told reporters in Tokyo. “When you lose a game, you’re not surprised. You’re disappointed, but I don’t understand the word ‘surprised.’ That sort of disses the French team, so to speak, as if we’re supposed to beat them by 30 or something.”
But many fans expected something like that: a throttling, a blowout. Give France (and Australia, and Nigeria) some credit; it might just be time to adjust expectations.