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How the Postponed Olympics Could Affect USA Basketball

The Tokyo games have been moved from this summer to 2021. Here’s how that could affect the men’s national basketball team.

The IOC and Japan announced Tuesday the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be postponed to next year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Multiple Olympic committees called for the decision in the previous weeks, both due to public health and training concerns. Like all coronavirus related suspensions, postponements, and cancellations, moving the Olympics to next year is a prudent decisions that creates a new set of logistical concerns. Here’s what the one-year delay means for the USA men’s basketball team.

1. Gregg Popovich will still be the coach, according to USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo, who told ESPN both he and Popovich will remain in their positions for next year.

“The commitments everyone made for 2020 are still there; we're all-in and we're committed,” Colangelo told ESPN. ”It's important to deal with the unknowns and this virus. This too shall pass, and we'll be back for everyone's well-being.“

Popovich first took over the men’s national team during 2019’s FIBA World Cup, where the USA—without many of its top players—finished seventh. There was some speculation when Popovich first took the Olympic job he may use the Tokyo games as his last go-around as a head coach. That talk has cooled over the last couple years anyway, and now Pop is committed through next year no matter what, which probably bodes well for the Spurs as well.

2. The next NBA season could need a break in the middle. As of now, neither the 2021 NBA season nor the Tokyo games have an official start date. Both situations will likely be fluid as the pandemic plays out. The Olympics could take place in the spring as opposed to the summer. Meanwhile, commissioner Adam Silver has said the league has broached the idea of changing its calendar depending on when or if this current season resumes (and when it’s safe to be playing again.) Hypothetically, an NBA season that begins this December could need to take a break in the spring if that’s when the Olympics take place AND if the league is still committed to sending its top talent. Players are generally pro-Olympics for a variety of reasons, and it would be a tough sell for some of them to miss out on Tokyo because of the pandemic fallout. Other sports leagues, like the NHL and WNBA, have taken breaks so their athletes can compete in the Olympics.

What could get complicated for the NBA is if the Tokyo games take place at the same time next summer. If the league calendar is pushed back and the playoffs are taking place in July/August, teams would probably be more hesitant to take a break in the schedule and send players to play in competitive games and risk injury. Of course, the roster could then be made up of eliminated players or some other contingency. But as of this moment, there’s no guarantee the 44 players in the Olympic pool will definitely be available to participate in Tokyo. The scheduling will bear watching.

3. Injured players could benefit. Stephen Curry has never played in the Olympics. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson have both missed this entire NBA season due to injury. All three could benefit from the games being pushed back a year. Curry broke his hand last fall, and while he has since returned to the court, it’s possible he could have taken the summer off to be fully ready for next season. Durant and Thompson may not have been comfortable having their first competitive action being for the national team as opposed to the NBA post-injury, but now they (likely) won’t have to make that choice.

4. Who will age out? This is the biggest question, and the one we won’t know the answer to for a long time. LeBron James will be 36 by next summer. Chris Paul, having a resurgent season, will be 36 by then. Curry will be 33. Perhaps the truncated 2020 season will help the older players. But their NBA success also means they expect long playoff runs, and trying to fit the Olympics into an already complicated schedule could be too much.

The absence of older players wouldn’t necessarily be a death knell for the team, and it would allow new faces to step up. Maybe Ja Morant and Zion Williamson could find themselves on the 44-man roster and join forces instead of competing for Rookie of the Year. Maybe Jayson Tatum could continue his leap on an international stage. Eventually, these players will have to take over USA men’s basketball anyway. Perhaps the one-year delay makes it happen sooner rather than later.