Following an 89-79 loss to France in the quarterfinals and a shocking 94-89 defeat against Serbia, the U.S. men’s basketball team ended its 2019 FIBA World Cup run in seventh place, the team’s worst-ever performance in an international tournament featuring NBA players. After the 2019 tournament, Team USA now has as many gold medals (1994, 2010, 2014) as they do tournament losses (2002, 2004, 2019).
As much as they would rather not harp on it, the Americans’ poor performances can all be attributed to an underdeveloped roster and a lack of star power.
This year’s team featured only two all-stars: Kemba Walker and Khris Middleton. Due to injuries and players wanting to rest their bodies before the grueling NBA season starts up again, the U.S. was left with few good options.
We saw this most clearly in the game against France when Coach Gregg Popovich was forced to play forwards Harrison Barnes and Jaylen Brown at the center position, which allowed French center and two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert to tower over them and grab offensive rebounds.
While the U.S. has boasted the best NBA talent in the world for decades, other countries emerged from the fold at the World Cup, making it clear that the U.S. could not scrape by with the second-tier players they brought over.
In addition to Gobert, France had four players with NBA experience. Serbia, who beat the U.S. 94-89, played five current NBA players, headlined by all-NBA center Nikola Jokic, who finished with nine points, three rebounds and showcased his point-center abilities with seven assists. And Spain, the eventual world champions, had four NBA players, including tournament MVP and Phoenix Suns point guard Ricky Rubio.
The Americans’ dearth of good shooters also hurt them. In the knockout game against France, the U.S. shot 35% from the three-point line and an atrocious 66% from the free-throw line. Center Brook Lopez — who was supposed to be the team’s stretch big man following his standout shooting season with the Milwaukee Bucks — went just 2-14 from three in the tournament.
This year, it seemed players were dropping like flies — every day, news would break of stars like Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Bradley Beal, James Harden, Tobias Harris and Anthony Davis withdrawing from the team to focus on the upcoming NBA season. If the U.S. wants to succeed in the 2020 Olympics, it needs to convince these players to come on board and represent their country on the world stage.
Much like the Redeem Team, where the U.S. dominated its way to a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, there is hope for the 2020 Olympic Team. Lillard and Stephen Curry have already verbally committed to playing in the 2020 Olympics. Even though the team finished seventh in the World Cup, it is still ranked No. 1 in the FIBA ranking system. Whether this was just a fluke performance due to a depleted lineup remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: more and more teams have NBA talent on their rosters and the U.S. will need all the star power it can get if it wants to win gold in Tokyo.
Email Arvind Sriram at [email protected]