The dominance of Team USA in men’s basketball on the world stage has been so thorough, so complete, such a foregone conclusion over the last dozen years that there was little reason to consider any outcome other than the obvious.
The Americans win gold medals? Ho-hum. Anything else? It’s a national disaster.
This time, though, the country needs to be mentally prepared for what might happen in Tokyo in a few weeks. Because early on in this journey, there’s no sugarcoating what we’ve seen from this team that Gregg Popovich and Jerry Colangelo have put together. So far – and we’re not overstating this whatsoever – they’ve absolutely stunk it up.
Team USA falling to 0-2 in exhibition play on Monday night with a 91-83 loss to Australia in Las Vegas doesn’t mean its gold medal hopes are over, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of improvement when the games really count.
But is it a big deal? Of course it is, and to deny that would be to rely on a long-ago Olympic history with different players, different coaches and different competition rather than what our eyes tell us right now.
“We’re not going to just come out and roll the ball out and beat these teams,” Damian Lillard said.
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Reputations, max NBA contracts and All-Star appearances don’t win Olympic medals. We’ve learned this lesson before as a nation, and the fallout from an unsatisfying bronze in 2004 ultimately led to a generation of dominance and 24 straight Olympic wins under Mike Krzyzewski, most of which weren’t particularly close.
Now we may have to learn it again.
Because even for all the superstars who opted out of Tokyo for various reasons, the problem with this team isn’t its level of talent. When you can roll out a lineup with the likes of Lillard, Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal, Jayson Tatum and Draymond Green, nobody is going to be able to match that player-for-player.
But when you watch them try to play together, you don’t see a functional unit that passes the ball around, gets defenses scrambling and generates easy buckets. Instead, it’s a bunch of guys who are exceptional one-on-one scorers in the NBA trying to apply that skill all at the same time.
And it just doesn’t work very well.
“The more time we spend on the floor together, the more we’ll figure each other out and get the ball moving,” Lillard said. “We’re kind of overthinking trying to run plays and stay out of each other’s way and do the right thing.”
Will they really figure it out? Do they have enough time? Do they have the personnel?
It’s fair to wonder whether that’s really the case, given the inherent lack of passing and ability to create for others that was baked into this roster from the beginning. And counting on the addition of Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and Devin Booker directly after the NBA Finals to change that seems like quite a longshot given the grueling playoff run they’ll have just finished.
The big question now hovering over Team USA is whether it simply needs more reps to discover something resembling a functional offense or whether this is just a foundational flaw when you don’t have a LeBron James, a Kyle Lowry, a Chris Paul and instead rely almost completely on volume scorers.
The difference between the way the U.S. team relied on tough shots down the stretch against Australia and the way Patty Mills pretty much had everyone on a string in the fourth quarter was glaring.
Australia isn’t as talented as Team USA, but it has enough NBA players to compete physically. Several of those guys have played together on the national team for years. They were cutting and moving for layups, while the Americans had to settle for jumpers. If that’s a legitimate preview of what we’ll see in Tokyo, Team USA is in real trouble.
Popovich blamed a lack of conditioning for the late fade and said he saw improvement from Saturday’s shocking exhibition loss to Nigeria.
But here’s the problem. Since professional players were allowed to compete in the Olympics – that’s nearly 30 years ago – the U.S. had lost only twice in these pre-Olympic exhibitions. Now they’ve lost twice in 48 hours, and certainly there was an expectation after the embarrassment of losing to Nigeria that Team USA would want to come back and assert itself against the Australians. Instead? This is looking like a very long haul to a gold medal.
“In the first half we defended the way we wanted to defend,” Popovich said. “We were more physical, we sustained the defense longer, we rebounded better, we moved the ball better and had more pace. In the second half we tired out and when that happens you get hit mentally a little bit too. So we have some guys that have to get our legs and rhythm back, but in general we need more conditioning and that’s totally understandable.”
History says it isn’t so understandable. And if something doesn’t change quickly, Team USA’s trip to Tokyo will look more like a comeuppance than a coronation.