Team USA must beat Iran on July 28 to avoid losing four of five games in major international competitions for just the second time. After a frustrating loss to open the Tokyo Olympics, there are already signs of division between players and Team USA head coach Gregg Popovich.
The worst period for men’s basketball in the United States came in the 2002 FIBA World Championships and the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Coached by George Karl, Team USA placed sixth at the World Championships with losses to Argentina, the former Yugoslavia, and Spain in its final four games. The Larry Brown-led 2004 Olympic squad then opened by getting blown out by Puerto Rico.
That’s the only time Team USA has ever lost four times in five games. But Gregg Popovich’s group is on the precipice after an 83–76 loss to France on July 25, which included the French erasing a seven-point deficit with a 16–2 run over the game’s final 3:41. Is there trouble in paradise, or at least in Tokyo? Reports say there is.
Gregg Popovich’s first run as head coach for Team USA ended badly
After winning his third consecutive gold medal as the head coach for USA Basketball, Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski left the scene in 2016. Gregg Popovich was named to replace Coach K, though he hadn’t been with USA Basketball since 2004.
Yes, Popovich’s previous experience coaching with Team USA came as an assistant to Karl in Indianapolis for the 2002 World Championships and as an aide to Brown in Athens two years later. With that kind of international track record, of course, he was a slam-dunk choice for USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo in 2015.
Having been on the bench for the worst finish in the history of the USA Basketball men’s program, Popovich went to China in 2019 for the FIBA World Cup, apparently uttering the words, “Hold my beer.” After surviving overtime against Turkey, Team USA won its group with a 5–0 record. But once in the elimination bracket, this went pear-shaped in a hurry.
A loss to France in the quarterfinals ended any medal hopes. A loss to Serbia ensured Team USA would drop past that famous 2002 team for the worst-ever finish in international competition. But, hey, Team USA did beat Poland for seventh place, so there’s that.
Gregg Popovich’s act has worn thin the last two seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, where he has been the head coach since December 1996. Reportedly, there aren’t many fans of his in the Team USA locker room, either.
Team USA players were openly grumbling after the loss to France
After the loss to France to open Olympic pool play, Joe Vardon of The Athletic reported players were complaining on their way back to the locker room about “running the San Antonio offense.” Coach Gregg Popovich has openly admitted there aren’t set plays installed for the Olympics. Because of the tight timeframe, he said, the offense would feature “concepts.”
France’s players are all professionals, several of them in the NBA. So, they didn’t sequester themselves practicing in the gym for the last two years since the FIBA World Cup. Yet, it sure looked like the French were running (gasp!) actual set plays.
Portland Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard expressed some frustration after the loss.
“We all just, I think, just trying too hard … instead of just being who we are — the best players in the NBA. Shots just didn’t fall. We had opportunities down the stretch, just didn’t make them.”Damian Lillard
Gregg Popovich blamed the players for the mistakes they made down the stretch for the loss. But some of those mistakes must be on his shoulders.
Gregg Popovich’s arrogance is getting old
Gregg Popovich is now 6–3 as the head coach for USA Basketball and 0–1 at the Olympics. That dropped Team USA’s record in the Olympics to 138–6. Half of those losses were in Athens. One came in the semifinals of the 1988 Games in Seoul. The other was the disputed gold-medal game loss to the Soviet Union at Munich in 1972.
That means Popovich has been on the bench for more than half of the losses Team USA has taken in the Olympics. After exhibition losses to Nigeria and Australia, Popovich lashed out at a reporter for implying (correctly) that Team USA used to blow out teams like those.
While winning five championships with the Spurs, Popovich at least had the scoreboard to back up his smugness. But going 0–2 against France? His teams in China and now in Tokyo have looked ill-prepared. It’s becoming painfully evident that he’s the wrong coach to lead the USA Basketball program.
Statistics and historical data courtesy of USA Basketball.