First, Anthony Davis withdrew. Then, James Harden withdrew. Then, several others withdrew.
All told, USA Basketball went through more than 50 players until settling on its star-deficient World Cup training-camp roster.
It’s not shocking so many players turned down Team USA in the first place, though I thought more would be eager to play in China. The World Cup typically draws less talent than the Olympics, the premier event for international basketball. The World Cup is now only a year before the Olympics, which would mean back-to-back summers for players who want to play in the 2020 Olympics. The World Cup is also close to the NBA season, when many teams will travel abroad for preseason games.
But those factors have been present all along. Why did so many players sign up then withdraw?
Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, one of the players to do that, explained.
Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:
Their decision didn’t affect me. I was thinking about me. I was thinking about the Portland Trail Blazers and my family.
I think other guys looked at it like, “Why would I want to go potentially be the face of what could be a losing roster?”
Or the workload part. If we all played, the workload is less. Twenty, 25 minutes. You’re getting blowouts, whatever. You’re moving on. A lot of guys don’t play, your minutes might go up. Your usage might go up.
Each player made his own decision for his own reasons. Sometimes, it’s the reason given publicly. Sometimes, it’s not.
But I’m glad McCollum gave voice to the suspicion I’ve held – that these dropouts have not been independently determined.
When top players withdraw, they put more pressure on the remaining top players. Then, the new top players make the same calculus – that the pressure is too great. Then, the new top players make the same calculus – that the pressure is too great. And so on.
I can’t confirm that’s what’s happening. But it looks like that’s what’s happening. McCollum’s assessment only adds evidence, though it’s possible he too is supposing.
The Americans are still favored in the World Cup. They have an unmatched depth of NBA talent. But this also resembles the Team USA rosters that have previously fallen short of gold. Don’t assume a U.S. victory.
For the Americans to win, they’ll need to lean heavily on their top players. On paper, that’s Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton and, if he’s healthy, Kyle Lowry. Maybe young players like Donovan Mitchell and De'Aaron Fox are ready to breakout.
Whoever it winds up being, those players must carry a heavy load on a team not assured of success.
Which is McCollum’s point.