When USA Basketball does not win gold — when it does not win, period, and do so convincingly — it dents the American ego. We see this as our sport. Basketball was invented in the USA, and as a nation we have dominated it for so long, so convincingly, that any change is a shock to the system.
But times, they are a changin’.
The USA got bounced from the World Cup on Wednesday by a French team that was simply better that day. The length and aggressiveness of the French defenders on the perimeter threw off the Americans, and the USA did not have anyone who could match up with Rudy Gobert in the middle. This was not a disaster for the USA, this was no embarrassment, this was not a lack of effort, it’s simply another sign that the basketball universe is changing.
Here are the three big takeaways from the USA’s World Cup experience in China.
1. TALENT WINS OUT
We see it every NBA season. We especially see it every NBA playoffs. And we saw it with this edition of Team USA: The talent gap between the top 10 players in the world (give or take a few) and everyone else is massive, and without those guys its hard to win big.
It’s the obvious, easy takeaway from this World Cup, but that doesn’t make it wrong: The USA did not send its best players and they couldn’t win without them. The members Team USA should not be embarrassed by the loss to France — the Americans were not lazy, they brought their best effort, France was just better on Wednesday. Talent won out.
As has been discussed in great detail in the run-up to the tournament, the best American players chose to stay home — as is their right. There are legitimate reasons for their decisions (keep reading to No. 3), but it still stung. C.J. McCollum added an interesting angle saying concerns about losing played a role and may have led to a snowball effect: A few guys decided to stay home, which led to fears of losing, which led more guys deciding to stay home, which led to more concerns about losing, and so on and so on.
Would Team USA still be playing for a medal if James Harden/Stephen Curry/Kawhi Leonard/Damian Lillard put on the red, white, and blue? We’ll never know for sure, but the USA struggled to score consistently throughout this tournament and had six straight empty possessions in crunch time in the fourth against a strong French defense, which helped decide the game. After taking the lead in the third quarter with good ball movement, tempo, and a burst from Donovan Mitchell, the USA fell back into the habit of half-court isolation plays when the game got tight, and they didn’t have a Harden or Leonard to make that work. Kemba Walker is an All-Star/All-NBA level player, but he is not one of those top 10 game changers, and when he had an off night —2-of-9 shooting — the USA stumbled on the offensive end.
I believe Donovan Mitchell will grow into one of those elite players — and he had 29 against France, the game is not close without him — but at age 22 he is not there yet.
This World Cup was a big step along that learning curve for him, but he was scoreless in the fourth quarter (the team went away from him, at one point for a Harrison Barnes postup) and the one time he did attack Gobert rejected his shot. Mitchell is still growing at age 22. If he were the third-best scoring option on this team, would things be different?
Talent is not everything — the Greeks had Giannis Antetokounmpo but next to nothing around him, plus they used him poorly, and they struggled — but at the end of the day the Americans sent their B team, maybe their C team, and that’s not enough anymore. One key reason is…
2. THE GAP BETWEEN THE USA AND THE REST OF THE WORLD IS NOT THAT BIG
This is not 1992 anymore, when opposing players were asking the Dream Team members for autographs on the court after the game. This isn’t 2008 either, when a stacked Redeem Team reasserted Team USA’s dominance in the sport.
This is 2019, and the gap between the USA and the rest of the world is much smaller than it was even a decade ago. That is the new reality. There is much less margin for error for the Americans — especially if we don’t send our best.
In NBCSports.com’s recently completed “50 best players in 5 years” projections, three of the top five players are not Americans (Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic). The USA still has more depth than any nation in the world, and that was true 1-12 on this USA squad, but the gap is much smaller, especially among the guys getting heavy minutes. Against France, two of the three best players on the court were French NBA players in Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier. That — and a strong game from former Spur Nando De Colo — was enough to knock off the USA.
If the best players in the USA are going to treat the FIBA’S World Cup as a secondary event, this will continue to happen. And the best Americans likely will continue to treat the World Cup that way because…
3. THE WORLD CUP IS NOT THE OLYMPICS, (AND FIBA’S WORLD CUP “IMPROVEMENTS” HURT THE USA)
FIBA has a fever dream to turn its basketball World Cup into the kind of cash cow, “the-world-stops-to-watch” event that FIFA’s soccer World Cup is. FIBA is desperately making moves to try and make that dream a reality.
The results have been terrible. For Team USA and the tournament as a whole.
For American-born players, the Olympics remain the gold standard of international tournaments. The USA performed well enough in this World Cup to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo games — and next summer expect many of the USA’s best players to agree to go. For the USA the Olympics are the bigger stage, the bigger marketing platform, the tournament with more prestige. That’s the gold medal American players want.
FIBA is no fan of the Olympics (because the International Olympic Committee makes the money, not FIBA) and seems to be working to undercut the 5-on-5 games at the Olympics.
Nobody in America cares about the World Cup. Until we lose.
FIBA made a few changes in the run-up to this World Cup to help boost the event’s standing. They backfired.
First was to move the World Cup to 2019 — one year before the Olympics — instead of 2018, when it would have traditionally fallen. The reasoning FIBA gave was to get its World Cup out of the same year as the soccer World Cup, which obviously overshadows it. With the change, the basketball World Cup could serve as a primary Olympic qualifying event, too.
This shift drove some players away. To play for Team USA is a five-to-six week summer commitment, during the offseason when players are trying to rest, get their bodies right, relax a little, and spend time with friends and family. Most players are willing to make that sacrifice to play for the USA every other year (which is how the World Cup and Olympics had been spaced out), but when FIBA moved the tournament to 2019 it became back-to-back years of major summer commitments to play for Team USA. Players decided to take one of them off, and the World Cup is always going to lose that fight.
Also, FIBA scheduled this World Cup for early September, so it runs right up against the start of training camps around the globe, with little break for the players. That also was a strike against the event for players. (It wasn’t just the USA, international players such as Nikola Mirotic begged off, too, because of the event timing.)
FIBA’s other big change was to move World Cup qualifying around and have the games during what would be the season for the NBA and other major leagues in Europe. That is what FIFA does for soccer, except no major basketball league was going to take an “international break” — as the major European soccer leagues are doing this week — so the best players can take part in qualifying. It’s part of the soccer’s culture, basketball was not going to bend that way. The NBA did not release players, and neither did the major European leagues. That meant the best players in the world were not part of qualifying at all — the USA qualified by sending a team of G-League guys coached by Jeff Van Gundy.
For the World Cup itself, that qualifying system meant not all the best teams made the cut— Slovenia, the current European champions, did not qualify for the World Cup. That’s a team led by Goran Dragic and with Luka Doncic potentially, but they didn’t make it to China because their best players couldn’t take part in qualifying.
FIBA is a mess of an organization, and its lust for money and power hurt the World Cup, and it hurt the product the USA could put on the court.
But that was just one of the American’s problems.