The path to a gold medal for the USA Basketball Men’s National Team at the Tokyo Olympics is arduous, illustrated by an 83-76 loss to France on Sunday in their tournament opener. Prior to facing France, the U.S. went 2-2 in pre-Olympic exhibition games, falling to Nigeria and Australia, and defeating Argentina and Spain.
The defeat to France ended a 25 games winning streak for Team USA dating back to the 2004 Athens Olympics. But the loss to France was not an anomaly. The U.S. is only 4-5 in its last nine games in international competition with a roster solely made up of NBA players. That includes a 120-66 blowout of Iran early yesterday (Wednesday) morning.
“I think that’s a little bit of hubris if you think the Americans are supposed to just roll out the balls and win,” said U.S. head coach Gregg Popovich. “We’ve got to work for it just like everybody else. And for those 40 minutes, they played better than we did.”
Popovich is acutely aware of the current state of his squad. “When you lose a game, you’re not surprised,” maintained the five-time NBA champion as coach of the San Antonio Spurs. “You’re disappointed.” The 1992 Dream Team is a distant memory. At the Barcelona Olympics, ballers for other countries that were experiencing going up against NBA players for the first time were in awe of Micheal Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley et al. Today, teams such as France are replete with high caliber NBA talent including three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz; Nicolas Batum, the Los Angeles Clippers’ starting small forward this past season; and Evan Fournier, the Boston Celtics’ starting shooting-guard.
“They are better individually,” observed Fournier regarding the American contingent, “but they can be beaten as a team.” A seeming challenge for Team USA is adapting to the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) style of basketball. In the mid-to-late ’90s, after successfully achieving a brilliant goal of globalizing the NBA, in large part achieved by the remarkable popularity of Jordan and the Dream Team, the late David Stern, one of the great visionaries in the history of sports, determined the league needed to be as entertaining as it was competitive.
The result was instituting rules changes that made the game dramatically more offensive-centric and significantly reduced the physicality epitomized by the 1980s’ Detroit Pistons and the 1990s’ New York Knicks. Stern surmised basketball aesthetics were far more crucial to selling the league’s product than the combative drama regularly delivered in a Pistons vs. the Chicago Bulls or a Knicks vs. Indiana Pacers series.
As the NBA evolved, analytics became predominant in shaping rosters and schematic philosophies. Incessant pick and rolls, isolation sets and volume three-point attempts have replaced fluid ball and player movement, and the minimizing of the utility mid-range shots. But international basketball remains a game of physical defensive play, motion offense, and a balance of play in the paint and perimeter jumpers. Consequently, U.S. players, collectively, have recently been slow to adjust to the international model in World Championship and Olympic competitions.
Team USA’s next game is Saturday (8:00 a.m.) versus the Czech Republic. They are in Group A with Iran, France and the Czech Republic.