PHILADELPHIA — So the United States Olympic men’s basketball team has lost its first two exhibition games, to Nigeria and Australia, ahead of the Summer Games in Tokyo later this month. And if you’re worried that having Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton join the team once the NBA Finals are finished won’t be enough to restore the U.S.’s status as the gold-medal favorite, you should be. Even if the team, over its remaining three exhibitions and with those eventual additions, manages to right itself and win the Olympic tournament, the journey won’t be easy. There are a few reasons.
The rest of the world keeps getting better
It has become a cliché, in the years since the 1992 Dream Team, to say that “the rest of the world has caught up to the United States” when it comes to basketball. The assertion is made every time the U.S. loses in international play, and it was particularly prevalent after the team finished sixth at the 2002 World Championships and won bronze medals in the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 World Championships. That fallow period inspired Jerry Colangelo, the chairman of USA Basketball, to revitalize the program, which in turn led to the U.S.’s victories at the ’08, ’12, and ’16 Games.
But Colangelo’s efforts didn’t mean players from around the globe stopped improving their games. Look at the NBA this season. Nikola Jokic, the league’s most valuable player, is from Serbia. The Sixers’ Joel Embiid, the MVP-runner-up, is from Cameroon. Giannis Antetokounmpo — who won the award the previous two seasons, finished fourth in the voting this year, and has been the best player in the NBA Finals — is from Greece. By 2017, more than one-fourth of all NBA players had been born outside the United States. That demographic shift alone makes it more difficult for the U.S. to remain the best basketball country in the world, especially when its two most accomplished players, LeBron James and Steph Curry, skip the Olympics.
Pop ain’t the one
Gregg Popovich can be as grumpy and condescending in his postgame press conferences as he likes, but his bellicosity doesn’t change the fact that he is not the ideal head coach for this particular Olympic team.
Yes, Popovich has won five NBA championships in his career with the Spurs, but the last of those titles came in 2014 — seven years ago, and two years before the last Summer Olympics. Five players on this USA roster weren’t even in the league in the spring of 2014. Unlike with Mike Krzyzewski, who was still regarded as the best coach in college basketball throughout his tenure with USA Basketball, Popovich’s excellence as a coach is a distant memory to most of the players on this Olympic team. The Popovich they know is the one who, since the retirements of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, has coached the Spurs to two losing seasons in three years.
More, there’s an argument to be made that, these days, a college coach is better suited to run the Olympic team — which would make Villanova’s Jay Wright, an assistant under Popovich, the next logical choice. “I think, going forward, it’s best to have an NBA guy,” Wright said in 2016 when I asked him about this possibility. But Wright has since won a second national championship and will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame later this year. Between now and 2024, he should have more than enough credibility among the pros who will make up that team’s roster.
Perhaps, as my friend Casey Feeney of NBC Sports Philadelphia has noted, Wright’s connection to this team will so tarnish him that it will cost him his chance to be the Olympic head coach in 2024. I’m skeptical of that theory. Though Wright maintains more continuity within his program than most college coaches do, by the nature of his job he must assemble a group of players who in most cases have never played together before and, in little time, shape them into a cohesive unit. He or any elite college coach has more experience in that task than Popovich or just about any longtime NBA coach does, and that task is the same one that an Olympic head coach faces.
The fire inside
The Dream Team’s immortality wasn’t born of merely its incredible collection of talent. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird: Whether out of patriotic pride or just a desire to show their peers who the Alpha Dog among alpha dogs was, they and the rest of the Dream Teamers regarded selection to the roster as a badge of honor, and they were determined to crush all comers once they got to Barcelona. Kobe Bryant brought a similar mentality to the 2008 and 2012 teams, acting as a recruiter and tone-setter.
It’s fair to wonder whether this U.S. team burns to win with the same fire that those teams did or that the other contenders in Tokyo will. Just one example: In a recent interview, former college head coach Fran Fraschilla, who has coached internationally and will cover the Games for NBC, said this about the Atlanta Hawks’ Bogdan Bogdanovic:
“Serbian basketball culture is as strong a culture as you’ll ever see around the world. They eat, drink, and sleep basketball. His toughness, his shooting, his skill level are all a product of his background, that former Yugoslavian culture of ‘This is in our blood.’ You can tell, when he represents Serbia, how big a deal it is to him. When I think of Serbian basketball, I think of Indiana high school basketball. He’s been coached hard. Getting coached in Serbia is like getting coached by Tom Izzo times 10. You’re prepared for anything.”
Surely, those players representing the U.S. want to be there. But do they need to be, in their blood? As the talent gap between countries narrows, those intangible factors matter more.