USA Basketball Has the Talent but Is It Truly a Team USA?

Since USA Basketball began using NBA players leading up to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, it quickly re-established the U.S. as the dominant basketball nation in the world. The move to professionals came in the wake of a disappointing bronze medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, punctuated by a loss in the semifinals to the former Soviet Union. But in the nearly 30 years since Barcelona, the rest of the world is catching up. The results on the floor are apparent.

After a shocking loss to Nigeria in their first pre-Olympic exhibition, USA Basketball lost again on July 12 to Australia, 91–83. Worse still, it was the U.S. that couldn’t close out the game despite its star power. Australia finished on an 11–1 run and held USA Basketball without a field goal for the final 4:34 of the game.

Now 0–2 building up to Tokyo, Team USA gets another shot on Tuesday against Argentina in an exhibition. The defending Olympic gold-medalists and the silver-medalists from the 2019 FIBA World Cup are both 0–2 in exhibitions. It’s a whole new world.

USA Basketball big on talent, but the world is catching up

Team USA’s strategy for years has been to throw a galaxy of stars at the rest of the world and bludgeon their opponents with pure talent. The Dream Team in Barcelona did that well. In eight games, USA Basketball’s closest contest was their 32-point nail-biter over Croatia in the gold-medal game.

The world caught up a bit by the Atlanta Games in 1996, but a 104–82 win over Lithuania still represented the closest contest. But by the time USA Basketball arrived in Sydney for the 2000 Olympics, there was some competition. In their final four games in Australia, the U.S. bookended 12- and 10-point wins over France around a 15-point win over Russia and a two-point thriller against Lithuania.

The 2004 debacle in Athens, where Team USA went 5–3 and took a bronze medal, prompted USA Basketball to ask for a longer commitment from players. The so-called Redeem Team went to Beijing in 2008 and took no prisoners. Gold medals in London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016 followed.

Team USA reeling after rare back-to-back losses

Coach Gregg Popovich coached USA Basketball to a seventh-place finish at the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China and his second go-around is off to a rough start. After losing to Australia, the U.S. has lost four of its last five games with NBA players against international competition. It took Team USA 105 games to lose its previous four contests.

USA Basketball Team USA
Dante Exum (11) of Australia drives against Damian Lillard (6) of the United States during an exhibition game at Michelob Ultra Arena ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games on July 12, 2021. | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Defense is an issue for the U.S. Nigeria made 20-of-42 3-pointers in its 90–87 win on July 10. Australia wasn’t quite as scorching hot from deep but hit 52.9% of its shots.

In two games, the U.S. is surrendering 90.5 points per game on 48.2% shooting overall and 45.5% from 3-point range (30-of-66). You’re not beating anyone giving up that much defensively.

Against Australia, in particular, it was apparent that a collection of outstanding individual players was up against a group in the Boomers that has played together for years. Australia was crisper in its execution. Team USA, on the other hand, had many defensive breakdowns in the second half. The offense late in the game was, frankly, a jumbled mess.

Does the national team program need another reboot?

USA Basketball opened its training camp in Las Vegas on July 6. The team played its first exhibition game four days later. It will have less than two weeks together as a group when it breaks camp and heads to Tokyo. Their first game in the Olympics is July 24 (at least on this side of the International Date Line).

Adding to the confusion is that three of Team USA’s players aren’t with the team yet. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks and Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns are still playing in the NBA Finals. If the series goes seven games, it stretches to July 22. In that event, they would then fly halfway around the world and suit up less than two days later. Less than ideal, to be sure.

The U.S. wants to send its best to the Olympics. But there is considerable talent elsewhere in the world. Nigeria has eight NBA players on its roster, second only to Team USA’s 12 in the Tokyo Olympics. Is it enough to throw a group of guys together for a week or two and expect them to beat teams that have played together much longer? At least early on, the answer is no.

Statistics courtesy of USA Basketball.

RELATED: Gregg Popovich Admits He ‘Would Have Begged, Cried, Anything I Could Do; to Get Kevin Durant on USA Basketball Roster