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Team USA men’s basketball has a roster construction problem

Team USA left some real holes on its roster as it heads to Tokyo.

Australia v United States Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Team USA men’s basketball is not used to losing. Since the program began using professional players starting with the 1992 Dream Team, USA Basketball has won six gold medals in the last seven Olympics. The one failure during that run — the infamous 2004 Athens Games — stands out as much as any of the wins. The bronze medal in 2004 led to a more serious approach from Team USA and started another run of dominance: after a rare loss in the 2006 World Championships to Greece, USA Basketball ran off 58 straight wins in games that count.

That streak was snapped by France in the 2019 World Cup. The USA also lost its next game to Serbia to finish seventh in that tournament. USA Basketball is now playing its first games since that disastrous World Cup performance in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, and the early results have been shockingly ugly.

USA Basketball has lost its first two exhibition games in Las Vegas before taking off for Tokyo. Nigeria stunned Team USA in its first game, and Australia beat them on Wednesday night, 91-83, to show that first L wasn’t just an off-night.

Since Gregg Popovich replaced Mike Krzyzewski as head coach, USA men’s basketball’s record sits at 9-5 if you include exhibition games. Team USA will still head into the Olympics as the favorite to win gold, but it’s clear the program has some real problems right now.

The 2019 World Cup team had an easy built in excuse: it didn’t have its best players. That isn’t an excuse any more: Kevin Durant signed on for another go with the national team, and Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, Bam Adebayo, and Draymond Green joined him. When the NBA Finals are over, Devin Booker, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday will add reinforcements. No, Team USA doesn’t have LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, or Kyrie Irving, but it still has the most talented roster in the Olympic field by far.

Maybe that won’t matter. Team USA just lost games to teams whose best players were Gabe Vincent and Joe Ingles.

While there’s more starpower on this roster than the last World Cup team, this edition of USA Basketball still has some major issues in terms of the roster construction.

Team USA has all bucket-getters and no playmakers

Look at the USA Basketball roster heading into the Olympics. The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s full of pure scorers and lacks a lead facilitator.

Durant is a tremendous all-around player, but has always been known as the best pure scorer of his generation. Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal are score-first guards who double as two of the worst defenders among superstar-level players. Jayson Tatum, Zach LaVine, Middleton, and Booker are each wired to score. This team has some of the best one-on-one bucket-getters alive, and feels built to play isolation basketball. That might not necessarily be a good thing.

What this roster is sorely missing is a lead playmaker who can get them out of their isolation tendencies. Four names immediately come to mind:

  • Trae Young
  • Ja Morant
  • LaMelo Ball
  • Tyrese Haliburton

Yes, all four are very early in their pro careers, with the 22-year-old Young being the oldest of the group. Each of them are terrific natural playmakers though and would immediately help a roster that needs some ball movement. As it stands, the two bigs — Green and Adebayo — might be the two best passers on the roster along with Durant.

Bringing Young or Morant off the bench behind Lillard would have been a terrific change-of-pace look when the offense got stagnant. While Ball is only 19 years old, his combination of ball handling and passing also would have helped the team right now. A lack of facilitators was a very obvious oversight on the roster from the moment it was constructed.

Team USA doesn’t have much size, either

Given that FIBA is more physical than NBA ball, it is curious why Team USA only went with one real center on the roster in Bam Adebayo. Adebayo is among the best centers in the NBA, but he’s also a bit undersized at 6’9, 255 pounds, and was starting at power forward for most of the regular season before his Miami Heat made their run to the NBA Finals in the bubble. His backups are Draymond Green, Kevin Love, Durant and Jerami Grant, and none of them are natural centers in FIBA ball.

The 2019 World Cup team had giants in Brook Lopez and Myles Turner and still came in seventh. Lopez feels like he would be an essential addition right now, while Turner is recovering from a toe injury. There aren’t a ton of good options for American-born big men out there, but we do have a few options:

  • Jarrett Allen
  • Richaun Holmes
  • Jaren Jackson Jr.
  • Evan Mobley
  • Onyeka Okongwu

The pickings are slim for centers once you realize that Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Ruby Gobert, Clint Capela, Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Vucevic, Deandre Ayton, Jonas Valanciunas, Al Horford, and Steven Adams were all either born outside the U.S. or have a history playing for other national teams.

Before you laugh at the thought of Jarrett Allen and Richaun Holmes saving Team USA, remember that both of those players have been more productive than Kevin Love in recent years, and are better than Mason Plumlee, who has been a staple for Team USA in the past.

Going into this tournament with only Adebayo as a true center was reckless. It likely means Durant is going to have to slide to the five for stretches, and he likely won’t enjoy the extra physicality down low. Any of these young bigs would have been more helpful to the roster than Love.

Team USA should have built with its next generation of stars in mind

USA Basketball has won gold medals during recent Olympic runs largely thanks to the commitments of the best players of this generation in James and Durant. As LeBron and KD have bought in, they’ve brought many of their superstar peers with them, starting with Harden, Irving, and Paul George.

Getting 30-something stars in Durant, Lillard, and Green as well as the 28-year-old Beal was nice for the program, but it could have used some young blood on the bench to set up the program for the future.

Zion Williamson is the biggest miss. Trae Young, Ja Morant, and LaMelo Ball would have also added some youthful energy while filling a big need on the roster. Those guys could be the centerpieces of USA Basketball rosters moving forward by having them come off the bench this year, but instead this squad mostly has veterans on the bench.

Tatum and Booker and LaVine could be staples for Team USA in the future, but it feels like the younger generation starting with Zion would have been more influential as Team USA builds rosters going forward. Not getting their buy-in this time around could hurt in both the short-term and the long-term.

USA Basketball may still go unbeaten in Tokyo. They should win gold even as the rest of the world has improved and caught up. Whatever happens, there were some serious oversights in constructing a roster that aimed to win with iso ball. It’s going to be a long summer for everyone involved if these exhibition losses are a sign of things to come in Tokyo.