USA Basketball named 44 finalists last month for the Tokyo Olympics.
No Zion Williamson. No Ja Morant. Not even Trae Young, who’s already an All-Star starter and on track to get even better.
USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo explained: Though young players would eventually get their turn, the 2020 Olympics would be for players who previously represented the U.S.
Except there will be no 2020 Olympics.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Games have been postponed to 2021. By then, USA Basketball’s plan to build an older roster – already a suspect strategy – will become even less tenable.
The 2019 FIBA World Cup showed the Americans’ vulnerability. They finished seventh – their worst-ever finish in a major tournament. The United States’ advantage is depth of star talent. That has carried Team USA through deficient cohesion and comfort with international rules/style. The 2019 squad lacked the usual star power.
Anything USA Basketball does to lower its talent level – including giving preferential treatment to past-their-peak players based on prior contributions – increases risk of another letdown.
Chris Paul sounded ready for Tokyo. But he’ll turn 35 this spring and would have been one of the oldest players ever on Team USA if competing in an on-time Olympics. LeBron James – who is at least open to another Olympics – is even older than Paul. Several other aging veterans are in the mix.
Already, half the finalists will be in their 30s by the time the Games were originally scheduled to begin.
Though that doesn’t necessarily mean the final roster would have been old, it’s a telling starting point. The average age of the finalists is 28.1.* In 2016, it was 26.4 In 2012, it was 26.8.
*On Feb. 1 of that year
Again, the final roster could have shaken out differently. But imagine this team:
- Chris Paul
- Damian Lillard
- Kemba Walker
- Russell Westbrook
- James Harden
- Donovan Mitchell
- Kevin Durant
- Paul George
- Jayson Tatum
- Anthony Davis
- Brook Lopez
- Bam Adebayo
A little backcourt-heavy? Yes. But so is the United States’ top-end talent. Will Stephen Curry play? His father said yes, though that was before Curry was sidelined even longer than he expected. So, there’s plenty of room to quibble with the selections. But it’s at least a reasonable facsimile of the final roster.
The average age* of that group: 29.5.
That’d be the second-oldest Team USA in the Olympics, shy of only the 1996 squad. It’s even older than the original Dream Team, which – as the first Olympic team to include NBA players – definitely prioritized rewarding career accomplishments.
Here’s the average age* of each Team USA since NBA players began competing in the Olympics:
*Age for Team USA’s first game or, in 2020, first originally scheduled game of the tournament
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see taking that same group to Tokyo in 2021 would make it Team USA’s oldest-ever squad, advancing the average age a full year to 30.5.
Plenty will change in the next year. It’s easy to project growth from players like Trae Young, Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. But whether or not those three in particular meet expectations, other young players will rise. Some of these older players will decline further.
Of course, there will still be room for some veterans in 2021. Chris Paul is flourishing with the Thunder and could continue to play at a high level. LeBron James is so dominant, he has plenty of room to decline while remaining elite.
But USA Basketball should be open-minded about emerging young players. That’s the only way to ensure a maximumly talented roster.
In 2020, it was foolish to pretend it’s 2016 or even 2012.
It’d be even more misguided to do so in 2021.