If the United States has one more good day on the basketball court, and there have only been a few at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, it will finish in seventh place at this tournament. The Americans have never done worse.
They were better in 2002, when the tournament was contested in Indianapolis and the U.S. finished only sixth at home. They were better in 1990, placing third the last time the nation was represented by a team comprising college players. They were way better in 2010 and 2014, when the U.S. won the gold medal games by a combined 37 points and the games in those two tournaments by an average margin of 28.8.
When the U.S. dropped games on consecutive days to France and Serbia — the latter a meaningless consolation game that nonetheless represents one more failure in this event — there was a temptation to say the rest of the world has caught up to the U.S. Some prominent voices already jumped to that conclusion.
But those were the kinds of statements made when USA Basketball produced two of its least impressive teams ever: at that 2002 World Championship and then two years later in the Athens Olympics. Those catastrophes led to the “Redeem Team” of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant claiming victory in Beijing in 2008, and to all the subsequent dominance: five senior national team tournament victories in a row, most by blowout scores.
Perhaps it was this supremacy that led so many to care so little about this FIBA World Cup.
FIBA WORLD CUP: Gregg Popovich’s mistakes prove costly in USA’s loss to France
With FIBA rearranging the event so it was contested a year in advance of the Olympics, it was understandable many of the best American players — Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden — chose to sit this one out and perhaps wait for Tokyo. These stars and several others have already claimed one or more gold medals at international tournaments.
It is more difficult to explain the decision to skip the event by so many players in the next tier. Portland’s Damian Lillard is perhaps the most prominent, but Bradley Beal, Tobias Harris and CJ McCollum also passed. Any or all of them would have made the U.S. a stronger contender.
The players who went to China certainly cared, and the best of them have earned the opportunity to be a part of next summer’s Olympics, if they desire. Those who passed perhaps should be less a priority for future events.
When the U.S. lost Thursday to Serbia, ESPN draft analyst Jonathon Givony, an expert on the international game, tweeted, “Hopefully this serves as a wakeup call for how much the world has caught up (no one wants to hear your roster excuses).”
Except the roster was a real thing. The U.S. sent only two players to the World Cup who averaged more than 20 points per game during the 2018-19 NBA season: point guard Kemba Walker and shooting guard Donovan Mitchell. Only three had ever appeared in an NBA All-Star Game. Because of the withdrawal of Harris and an injury to the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma, the U.S. did not have a single player at the stretch-4 position available in China.
Relative to the competition, this was the least talented roster the U.S. ever has sent to a senior international event. Whereas in 2014 the USA Basketball roster for the World Cup featured players who averaged a composite 18.8 points the previous NBA season, and in 2016 the Olympic gold medal squad produced 19.6 points per game, this year’s team was good for only 14.9 a game. It featured three players who didn’t even average double figures.
Even with a less talented team, the U.S. still underperformed in the France game, from Kemba Walker’s 2-of-9 shooting to the struggles to defend Evan Fournier to the decisions made by head coach Gregg Popovich. The U.S. shot only 33 percent from the shorter international 3-point line. And how does one explain wing Joe Harris hitting better than 50 percent on 3-pointers but, after entering the lineup because of Jayson Tatum’s injury, not even firing three times per game from long distance until after the U.S. lost to France?
“There are no excuses when a country like ours suffers its worst result in history,” Givony told Sporting News. “USA should not be finishing seventh or eighth in any basketball tournament.”
There should be no excuses, indeed. But there are better explanations than “the world is catching up.” Having won five consecutive international championships, the players who represent the best of the American game had done their part to put the U.S. back where it belonged. This was an opportunity for the next wave to continue the momentum. Some could not because of injury. Some did not because they had other concerns.
That’s not the rest of the world catching up. That’s the rest of the world caring more. Maybe there is no excuse for that.
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