A confluence of factors created a United States men’s basketball roster that is in a major global tournament with Joe Harris, Derrick White, and a Plumlee taking up three of 12 spots. America’s stars dropped out of consideration for the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China, and then a bunch of second- and third-tier candidates like De’Aaron Fox, Kyle Kuzma, and Marvin Bagley dropped out too. Kemba Walker and Donovan Mitchell lead the way, and players on the level of Harris, White, and one of the Plumlees fill out the roster.
This is where we are.
First, Team USA lost a warm-up exhibition to Australia, falling victim to a Patty Mills explosion in Melbourne. Then, in their second group stage game of the tournament, Team USA survived four missed free throws by Turkey in the final seconds of overtime to escape with a 93-92 win. Turkey wasn’t even on our list of the seven top threats to Team USA in this tournament and had the 12th-highest odds to win the gold, according to Odds Shark.
Team USA’s run in the World Cup is officially over now, ended by Rudy Gobert and France with a 89-79 loss in the quarterfinals. The U.S. had no answer for Gobert, who put a lid on the rim defensively while scoring effectively in the paint to help spark an 11-0 crunch-time run that gave France the victory. The U.S. struggled with its late game foul shooting and simply couldn’t find a way to score over or around Gobert. Their worst case scenario has been realized.
The U.S. always had reason to worry. The Australia loss was Team USA’s first when using exclusively NBA players since 2006, a span of 78 games. Even though it was an exhibition, both teams were playing to win. It was clearly a sign that Team USA was vulnerable, which was obvious to anyone who looked at the roster. Every problem that Team USA had in that game was on display in the near-defeat to Turkey.
Team USA shredded Canada in its final exhibition — Canada has also been leveled by dropouts among its best players — and took care of the Czech Republic in the FIBA group stage opener, but there was always a real chance the Americans would fail to win gold at a global tournament using NBA players for the first time since 2006.
It happened. That’s OK.
The United States doesn’t need to be invincible, even in a sport the nation has dominated for decades. It should not be an affront to our sensibilities to watch another nation temporarily reign in basketball.
The last decade plus has shown that when it can recruit the best American-born stars, Team USA is basically unstoppable at the international level. It’s been proven.
It’s not imperative to continue proving when the best American-born stars are no longer interested in the fight. We can all see the Team USA roster. We know this is not America’s best. And yet, the team still had a fighting chance to win. Let’s not get too worked up now that they didn’t.
Things have been changing in the global game for decades, but it’s interesting to note that even if the top Americans hadn’t declined to participate, the best player in the World Cup wouldn’t definitely have been on Team USA. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning NBA MVP, has a claim to best in the world status, and he played for Greece. There would be no shame if Mitchell or Kemba or Jaylen Brown struggled to outduel Antetokounmpo in a FIBA knockout game and lost. He’s Giannis!
(Greece, it should be noted, actually lost a FIBA Group Stage game to Brazil, thanks to a Bruno Caboclo free-throw swat).
Serbia is stacked to the ceiling and has the second-best player in the tournament in Nikola Jokic. Serbia also has something to prove, having won silver in both the 2014 World Championship and 2016 Olympics. Serbia has four NBA players on the final roster: Jokic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nemanja Bjelica, and Boban Marjanovic. Serbia is also out of the tournament after losing to Argentina.
Spain is in transition, but has Ricky Rubio and Marc Gasol and years upon years of camaraderie and familiarity. France had Rudy Gobert, perhaps the third-best player in the tournament, plus some NBA and high-end Euroleague talent. That was enough to beat the U.S. Russia is usually tough. Lithuania has a squad. Germany might have its best roster in decades. Australia is clearly capable of beating the Americans. Turkey apparently is, too. Brazil going deep in the tournament wouldn’t be a shocker.
There are a handful of teams that were capable of beating this version of Team USA. The French actually did it. Turkey should have done it already.
That’s no reason to panic. This is the version of Team USA that American basketball stars are willing to put together given all the circumstances — money, load management, scheduling. So it goes.
Editor’s Note: This was originally published on Aug. 26 and updated on Sept. 11.