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What Does Team USA’s Disastrous World Cup Say About the Future?

How much should we read into Team USA’s ugly showing at the FIBA World Cup? While the future for USA Basketball isn’t crystal clear, it isn’t exactly bleak either.

Team USA will play Poland on Saturday for the chance to finish in 7th place in the FIBA World Cup. This comes after a disastrous 48-hour stretch that included back-to-back losses to both France in the quarterfinals and then Serbia in the consolation bracket. Even if the U.S. can win Saturday—the game in Beijing will be played at 4:00 a.m. EST—the Americans are assured of their worst finish in a major competition since 1992, when NBA players began participating. 

So what does it mean? 

1. Team USA should be much better by next year's Olympics. In the 24 hours since the Serbia loss, I've seen a number of smart people shrug their shoulders at all this. Elite American players decided not to play, and a hard-working-but-obviously-flawed roster failed. It's not a referendum on the state of the game, and it's not even necessarily a reason to worry about the 2020 Olympics. The smart money says that the chance to avenge this year's loss and play on the Olympic stage—in a massive Asian market, no less—will be enough to convince at least a few A-listers to play next summer. 

Here are the players who stayed home this year: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Victor Oladipo, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, C.J. McCollum and Paul George.

The players the U.S. sent to China instead: Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Marcus Smart, Joe Harris, Myles Turner, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Mason Plumlee and Harrison Barnes.

If even two or three players from the first group join the second group, Team USA should be fine in 2020. I'm hoping that Lillard, McCollum, and Beal all go to Japan. Maybe LeBron joins them. Maybe a healthy KD uses the Olympics to reintroduce himself to the basketball public. We'll see. There are also younger options who will deserve consideration (Jaren Jackson Jr., Trae Young, DeAaron Fox, Marvin Bagley, Zion Williamson), not to mention a few wild card options (Zach LaVine, D'Angelo Russell, Bam Adebayo, John Collins, Gary Harris, Otto Porter) who could make sense if Jerry Colangelo is looking to get weird. The bottom line is that once you start talking through the various options for Team USA and all the talent that wasn't on this team, it's hard to be overly concerned about the long-term state of American hoops. 

Speaking of mitigating factors: FIBA used to host these World Championships two years before the Olympics. By delaying the timetable for this summer's event, it meant that anyone committed to his national team was essentially signing up to play basketball for something like eighteen months in a row. Former commissioner David Stern cited this FIBA decision as the key factor when asked to explain the declining participation from stars this summer. He's almost definitely correct. 

2. The 2020s NBA is full of uncertainty. While it's obvious that American basketball isn't in the midst of the sort of existential crisis that consumed the sport back in the early-2000s—when a 2002 Argentina loss foreshadowed both a 2004 Olympic upset and an incredibly bleak, Pistons-flavored half-decade across the NBA—I can’t totally get on board with the people who are shoulder-shrugging the games entirely. It's lazy and probably shortsighted to assume these games were meaningless. 

It may be true that this wasn't the A-team, but USA basketball has never sent its best players to FIBA events. LeBron and Wade and Carmelo weren't in Turkey in 2010. They weren't playing in Spain in 2014, either. Instead it was KD, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala who led the U.S. in 2010. Then it was Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Curry, Klay Thompson, and DeMarcus Cousins who carried the U.S. in 2014. As the rest of the world continues to improve and the field gets deeper, these FIBA events have been a useful window into the next generation of American stars. This one might have been, too, only with less encouraging returns. 

Without rehashing a column I wrote last week, it appears that USA basketball has fewer young, superstar wings than at any point in the past 25 years. Jayson Tatum looked fine in the games he played before his injury, but if a takeover was coming, it hadn't happened yet. Beyond that: Mitchell was spectacular against France and uneven elsewhere. Booker, Russell, and Fox stayed home. Karl-Anthony Towns played for the Dominican Republic as a teenager and is ineligible for Team USA. Myles Turner was fine, but he rarely looked comfortable. It can’t be a good sign for anyone on this team that the tournament is ending this weekend with basketball fans calling for Trae Young and Jaren Jackson Jr. to anchor the next generation of USA teams. 

I don’t like being critical of the only players who decided to show up while half the NBA was declining invites. Some of the younger players on Team USA could easily turn the corner beginning next month, and veterans like Walker and Middleton have been rock solid for several years. What’s more, FIBA rules make even the best players uncomfortable, and while everyone played hard, this team was flawed from the beginning. It feels wrong to treat any of these performances as dispositive.

But it’s definitely notable that a month of FIBA competition that has traditionally provided clues about the next generation’s hierarchy has instead left us with more questions than answers. Five years from now LeBron James will be 39 years old. KD and Curry will be 35. Harden will be 34. So who's ready to take control of the league? Will it be Young and Jackson? Fox? Booker? Over the summer there were plenty of NBA reporters who would have seen that question and pointed to guys like Tatum or Mitchell. The past month was inconclusive. 

3. The possibility of a thin American generation underscores the value of international stars. Continuous waves of revolutionary talent isn't a guarantee, even for the most talent-rich basketball country on the planet. While we don't know how many stars are coming with the next generation of Americans—mileage may vary on Booker, Mitchell, Tatum et. al—it would make sense if there was a dip as guys like LeBron, Durant, and Curry come back to earth. It would be a similar phenomenon to what the NBA went through in the aforementioned 2000s. 

But if Team USA's struggles have anyone concerned about the next generation, the international stage is also a reminder of the most important change since 2002. Back then international stars were still new, mostly unproven. Dirk was obviously great, but he hadn't won a title. Pau was in his rookie year. Manu Ginobili had yet to play a game for the Spurs when Argentina beat the Americans in Indianapolis. 

Today it's different. International players are ubiquitous across the league, and aside from helping to influence the style and shape of the game, there's also the most fundamental benefit they provide: more talent. When there are more good players everywhere, a generation gap among superstars hurts less than it once did. If players like Tatum, Mitchell, and Booker aren't totally convincing as torchbearers in the wake of the LeBron/Durant generation, that's OK. Look at Giannis, Jokic, Gobert, Simmons, Doncic, or maybe just watch these Bogdan Bogdanovic highlights from Thursday. One way or another, the future of the NBA will be in much better shape than it was in the aftermath of the last American hoops collapse.