No LeBron James? No Problem as USA Basketball Has Enough Star Power to Bounce Back From FIBA World Cup Debacle

USA Basketball has won 24 consecutive games in Olympic competition since taking a disappointing bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Games. Technically the winning streak is 25, but the bronze-medal game victory over Lithuania was the end rather than a beginning. NBA superstars have been more willing to commit to the Olympics since that embarrassment. The results have been golden, literally.

There will be plenty of star power in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics (in 2021) at the end of July. Three Olympic veterans are on the Tokyo roster. A collection of first-time Olympians fills out the rest of the team.

But these first-timers have better resumes than the first USA Basketball team Gregg Popovich coached at an international competition. A repeat of the 2019 debacle in China still hangs like a dark cloud.

FIBA Basketball World Cup in China mostly ignored by the superstars

Heading into the rebranded FIBA Basketball World Cup in 2019, USA Basketball had won two consecutive world championships. But coach Mike Krzyzewski had stepped down from his post at the helm of USA Basketball. Popovich moved up from an assistant’s role with the program.

The superstars mostly stayed away from China. At the World Championships in 2010, Team USA boasted Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose (pre-injury), and Russell Westbrook. Similarly, in 2014, the squad had Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving at its disposal.

In China two years ago, Kemba Walker, Brook Lopez, and Khris Middleton were the only All-Stars. There were rising young stars such as Jaylen Brown, Donovan Mitchell, and Jayson Tatum. An injury to Tatum in the second game of the group stage dramatically changed the rotation. USA Basketball’s poor 3-point shooting did the rest.

Outside of Joe Harris, who shot 50% from deep in the tournament, Team USA mustered just 34.9% from 3-point range. They still managed to go undefeated in the group stage. But in the knockout round, they lost to France and Serbia in consecutive games. USA Basketball settled for seventh place by beating Poland.

A veteran leads a group of young USA Basketball stars into Tokyo

Kevin Durant and Draymond Green return for USA Basketball for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo
Kevin Durant (5) and Draymond Green (14) of USA Basketball during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro. | Tom Pennington/Getty Images

During the NBA Playoffs, Durant carried a battered Brooklyn Nets club to overtime of Game 7 before losing to the Milwaukee Bucks. The two-time gold medalist is the headliner for USA Basketball’s 12-man roster for the Tokyo Olympics, according to ESPN. 2016 gold-medal winner Draymond Green and Love, who played with Durant on the 2012 Olympic champions, are also on the roster.

But there is still no shortage of stars, even with James Harden opting out because of his hamstring injury. Additionally, several other superstars including LeBron James and Stephen Curry decided not to play because of what will be the NBA’s second consecutive short offseason.

However, first-time Olympians include some star power to be sure. Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, Jrue Holiday, Bam Adebayo, and Devin Booker are All-Stars. Additionally, Middleton and Tatum also have All-Star credibility as they return from the 2019 USA Basketball squad. Zach LaVine and Jerami Grant round out the roster.

The road ahead for USA Basketball

Team USA opens Olympic group play against France on July 25. Three players could be missing from the pre-Olympic workouts. Middleton, Holiday, and Booker are all active in the NBA Playoffs and could be playing as late as July 22. If delayed, the trio pledged to get to Japan quickly.

Meanwhile, Iran is the other team in Group A along with the winner of the Olympic qualifying tournament in Victoria, Canada. China, the Czech Republic, Greece, Turkey, and Uruguay join host Canada in the field.

Group C includes the two finalists from China in World Champion Spain and runner-up Argentina. The rest of the group is Japan and a qualifier from a group including Angola, Korea, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, and Venezuela. Group B has Australia and Nigeria. Two qualifiers will join them.

Brazil, Croatia, Germany, Mexico, Russia, and Tunisia battle for an Olympic spot in Croatia. Meanwhile, another spot goes to the winner coming out of Serbia. That tournament includes the Dominican Republic, Italy, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Senegal, and host Serbia. The qualifiers are June 29 through July 4.

In the group stage, the winner and runner-up of each round-robin group advance to the knockout round. The final quarterfinalists will be the two best third-place teams. A draw determines the quarterfinal matchups.

USA Basketball is No. 1 in the FIBA World Ranking entering the Olympics, followed by Spain, Australia, and Argentina. France is No. 7 and Iran 23rd.

Historical information from USA Basketball; Olympic information via FIBA.

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