Who's to Blame for Team USA's FIBA Failure?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 11, 2019

DONGGUAN, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 11: Donovan Mitchell #5, and Head Coach Gregg Popovich of USA talk against France during the 2019 FIBA World Cup Quarter-Finals at the Dongguan Basketball Center on September 11, 2019 in Dongguan, China.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)
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For the first time since 2006, the United States men's basketball team will not finish first in a major international competition. On Wednesday, Rudy Gobert and a hungry French national squad upended the Americans 89-79 in Dongguan, China, ending the USA's 2019 FIBA World Cup run without a medal.

The loss to the French—who trotted out just five NBA players—represents a rare low-mark for Team USA, and fingers will be pointed. So, who's to blame?

Bleacher Report


Rudy Gobert (and Myles Turner)

After USA center Myles Turner took a subtle jab at Gobert's recent Defensive Player of the Year win, the French big man went off for 21 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks, none bigger than a swat on his Utah Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell that may have sealed the quarterfinal win:

Andy Larsen @andyblarsen

On perhaps the game's most important possession, Donovan Mitchell got the switch, had Rudy Gobert defending him on the perimeter. (Look how far out Rudy meets him, BTW.) Mitchell got the step, and Gobert recovered magnificently for the block. He's just so good. https://t.co/uUGyRA4bWy

In addition to the basic numbers, Gobert was a game-high plus-26. And, according to NBA.com's John Schuhmann, Nicolas Batum said the center was aware of Turner's comments:

John Schuhmann @johnschuhmann

Nicolas Batum says that Rudy Gobert saw Myles Turner’s comments comparing their defense, & that provided extra motivation for the DPOY.

All of this should be a little less surprising than one might think. If you go by NBA stats and performance, Gobert was the best player heading into this game.

He finished 2018-19 sixth in box plus/minus, 16th in real plus/minus and second only to Giannis Antetokounmpo in win shares per 48 minutes.

No one on Team USA was ahead of Gobert in any of those numbers.


The American stars who weren't there

The Americans wouldn't have had the best individual player in the game had they faced Nikola Jokic and Serbia or Antetokounmpo and Greece either. Even Montenegro's Nikola Vucevic would have a statistical argument over Kemba Walker.

And USA would've struggled to match the depth and chemistry of teams such as Spain and Australia. In fact, Australia already showed it was on par with this American squad in a 98-94 exhibition win just before the start of the World Cup.

This is the risk you run when you go to a major international tournament without the best player in tow. NBA veterans Batum and Evan Fournier were great in this game for the French, but the Americans couldn't match Gobert's dominance.

Even Mitchell's 29 points (14 in the third quarter, when USA showed signs of life), weren't enough to counter the Stifle Tower.

The most convenient scapegoats for this loss are those players who didn't participate. If you look back to the June announcement of who'd be at the Las Vegas training camp, you'll find names such as Bradley Beal, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kevin Love and CJ McCollum.

The bigs would have been especially helpful against Gobert (or Jokic, if they'd faced him). But the dropouts before this tournament fell like a line of dominoes. And what remained was a largely unproven collection of mostly young talent.

"FIBA made a mistake moving the World Cup into odd years," former NBA Commissioner David Stern said, per The Undefeated's Marc Spears. "And as a result, you are asking players to play in the FIBA world championship, play in the season and then play in the Olympics. And I think that pushed a lot of players to (choose)."

Perhaps that adjustment affects America, which always brings the most NBA players to these tournaments, more than other nations. But even if they're not in the NBA, the majority of everyone else's players have their own regular seasons in which to compete in various countries around the world.


Gregg Popovich's coaching staff

There are other potential reasons for this USA loss. Gregg Popovich's emphasis on Harrison Barnes over Khris Middleton always felt like an odd choice. Jayson Tatum's absence during most of the tournament with an ankle injury didn't help. Recruiting more pure shooting would've been wise.


The international catch-up

And of course, the game's worldwide development and popularity has to be mentioned. The 1992 Dream Team opened the eyes of fans around the globe. And the international talent pools that have become available are deep. Many of these teams now bring multiple NBA players to tournaments. And they play with an intense level of pride and competitiveness, especially when given a shot to knock out the juggernaut Team USA.


But really, it was the star-power void. Will that continue at 2020 Olympics?

Ultimately, this FIBA failure for the Americans is more about who wasn't there than who was.

Perhaps 2019, like 2006, will serve as a clarion call for Team USA to take these tournaments more seriously. Perhaps a rising star such as Devin Booker will see this loss and think, I can help erase that memory.

"After that loss, it was humbling and, to be quite frank, it was embarrassing," Chris Bosh said of the 2006 defeat, per Yahoo's Ben Rohrbach. "But sometimes you have to have that embarrassment to make things a little more special."

If the stars all come out for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the Americans will likely be an overwhelming favorite. But chemistry and buy-in will be necessary to win these lesser tournaments.

Could a player such as Kevin Durant, whose career took off after he led the 2010 World Cup team in scoring, motivate the upcoming crop of players? What about Carmelo Anthony, whose legacy may be tied as much to international dominance as it is to his NBA scoring prowess?

What may be most important, though, is a new leader and motivator who can push his peers to want to win these tournaments.

"[It was] our small way of representing the United States of America," Kobe Bryant said of the 2008 Redeem Team, according to Bleacher Report's Jonathan Abrams. "You can play for the Los Angeles Lakers; you can play for the Spurs, the Heat, the Mavs, whoever, but it's different when you put on a USA jersey because now you're playing for country."

That year, Kobe's legendary competitiveness was infectious. 

"Bryant woke up early to practice," Abrams wrote. "And other players soon followed suit, waking up early with Bryant, adjusting to his schedule."

Bryant knew what his teammates may not have known: Team USA wasn't invincible:

"All the other guys are still young, right? I mean, they were extremely young, no championship experience. It was important for me to impress upon them, 'Look, these international players can play.' Just because you might not see them in the NBA doesn't mean they don't have the option of coming to the NBA.

"Most of them just choose to stay and play overseas, but these players can play, and if you do not pay attention, they will wear your ass out. Trust me, I know. I grew up overseas. I've seen all these players play, and you sit up and you just go by the eye test, you're gonna be in deep shit. And so it was important to stress that message."

Kobe won't be available for the 2020 Olympics, but the Americans need someone to fill the role he did in 2008.

There are plenty of candidates who have experience and a competitive streak: Harden, Russell Westbrook, Davis, Lillard and Stephen Curry, to name a few.

Whoever it may be, one thing is sure: In basketball's global era, Team USA has to do a lot more than just show up to win.


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