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What Went Wrong with Team USA?

September 25, 2019

In international tournaments, the United States usually dominates their opponents and find themselves walking away with gold medals. The US has placed in the top 3 of the last three FIBA World Cup tournaments, winning first place back to back in 2010 and 2014. However, this streak has come to an end, as the United States basketball team took back to back losses to France and Serbia, respectively. Now, for the first time since 2002, the United States has been eliminated from medal contention and will place no higher than seventh place, marking their worst finish ever in the FIBA World Cup.  So what went wrong with this year’s team? Looking back at the evolution (or rather, devolution) of Team USA as they prepared for the tournament, a lot went downhill for Team USA even before the tournament began. 

Looking back to the US’s victory in the 2014 World Cup, several NBA superstars showed up to play for their country. This included James Harden, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and DeMar Derozan, all of whom played in the 2014 All-Star game. Additionally, the team featured 2011 MVP Derrick Rose; Curry and Harden would go on to win the award in the future, and Curry won the NBA championship the following year alongside Team USA teammate Klay Thompson. This team won the tournament with ease, going undefeated and their closest win being by a margin of 18 points. However, it soon became clear that this would not be the same result this year as the World Cup drew closer.

Throughout the summer, several stars originally signed up to possibly play for Team USA withdrew for multiple reasons, the most common reasons being preparing for the following season or recovering from an injury. Only one player (Mason Plumlee) returned from the 2014 championship team; however, Plumlee played the least out of anyone on Team USA’s roster. Other stars to withdraw include Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal and Zion Williamson. Additionally, several NBA superstars, including LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, were never signed up to play in this year’s tournament. 

Team USA did have some star power, but nowhere near as much as they did in previous years. Only Khris Middleton and Kemba Walker made the 2019 All-Star game; additionally, only three players have made an All-Star game at least once in their career (Brook Lopez made it in 2013). Interestingly, Lopez is also the only player on the team born before 1990. While not many players on the team played in an All-Star game, several have had impressive careers already. Donovan Mitchell, the 2018 runner up for rookie of the year, put together several impressive performances, including an impressive 29 point game where the US lost to France. 

Even with significantly less talent than in other years, the United States’ roster appears to have more NBA talent than any other roster in the World Cup right now. So how did teams like France and Serbia knock them out? Some may note the fact that France and Serbia have respective NBA stars of their own; two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert led France to a shocking upset to knock the US out of championship contention, while 2019 All-NBA First Team selection Nikola Jokic helped Serbia secure a win over the US to play in the fifth place game of the tournament. Both of these teams have superstars in the middle of their game plans, as well as notable NBA role players like Evan Fournier for France and Bogdan Bogdanovic for Serbia, but other factors also play a role in how these teams knocked off the US. 

While other national teams feature less star studded talent than the United States, they do have one key advantage: practice time. While most US players play in the NBA and thus miss out on practicing as a national team outside of tournaments, other countries play in international tournaments and practice much more frequently. In past years, the US has been able to compensate for this with the amount of star power on their rosters that makes them nearly impossible to beat. However, with less talent to boast this year, other teams that practiced more had a greater advantage than usual. With the majority players on Team USA serving as one of their teams’ top options, sacrificing opportunities for the good of the team and team chemistry in general proved to be a problem. Again, this has also come up as an issue in previous years, but the amount of talent on the roster overshadowed the difficulties of giving players equal opportunities; this year, the talent itself was unable to overcome these problems. 

While this may hurt Team USA’s worldwide ranking at the moment, American basketball fans need not worry about their team’s future. A good portion of players that withdrew from this year’s FIBA World Cup will likely return next summer for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Since FIBA allowed NBA players to participate in the Olympics, the US has won six out of seven possible gold medals, only falling short in 2004 when Argentina pulled off a shocking upset that led to the US taking home the bronze medal instead. While some players from this year’s squad may return next summer, the team will feature more accomplished star players in addition to whomever may return. Regardless of whoever the US takes to Japan next summer, the US will come back hungrier than ever, looking to reclaim their spot as the best basketball country in the world. 

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