Why Team USA Men's Basketball Could Be in Trouble at Tokyo Olympics

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 13, 2021

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 12: Matisse Thybulle #22 of the Australia Men's National Team plays defense on Kevin Durant #7 of the USA Men's National Team during the game on July 12, 2021 at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. 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. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

On July 10, just before Team USA Basketball tipped off its first exhibition game in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics, popular NBA Twitter accounts took to the timeline to express confidence in a starting lineup that included Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum and Bam Adebayo.

Durant is a two-time Finals MVP. Lillard and Beal are both multitime NBA All-Stars. Tatum and Adebayo are rising talents who both made All-Star teams before their 23rd birthdays.

So, it should come as little surprise that Rob Perez (perhaps more commonly known as World Wide Wob) tweeted "good luck, world" ahead of Team USA's matchup with Nigeria. It hardly felt like a hot take when The Hoop Central wrote, "Team USA starting lineup...Unbeatable" followed by a fire emoji.

And then the actual game started. The Americans seemed intent on a "your turn, my turn" style of offense to go along with little effort on the other end. Nigeria, on the other hand, looked connected, moved the ball and hit 10 more threes than Team USA.

In the end, Nigeria won 90-87, beating the betting spread by a remarkable 31.5 points.

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Nigeria upset the USA in an exhibition match, 90-87. According to Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill, the USA was a 28.5-point favorite. https://t.co/aMQWWcU7bf

Two days later, behind Patty Mills, Joe Ingles and four other current NBA players, Australia's Boomers beat Team USA, 91-83.

Now, the team that was once a massive favorite to win gold in Tokyo is 0-2 on the exhibition circuit. It's probably still the safest bet in the field, but these two losses have revealed problems that could make a run to the medal stand more precarious than anticipated.


Roster Construction

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 10:  Precious Achiuwa #55 of Nigeria is guarded by Kevin Love #11 of the United States during an exhibition game at Michelob ULTRA Arena ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games on July 10, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Nigeria defeated the
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

After the first loss, Nigeria head coach Mike Brown diagnosed one of the problems Team USA must confront. 

"If you look at the pool of talent that USA Basketball has to pull from, or to draw from, no country can match it," he said. "The reality of it is, a lot of their talent, they just kind of throw together at the last second and say, 'Go win it.' And a lot of these other countries, they've been playing together since they were 14, 15, 16 years old. And so, that has helped, in my opinion, a lot on the international stage."

That certainly helped the Australians too.

"The current boomer core has been together for a decade," The Athletic's Tony Jones tweeted after the game. "They are integrating people like [Dante Exum], [Josh Green] and [Matisse Thybulle] into the next core, and Josh Giddey is the future. Australia hoop is in a good spot..."

Cohesion and chemistry are key components for successful basketball, and they're nearly impossible to manufacture in a few days and weeks at a minicamp, especially when you feature multiple players who do a lot of the same things.

Lillard, Beal, Durant and Tatum are all ultratalented scorers, but they haven't had enough time to learn to play together. A more natural table-setter to get everyone involved and promote ball movement would've helped.

As The Ringer's J. Kyle Mann put it: "...sprinkle [Trae Young], [Tyrese Haliburton], [LaMelo Ball] over this and let the good times roll..."

One or two defensive-minded wings or guards would've helped as well. The aforementioned starters at those positions are all-world offensive talents, but none of them are known for consistently changing games on the other end. Zach LaVine doesn't help much there, either.

Until Jrue Holiday arrives after the NBA Finals (which should make a difference), the team's only defensive specialists are Draymond Green and Adebayo, both of whom are bigs. They can only do so much to cover the perimeter, and they don't take up quite as much space in the paint as, say, Jarrett Allen (who was a finalist to make the team).

And that leads to the next problem: the big men. On this team, Jerami Grant is essentially a 4 or 5, so that gives Team USA a platoon of Adebayo, Green, Grant and Kevin Love. The first three are going to be undersized in certain matchups, and Love has looked completely out of place in his limited minutes. He may have the size and passing ability to make some sense on offense, but he's going to get embarrassed in almost any defensive matchup.

Again, the additions of Holiday, Khris Middleton and Devin Booker will help. It'll bump Select Team members off the main roster, add firepower and bolster the defense.

But these two games—and really, the last several years of international basketball—have shown that hodgepodge rosters with little experience together are no longer a guarantee to win gold.


International Talent

Luka Doncic of Slovenia celebrates during the 2020 FIBA Men's Olympic Qualifying Tournament final match between Lithuania and Slovenia in Kaunas, Lithuania, July 4, 2021. (Photo by Alfredas Pliadis/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

Exporting basketball to the world has done wonders for the talent pools in international competitions.

In 1980-81, only 2.1 percent of NBA players who logged at least 500 minutes were born outside the United States. By the 2000-01 season, that number had grown to 8.8. This season, it climbed all the way to 22.4.

Three of the top four (and four of the top six) finishers in 2020-21 MVP voting were from countries other than the United States. The winner, Nikola Jokic, isn't competing in Tokyo, but his ascension is more evidence of the game's growth overseas.

The sixth-place finisher, Luka Doncic, will be at the Olympics. And though his roster with Slovenia doesn't have as much raw talent as Team USA's, he's proved he can dominate NBA defenders for three years now.

In the one-and-done format of the knockout round, it's conceivable that a Herculean effort from Doncic and a few timely contributions from role players could push a team like Slovenia past Team USA.

Nearly 30 years removed from 1992's Dream Team, the Americans' air of invincibility is gone. Most nations represented in the Olympic or FIBA World Cup tournaments are led by NBA players with years of experience against Team USA's best. Some are now led by MVP candidates.


International Style

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 12:  Bradley Beal #4 of the United States is guarded by Patty Mills #5 and Matisse Thybulle #22 of the Australia Boomers during an exhibition game at Michelob Ultra Arena ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games on July 12, 2021 in Las Ve
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Over the last several years, baiting refs into calling fouls on wholly unnatural movements has become commonplace in the NBA. Players often pump-fake on the perimeter, get a defender in the air, launch themselves sideways like a guided missile into contact and get rewarded with free throws.

Tune into these NBA Finals and you're likely to see Chris Paul pull ahead of a defender, stop on a dime (or sometimes, even back up into the defender) and then hit the deck like he's taking a pro wrestling bump.

A trip to the line is the highest efficiency possession in basketball, and stars are often shameless in their attempts to get there.

But after years of successfully fooling NBA refs, many of Team USA's players are struggling to adjust to the more physical brand of defense played in FIBA tournaments, per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. On the other end, they're being called for push-offs that NBA officials rarely call: 

"Throughout the games, multiple players, from Jayson Tatum to Bradley Beal, have been staring down the officials following no-calls as they're accustomed to receiving touch fouls or star-treatment officiating in the NBA. In the first half on Monday, Tatum was called for an offensive foul on a drive when he slightly nudged the defender aside with his right hand to create separation. It was a move that's consistently ignored in the NBA."

That should affect the NBA players on teams from other nations, too. But again, those guys have more international experience. Doncic, for example, was a rotation player for Real Madrid back in 2015-16. Officiating in the EuroLeague and Liga ACB is much closer to what the players will see at the Olympics than it is in the NBA.

Slovenia aside, most of the nations represented in Tokyo will be more accustomed to an egalitarian-like system on offense, too. The unselfishness and ball movement displayed by Nigeria and Australia aren't outliers. And for an American team without many defensive aces, covering those attacks won't be easy. 

Ultimately, Team USA should still have a significant talent advantage over every team it faces in Tokyo, especially when Holiday, Middleton and Booker are added to the fold.

In the past, the Americans could show up, play sort of a pickup style and cruise to the gold. They likely can't anymore. But if they leverage these losses as learning experiences that inspire them to play a more connected brand of basketball on both ends of the floor, they should still finish first.

The door is officially open for the rest of the world, though.


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