USA Basketball may still win the 2019 FIBA Men’s World Cup, despite all of the high-profile star defections from the team.
Team USA hasn’t lost a tournament game while using a full complement of NBA players since the 2006 World Championship, where Spain took the crown. The Americans won gold in World Championships and Olympic tournaments in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016. But at every point along the way, those teams possessed at least two or three stars more accomplished than the most accomplished 2019 U.S. player. This rendition of USA Basketball is unprecedented in this era for its lack of top-level punch.
That’s why everyone is worried about this team: it’s not always easy winning with the LeBrons and Durants and Kyries and Currys, even if Team USA always prevails anyway. Without anyone on that level, with just one healthy All-NBA level player, losing is a real possibility, even if it’s still not likely.
At least a couple stars will likely filter back in for the 2020 Olympics, because for most Americans, winning Olympic gold means something, whereas FIBA glory goes only so far. A smart bet is on Anthony Davis headlining the 2020 team, barring injury or complete self-immolation in Los Angeles this season. Davis won gold in 2012 as the requisite kid on the team, but didn’t play much. James Harden, a few years Davis’ senior, was in the same boat in 2012. Neither played in 2016. If they want to earn Olympic gold in their careers, 2020 is the year.
But what then?
USA Basketball’s management has now seen the impact of FIBA moving its signature tournaments to back-to-back summers. During the televised Blue and White Scrimmage on Friday, Team USA chairman Jerry Colangelo blamed the calendar move for at least some of the defections while trying to deflect discussion of how many American stars said no.
His argument makes sense. Committing to USA Basketball in previous cycles meant a brief training camp in Year 1, the long World Championship tournament in Year 2, a brief training camp in Year 3, and the beloved and short Olympic tournament — where you get to be on TV all the time and meet and hang out with other elite athletes from other sports — in Year 4. Now, it’s training camp, training camp, World Cup, Olympics. If you participate in both tournaments and your team has long playoff runs, you’re really loading up on your body by the end of the NBA season after the Olympics. Players and teams are smarter about mileage now. It’s just too much.
Colangelo has hinted at an answer: use young players for the FIBA World Cup.
Instead of striking out with the All-NBA caliber players, build the team around players 23 and under, like Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Myles Turner, De’Aaron Fox, and Marvin Bagley III (who just pulled out himself). Heck, three or four of those players are potential starters for the 2019 World Cup team anyway, because they are the best bets coach Gregg Popovich has.
USA Basketball could put the restriction on itself, with perhaps two or three “designated veteran” spots for older players who really want to put in FIBA time to help build their case for the Olympic squad. Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez could fit the bill there. And look, switching to 23-and-under means you basically rebuild the team that will actually go to China for the World Cup, but without looking like you’re taking the leftovers after all the real stars declined. It’s likely choosing to play at a higher difficulty mode instead of playing on easy and failing enough to make it look hard.
Do you then open the Olympic team back up to the stars? Yes! Just preference players who participated in the FIBA competitions — or at least did the camps and put themselves at the mercy of potential cuts — when they were younger.
There becomes two tiers of international competitor for USA Basketball: the superstars like Davis, Harden, and the like, who flutter into camps when available and jump in for the Olympics; and the pipeline players, both veterans like Walker and Middleton, but also youngsters like Mitchell and Tatum, all of whom compete to be the superstars’ supporting cast in the Olympics (either the next summer or in a future cycle).
USA Basketball has done a really strong job developing its youth competition structure for age-based FIBA tournaments. There’s no reason it couldn’t turn the World Cup into a under-23 event for its own program, leaving the Olympics as the Americans’ crown jewel of international basketball. That would prevent USA Basketball from the embarrassment of repeated rejection from the superstars who really don’t want to play in a tournament that butts up against training camp and few Americans will actually watch.
The hardcore basketball fans will watch the World Cup no matter what. Evidence suggests casual fans won’t watch even if the superstars play. There’s no harm in setting roster guidelines that strip away the pretense that Americans and American basketball superstars care deeply about this tournament.