Team USA perilously low on star power

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In the aftermath of Team USA’s stunning and disappointing bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics, then-NBA commissioner David Stern called Jerry Colangelo.

“We’ve got to re-do our whole USA Basketball program,” Colangelo recounted Stern saying.

Colangelo took over. He preached commitment. He emphasized expectations. He changed how Team USA was selected, how it trained, how it traveled (“no entourages and no families,” Colangelo said).

The plan paid dividends in the very next Olympics. The Americans won gold in the 2008 Games (and, since, 2012 and 2016).

But too much emphasis has been placed on cultural modifications.

Why did Team USA perform better? Better players.

Whatever adjustments Colangelo made in USA Basketball’s setup were only the means to an end. The United States’ improvements were nearly completely due to an improved roster.

In 2004, only one All-NBA player participated (Tim Duncan). In 2008, Team USA had six All-NBA players (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer).

That’s the difference.

With several stars sitting out the 2019 FIBA World Cup, the U.S. is once again veering toward a talent danger zone. An American gold medal shouldn’t be assumed.

Only one All-NBA player is set to play for the Americans in China this year – Kemba Walker, a third-teamer.

The World Cup (formerly called the World Championship) typically draws less star power than the Olympics. But even by World Cup standards, this U.S. roster is quite lacking.

To rate a Team USA’s star power, I used All-NBA selections the same year. The scoring system follows All-NBA voting – five points for first team, three points for second team, one point for third team.

Here’s every Olympics and World Cup/World Championship since NBA players began competing in 1992. Olympics are red. World Cups/World Championships are blue. The background color represents the United States’ medal:

gold (1)

2019 World Cup

  • Kemba Walker (third)

2016 Olympics

2014 World Cup

2012 Olympics

2010 World Championship

  • Kevin Durant (first)

2008 Olympics

  • Dwight Howard (first)
  • Chris Paul (first)
  • LeBron James (first)
  • Kobe Bryant (first)
  • Deron Williams (second)
  • Carlos Boozer (third)

2006 World Championship

  • LeBron James (first)
  • Elton Brand (second)
  • Dwyane Wade (second)
  • Carmelo Anthony (third)

2004 Olympics

  • Tim Duncan (first)

2002 World Championship

  • Jermaine O’Neal (third)
  • Paul Pierce (third)
  • Ben Wallace (third)

2000 Olympics

  • Gary Payton (first)
  • Jason Kidd (first)
  • Kevin Garnett (first)
  • Alonzo Mourning (second)
  • Vince Carter (third)

1998 World Championship

None

1996 Olympics

  • Penny Hardaway (first)
  • Scottie Pippen (first)
  • David Robinson (first)
  • Karl Malone (first)
  • Hakeem Olajuwon (second)
  • Grant Hill (second)
  • John Stockton (second)
  • Gary Payton (second)
  • Reggie Miller (third)
  • Charles Barkley (third)
  • Mitch Richmond (third)
  • Shaquille O’Neal (third)

1994 World Championship

  • Kevin Johnson (second)
  • Shawn Kemp (second)
  • Derrick Coleman (third)
  • Shaquille O’Neal (third)
  • Mark Price (third)
  • Dominique Wilkins (third)

1992 Olympics

  • Chris Mullin (first)
  • Clyde Drexler (first)
  • Michael Jordan (first)
  • David Robinson (first)
  • Karl Malone (first)
  • Charles Barkley (second)
  • Patrick Ewing (second)
  • Scottie Pippen (second)
  • John Stockton (second)

This is the United States’ second-weakest All-NBA representation of this era. Only the 1998 World Championship team had less. Anticipating a lockout, NBA players didn’t participate. Instead, USA Basketball turned to college players, minor-leaguers and Americans playing professionally abroad. The group won bronze.

The next-lowest Team USA by All-NBA points was the 2002 World Championship squad. Only third-teamers Paul Pierce and Ben Wallace played that year. The Americans finished sixth – a precursor to their 2004 Olympic flop.

After that, it’s a tie between the 2004 Olympic bronze medalists and 2010 World Championship gold medalists. Lacking stars doesn’t preclude a U.S. victory. Likewise, having stars doesn’t guarantee one. The 2006 squad had the most All-NBA points of an American World Cup/World Championship team in this era and still finished third.

But every time the Americans have come up short of gold, they’ve been low on star power.

The United States faces a couple key disadvantages. With an ever-churning roster, the U.S. lacks the cohesion of other top competitors. The U.S. is also less comfortable with international rules and style of play.

Elite talent compensates.

It just won’t much this year.

At least Team USA is slated to include a couple non-All-NBA All-Stars, Khris Middleton and Kyle Lowry. Kemba Walker is also used to lacking star teammates.

Why are so many American stars staying home? There are multiple reasons. Among them: More foreign players are occupying the All-NBA spots I’m using to measure stardom.

Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece will be the best player in the tournament. Another All-NBA first-teamer, Nikola Jokic, will play for Serbia. Second-teamer Joel Embiid is Cameroonian.

The U.S. can still win the World Cup. There’s no shortage of Americans who are good players. But with fewer stars, assembling a roster of players whose skills complement each other will be more important than ever.