USA Men's Basketball in Precarious Position Ahead of Tokyo

Gone are the days of U.S. teams stomping international competition. Here is what to expect from Kevin Durant and Co. before they head to Tokyo.
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LAS VEGAS — A Damian Lillard three rattled in late in the fourth quarter of USA Basketball’s exhibition game win over Spain on Sunday, and on the opposite end of the floor Draymond Green ripped his fist through the air. A week that began with a humiliating loss to Nigeria had ended with back-to-back wins over Argentina and Spain, the latter fueled by a 47-38 second half surge that ran the U.S.’s longtime rival off the floor.

Suddenly, all was right with USA Basketball.

Now … let’s see how long that lasts.

Team USA is Tokyo-bound this week for the Olympics, and no one can be sure what medals—if any—they will be wearing on the flight back. Gone are the days of U.S. teams stomping international competition. The Nigeria team that clipped the U.S. last weekend? That’s the same country the Americans steamrolled by 83 points in 2012. Australia boasts a roster that wouldn’t break double digits in wins during an NBA season. They cruised into Vegas and beat the U.S. by eight.

International teams are long on depth. On experience. On an understanding of what it takes to play under international rules. On Sunday, I asked Ricky Rubio, a ten-year NBA veteran who has been playing in international competitions since he was a teenager, what he sees when he U.S. players play by FIBA rules for the first time.

“I was talking [about this] to Zach LaVine before the game,” Rubio said. “The paint is more collapsed … hand checks are called differently in the NBA than in FIBA, physicality, it’s played different … it’s not just the rules, but the role they have with the team. Maybe you have one or two shots in the first quarter when you usually have five or six in the first five minutes of the game.”

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This U.S. team is good. Really good. It has arguably the best player in the world in Kevin Durant. It has a premiere perimeter shooter in Damian Lillard. It has scoring wings in Jayson Tatum and Zach LaVine and versatile big men in Green and Bam Adebayo.

It’s also flawed. Deeply flawed. It lacks size. Spain, led by the Gasol brothers, pounded Team USA on the boards on Sunday. JaVale McGee, a late addition, along with Keldon Johnson, after Bradley Beal and Kevin Love bowed out, didn’t get off the bench. It lacks chemistry. The pandemic forced USA Basketball czar Jerry Colangelo to piece this team together on the fly. With Johnson and McGee joining the team last week and with three more players—Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday—still days away, the U.S. will have limited practice time together before facing teams that have been playing together for generations.

The Johnson and McGee additions were curious. The losses of Love and Beal seemed to present an opportunity for the USA brass to bring in some ringers. How about Trae Young, the Hawks sharpshooter who had a breakout postseason? Or Julius Randle, the All-NBA forward who could play multiple positions? And am I the only one thinking there would be no better promotional vehicle for Space Jam: A New Legacy than for LeBron James to rejoin USA Basketball and save the day?

Asked specifically about the McGee selection, U.S. coach Gregg Popovich was succinct.

“We decided that was the most logical and appropriate choice,” said Popovich. “Given the choices we had, he fit the best.”

Still—it was strange, wasn’t it? Johnson, I suppose, had USA Basketball equity—he was a member of the select team—and has played for Popovich for two years in San Antonio. But the U.S. could certainly use more shooting and Johnson—a 33.1% three-point shooter last season—isn’t known for it. McGee is a shot blocker who has been in and out of the Team USA pipeline for more than a decade. But facing Spain’s burly front line, McGee didn’t get off the bench.

Earlier Sunday, I tracked down Colangelo to get a deeper explanation for the roster decisions.

“There are reasons why other players names did not come up,” Colangelo told me. “There are injuries, there are contracts, there are all kinds of things. We go through a very thorough examination. Some people say, ‘Well what about that guy?’ Well, there is a reason. You think we’re stupid? We know who can play and who can’t play. Some of them don’t have the ability to play, for reasons I’ve said.”

“But let’s talk about Keldon Johnson. I didn’t really know him very well. I know he was a second-year player who had a pretty good year. He was one of the young guys that we brought in. And we have had a number of players from the select team rosters who have graduated up. Watching him this past week, first of all he knows Pop well, he knows the system well because it is basically [the Spurs] system, he’s tough, competitive. It was a pretty easy decision. We weren’t looking for a star. It wasn’t an All-Star team, ever. We were always trying to put a team together where players complement one another. We have role players.”

“JaVale, he has a role. He’s a rim runner, he’s going to get blocked shots. How much he gets called on, that’s Pop’s call. Johnson, [Pop] has a lot of confidence in him. He’s pretty good security in case somebody goes down or something like that. There’s a reason for them being here.”

Indeed, the U.S. doesn’t necessarily need more stars because there are three coming. Sort of. Booker and Middleton should boost Team USA’s three-point shooting while Holiday should shore up the perimeter defense. But after a grueling postseason, one that won’t end until at least Tuesday and possibly as late as Thursday, what version of those players will the U.S. team get? I posed that question to Popovich, who has a keen understanding of the physical toll a run to the Finals can take.

“I have no idea,” Popovich said. “I’m not trying to be glib, just being totally transparent. We’ve talked about it. Are they going to have jet lag, is it going to be two days later after they land, and they will be OK the day before? They get [to Tokyo] the day before the game … we’ve gone over lots of scenarios, but we haven’t figured it out yet, that’s for sure.”

The U.S. enters these Olympics as a three-time defending gold medalist, but never has that position been so precarious. A seventh-place finish at the World Championships in 2018, an uneven performance in Las Vegas are troubling signs. There is more than enough talent on this U.S. team to bring back gold. The challenge will be molding that talent together.

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