Well that got ugly quickly.
Team USA lost on back-to-back days this week, falling first out of contention for the medals with a loss to France, then being embarrassed in a follow-up game, down 32 to 7 at the end of the first quarter to Serbia.
There were warning signs. For weeks leading up to the 2019 FIBA World Cup, many worried about the roster Team USA was sending to China as player after player dropped out. Then the Americans were shocked by Australia in a friendly a week before the World Cup – a loss that admittedly looks a lot less shocking in hindsight. Team USA blew out the Czech Republic in the World Cup opener, then barely survived Turkey in a one-point overtime escape.
This team was never great. They were rarely even good. It should never have been a big surprise that they were unable to show up against France or Serbia. After all, both opponents had the best player on the court – Rudy Gobert for France and Nikola Jokic for Serbia, both clearly better than anyone the Americans brought to China.
The French hung around in the quarterfinal and then pulled away late for a relatively comfortable 10-point win over the Americans, 89 to 79. The following day, the U.S. was blown out early by Serbia, fought back to make it close, but ultimately lost 94 to 89. The Americans finished their tournament Saturday with an easy win over Poland, a team featuring exactly zero NBA players.
The Americans finished 5–0 in group play but only 1–2 in knockout games. It was an ugly finish for a pretty mediocre team.
So was everything as bad as it looked? And who could have saved this American team?
This is not USA’s first international embarrassment
It feels like Team USA always wins every international basketball tournament, and they do – in women’s hoops. In men’s ball, the Americans save their best for the Olympics. Team USA has played in 18 Olympic games. They’ve won 138 games and lost only 5, three of those losses at a single embarrassing Olympics in 2004. In all, the Americans have won 15 gold medals in 18 Olympics and have never failed to medal.
The FIBA World Cup is another story altogether. Team USA has played in 18 World Cups too. Any guess as to how many gold medals the Americans have won?
FIVE. Just 5 of 18 gold medals, champions barely over a quarter of the time.
In fact, this is the sixth time Team USA finishes outside of the medals, which means there’s literally a better historical chance of the Americans finishing outside the medals than winning gold. Team USA just doesn’t send its best team to the World Cup, and they don’t always win.
The average American finish at the men’s World Cup is 3rd – not terrible, but hardly the sure thing everyone assumes. In 2002, USA actually hosted the event and still lost three times in Indianapolis with a roster almost as uninspiring as the current one, featuring names like Raef LaFrentz, Michael Finley, Jay Williams, Antonio Davis, Andre Miller, and others. If those names look a lot like Mason Plumlee, Brook Lopez, Derrick White, Joe Harris, and Harrison Barnes, perhaps you understand better.
In that 2002 tournament, the Americans lost to a 22-year-old Pau Gasol leading Spain. They also lost to a 25-year-old Manu Ginobili and Argentina, and to Peja Stojakovic and eventual champion Yugoslavia. The tournament’s leading scorer was a 24-year old German named Dirk Nowitzki, while a 21-year-old Chinese player named Yao Ming finished third in scoring. The Americans did not send their stars to the World Cup, but the world did.
Those players would go on to be central figures over the next decade and a half of the NBA, winning a glut of championship rings. The Americans still won plenty of gold medals, but the 2002 World Cup failure turned out to be less about the Americans and more about the influx of talent from around the rest of the world.
Perhaps we can learn the same from 2019. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, and Rudy Gobert aren’t just good players – they are superstars, and they’re better than any player on the Team USA roster. Maybe they too will dominate the next decade of the NBA.
Maybe that’s the story of the 2019 FIBA World Cup, more than the Americans losing. Heck, the 2006 team lost too, and they had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Chris Bosh, and Dwight Howard. And those guys turned out just fine too!
Still, we’re Americans, and we demand a winner, darn it.
So who could Team USA have sent to China that would have won this thing and brought a gold medal home?
Who should Team USA have sent to China instead?
So it’s pretty clear by now that guys like Mason Plumlee and Brook Lopez did not add much to Team USA. So who should the Americans have sent?
Well, first, let’s be realistic. This is not the Olympics, and the biggest and most elite names were never going. Players like Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson are recovering from major injuries, but other superstars like Steph Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard were never going. Neither were Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Draymond Green, or Kyrie Irving.
Some of those guys might play on the Olympic team next summer, and Team USA would’ve been a massive favorite this summer if they’d been there. All of them have won gold before except for Kawhi Leonard, and we’ll excuse him after a pretty wild and exhausting summer.
So what Americans should have been on the roster this summer?
The veteran NBA stars
Whose team was this anyway? The answer to that question always ended up being Kemba Walker by default, but that answer clearly was not good enough. The Americans needed one or two superstars to lead the team – not necessarily LeBron or Steph, but star to lead the way, or at least co-lead it with Kemba. Here are a few names that fit the bill.
Butler is an Olympic gold medalist in 2016, but Team USA could have billed Butler as the face of this team. Typically the Americans have a huge advantage on the wing, and the 2019 roster just didn’t have that guy. Jayson Tatum was closest, and he got hurt early and couldn’t help the team. Butler would have been the best wing player in the tournament by far (depending on what you call Giannis, of course) and could have used the image rehab after the last couple years.
Why not make it the summer of Lowry? Lowry won gold in 2016 too, and then he won an NBA title this summer. He was a late withdrawal from this team, understandably so, needing to rest up after a long summer playoff run. His leadership and ability to do the little things would have added a lot.
A lot of guys withdrew from Team USA this summer, but Dame was the real death blow for the team. I’m convinced a team with Dame would have won gold in China. Lillard has never played in an international tournament, and he could have been the star of the tourney, maybe even the best player there in this format. Dame was the guy that would’ve taken the final shot, taken over in close games against Turkey, France, and Serbia late where the Americans had no answer. Dame would have been playing Spain for World Cup gold on Sunday.
Beal was another big miss after a summer withdrawal. With Klay Thompson sidelined, Beal was the obvious star shooting guard. His shooting and spacing would have been huge in the international game, and he might have even played point for the backup offense too. He might have been the breakout star and best player on the team had he committed.
Oladipo is forgotten now, but a year ago he was the breakout star and the NBA’s Most Improved Player. Now he’s rehabbing a major injury and wouldn’t have been available, but if he had been, he was the face this team was missing and he too might have single-handedly led this team to gold.
Look, I’m not a big DeRozan fan either, but he played for the last two gold medal teams at both the Olympics and World Cup, and he would have given the Americans a much steadier wing and another reliable scoring option. This team was surprisingly short on scoring and getting a bucket when needed.
It’s probably one cycle too late for Conley, and maybe he wouldn’t have added a ton that Kemba Walker didn’t already provide, but just having a second player of that caliber would have made a big difference.
Is Jrue Holiday a star? Is Mike Conley? Maybe. Maybe not. But their shooting, handling, and veteran savvy would have added a lot to the team. Holiday is the sort of guy that can fit any roster. He could have started at the two or even the three, added great perimeter defense, and played on or off the ball. He may not have been the star Team USA was missing, but perhaps he was the Andre Iguodala glue guy that could have held the team together at key moments.
The borderline NBA stars that might have helped
Would Team USA really have won the tournament with another one or two of these players? No, probably not. They’re all good, but none of them are great. None of them particularly change the game or affect strategy in a huge way.
Maybe Drummond would’ve added some heft at center against Jokic or Gobert, but Team USA was always going to have the lesser big man in the biggest matchups. Harris and Gordon would’ve added flexibility and lineup versatility. Bledsoe would have meant more creation. McCollum could’ve run some offense and added shooting and scoring. Add them all and maybe the improved bench is the difference. Add one or two and it’s probably not really the answer.
Don’t believe me? Khris Middleton was actually on the team. You barely noticed, huh? Enjoy that $178-million extension, Milwaukee fans.
The rest of these guys were the caliber of players that were turning down their Team USA invite by the end of the summer. Guys just didn’t want to play.
Down shift one more level and you find names like Eric Gordon, Gary Harris, Otto Porter, Josh Richardson, and P.J. Tucker. Again, welcome veteran additions that would’ve improved the depth and filled in as helpful role players – and again, several of them are names that turned the invite down.
No, if Team USA was going to win this thing, it wasn’t going to be from veteran stars or pseudo-stars. They needed to get the right young guys.
What young players might have made the difference?
Fox was the big miss, a last minute withdrawal. Point guard was one spot the Americans should have had a huge advantage – that and athleticism. Team USA actually played one of the slowest paces of any team, instead of pushing their athletic advantage. With Fox off the bench, that would have never happened. They needed him out there, and there really wasn’t a true point guard to run the bench offense without him.
Booker was busy posting Instagram workout videos instead, but he sure seems like he would have been the perfect poster boy for this team. He would have filled the Bradley Beal role above, probably leading the team in scoring and adding handling and spacing and an ability to go get his own bucket. He is the young, big time scorer Team USA lacked.
The Americans were never going to have the best big man on the court against the top teams, but Bagley would have been an opportunity to add athleticism and try to run against guys like Gasol and Jokic.
Speaking of athleticism, you could talk me into the Americans winning the entire tournament if you sub in Zion for Plumlee. He has the heft to play center internationally and would have been an immense addition with his vertical spacing and defensive instincts inside.
Maybe it’s a year or two early for Trae, but his handle, passing, and shooting would have been perfect for this team. No one on Team USA creates as well as him, and his shooting would have added a lot of extra space.
I’m not the biggest DLo fan, but he would have given the Americans another guard off the bench in the Donovan Mitchell role, someone that can score or run the offense a bit. Team USA just didn’t have many of those guys.
Jaren Jackson Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr.
These two struggled through tough rookie seasons after being drafted in the top-10, but both could be fixtures in the international game for years to come. Carter has a well-rounded game. He’s a smart defender that can cover one to five and plays intelligently on offense. Jackson projects as an elite rim protector and an ideal international big man with his shooting potential. Either of these two may have been inexperienced, but they’d have added a lot more to this team than guys like Plumlee.
So rest easy Americans. The stars will be back next summer for the Olympics, and the young guns are on the way. The U.S. never really brings its best to the FIBA World Cup, and we’ll all forget about this a month from now.
But in the mean time, you might as well tune in to the final two games of the 2019 World Cup. Look for Australia +110 moneyline to win 3rd place outright and finally secure that Olympic medal they’ve long coveted, while Spain covers -4 with ease to take home the gold. Get those bets in at Bovada and then let’s turn our attention to NBA preseason…