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USA Basketball’s quest for superstar continuity may be impossible

Jerry Colangelo wanted to create a USA Basketball program where superstars signed on for multiple years instead of simply parachuting in for bigger tournaments. The 2016 team underscores the failure of that goal.

When Jerry Colangelo took over USA Basketball in 2005, he had both immediate and long-term goals. He wanted to wash the taste of bronze out of America’s mouth and he wanted to build a sustainable program.

On most accounts, he has succeeded. While the United States slipped in the 2006 FIBA World Championship, it has since gone undefeated over the ensuing decade, winning gold in Beijing and London with FIBA titles in 2010 and 2014 as well. Since Colangelo took the helm, the squad is 57-1 in competitive play. That’s what success looks like.

The program has also benefited from Colangelo’s Select Team idea. During Team USA training camp each competitive summer, a squad of younger American players practices and scrimmages against the senior team. As has been widely noted, this 2016 U.S. team is rife with players who were on the Select Team in 2012, working against legends like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. The pipeline Colangelo sought to create is real and it helps that the Select Team program captures a massive number of players.

But one big goal not met was to build familiarity and on-court chemistry between future teammates. And that failure is showing as Team USA enters the knockout round with major concerns after three narrow, nail-biting victories in the group stage.

Colangelo’s plan was to have heavy carryover between the FIBA team that competes in even non-Olympic years and the Olympic team. That’s never totally come to fruition, with the exception of the 2006-08 cycle, where LeBron, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard won FIBA bronze and Olympic gold. Even that cycle saw the Olympic team augmented by Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd who played huge roles in Beijing; ringers to help ensure victory.

Since then, the cycle idea has been more hopeful than real. The 2008 Olympians skipped the 2010 FIBA World Championship entirely. That uber-succesful squad instead featured Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and a young third-stringer in Stephen Curry. (That summer was really The Durant Show. He quietly re-signed with the Thunder as LeBron turned heel, then KD went and dominated a tournament LeBron had previously failed to win.)

Of course, when 2012 came around, a bunch of 2008 Olympians parachuted back into the picture. LeBron, CP3, Kobe and Melo returned, knocking out four 2010 FIBA players. A young Anthony Davis took another spot. Of the 2010 FIBA champs who did make the Olympic squad, only Durant (the team’s leading scorer) and Kevin Love had major roles. (Tyson Chandler, one of the three requisite veterans on the 2010 team, did start every game of the 2012 Olympics, but averaged just 11 minutes per game.)

Colangelo’s sought-after chemistry and consistency worked in a fashion: CP3, LeBron and Melo are excellent together! But their heavy role in London after skipping FIBA set up a pattern.

To wit: Durant skipped the 2014 FIBA tournament, yet is the featured star of the 2016 Olympic team. Melo also skipped 2014 and he’s actually challenging KD for the scoring lead in Rio. Only four 2014 players — Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins and DeMar DeRozan — are back for 2016. Six others have never played for the senior United States men’s basketball team at a tournament before. (One of those guys is Paul George, who would have played in the 2014 FIBA tourney but for his horrific leg injury.)

This is exactly the problem Colangelo wanted to fix. He didn’t want players with no prior high-level involvement showing up for the Olympics. Yet here we are.

Draymond Green has been completely out of sorts. (The case that he is a situational superstar is looking a bit more attractive right now.) Kyle Lowry is shooting like it’s the 2016 NBA Playoffs and is too often being asked to come in after Irving has let the opposing point guard get confident. DeAndre Jordan looks comfortable as a role player (fancy that), but Jimmy Butler has been a relative non-factor in a diminished role. George has emerged as a truth teller of sorts in the media, yet Coach K took him back out of the starting lineup one game after speaking out about Team USA’s stagnant offense. (Who knows whether that was a bit of lineup shuffling or a message from Coach K. Whatever the case, it worked: Thompson went off against France.)

What happened to Colangelo’s blueprint, where each four-year Olympic cycle breeds chemistry as high-level players spend summers and competitive tournaments together? Half of the Rio roster is playing for the U.S. senior men’s basketball team for the first time. This is exactly the problem the 2004 Athens team had. Instead of a program, the United States brought an All-Star team.

Another problem in Athens, as I outlined two years ago: the 2004 team didn’t actually have the NBA’s best American players other than Tim Duncan. They only had one player who finished in the top five on the previous NBA season’s MVP ballot and took the bronze. The Beijing team had four of the top five 2007-08 MVP ballot finishers, while the London crew had all five of the top 2011-12 MVP candidates.

This Rio roster is much more like 2004 than 2008 or 2012. Only Durant finished in the top five in MVP voting last season. Curry, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron and Westbrook all passed on Rio.

So, we’re left with a team made up largely of second-tier American stars, half of whom never played internationally before this summer and the majority of whom are playing together (and under Coach K) for the first time. They are still good enough to sweep the group stage and probably win the tournament. That will be enough comfort for Coach K to retire from USA Basketball duties a champion, and Colangelo to potentially walk away with his head high. But the problems are the same as they were in 2004.

The real issue is that there’s no way for Colangelo or anyone to prevent this from happening. Concerns about the host city, about injury, about overwork, loss of precious family time — there are so many legitimate reasons for NBA stars to bow out of international play every time Team USA makes the call.

NBA teams are paying these guys upwards of $30 million a year now. Many of them are still motivated to don the red, white and blue — a guy like Boogie Cousins has been starved to be a part of this, and George’s dedication speaks for itself. But to get a collection of the best and brightest players to commit multiple summers to the program up front is asking too much, and that’s OK.

Colangelo has restored glory to USA Basketball. The youth levels are in incredible shape. Tremendous memories have been made over the past decade, and a generation of children around the world — perhaps especially in China — will remember the Redeem Team fondly. At some point, maybe this week, maybe in Tokyo four years from now, the Americans will lose again, teeth will be gnashed and reform will be on the table.

Instead of falling into disappointment and frustration, perhaps we should acknowledge that this is the best USA Basketball can do given the circumstances. It really may be asking too much to keep the glory of 1992 or 1996 or 2008 or 2012 alive permanently.