It was about 15 years ago when USA Basketball was put on notice that Americans were no longer invincible in the Summer Olympics.
In fact, it was insane just how fragile the house of cards turned out to be. One ill-advised comment from head coach Larry Brown might have sank the entire ship before it got out of the harbor.
Before a qualifying match for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Brown told Team USA point guard Jason Kidd to stop improvising on fast breaks. “Stop at the free throw line and throw a bounce pass,” the 63-year-old coach told Kidd. According to Stephen Marbury, nearly 10 NBA players decided not to go to Greece once word got around that the skipper was treating NBA players like high school “Kidds.”
Come to think of it, would a quality prep coach tell his best passer how to pass? Brown’s coaching style didn’t just turn players away who could have been Olympians, but it alienated cagers who did make the trip. The United States lost by 19 to Puerto Rico and wound up with a bronze medal.
That wouldn’t do. Coach K and Kobe Bryant are just 2 of the legendary names who got involved with the 2008 Olympic team, which won a terrific gold medal game over Spain.
(Check out Marc Gasol’s utterly-dejected body English at 4:39 after Dwayne Wade’s clutch 3-point bomb.)
With the participation of NBA players as established by the original “Dream Team” in 1992, the United States has now won Olympic gold in 6 out of 7 opportunities in the modern era.
It has taken USA Basketball a little longer to secure a dominant grip on the FIBA World Cup.
FIBA World Cup: Pre-Handicapping the Americans in China
Ever since the Magic-Michael-Larry triumvirate led the Dream Team to untold heights in Barcelona, the other proud basketball nations of the world have been said to be “catching up” to the USA. An examination of Olympic medal-round results from 1992-2004 indicates the trend. Prior to the debacle in Greece the Americans won 3 gold medal contests by 32. 26, and 10 points respectively.
In the World Cup, maybe it’s USA Basketball that was initially behind the curve.
It’s not like there has been a single player-coach incident or double-digit loss to a Latin American side that knocked the United States off a World Cup pedestal. The pedestal was never there to begin with.
Team USA has won its share of FIBA world tournaments to be sure – the Red, White & Blue breezed to a gold medal in 1994 with an intimidating squad led by Shaq and Dominque Wilkins, and as of 2019 the United States has won 12 medals in the event. But 16 years went by between the ’94 victory and the next FIBA gold medal in 2010.
The media covered the 1992 Dream Team as if its gold medal was a foregone conclusion. Maybe it was. But treating the Jordan-led squad as if its athletic prowess alone disqualified the other countries at the Olympics is not a fair historical record.
Maybe we all thought at the time that the NBA needed only to sign-up for a competition in order to guarantee a gold medal for the U.S. We have learned since then that it was the leadership and coachability of superstars like Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and David Robinson that made gold look so easy against Europe’s best ballers.
I guess they all wanted to Be Like Mike.
Dream Team 1.0 was patient, played dedicated defense, didn’t turn the ball over, and waited for easy buckets. The Athens squad probably wouldn’t have lost 3 out of 8 games had the NBA cagers ignored everything else and followed those simple principles.
There’s no substitute for premier talent though. The presence of Coach K and other well-respected coaches within USA Basketball has helped to convince the current generation of top American pros to play for the Stars & Stripes.
Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant suited up to play for K in 2010, and Team USA slugged its way through low-scoring contests against Russia, Lithuania and host Turkey to mount the high podium.
Curry returned for the most recent World Cup in 2014 as Coach K added Boogie Cousins and James Harden to the mix. Team USA was never threatened, nearly putting up 130 points against Serbia in the final showdown.
LeBron James has already made clear that he will not be participating in the upcoming World Cup in China this summer. James can point to injuries and fatigue suffered during the Los Angeles Lakers’ season, but the real reason is that LeBron signed-up to play himself in Space Jam 2 which will be filmed in Hollywood in the offseason.
If King James’ acting turns out to be as bad as Michael Jordan’s in the original Space Jam, he’ll be winning Golden Raspberries instead of gold medals.
Will Curry stay loyal to Old Glory in 2019 even if his Golden State Warriors make another run to the NBA Finals?
Team USA: Old Friends and Fresh Faces in 2019
Controversy has swirled over FIBA’s qualifying schedule, which has prevented some countries from using the best eligible players from the NBA and from Europe.
Soccer is in some ways an ideal modern sports landscape in which club owners and league SEOs are more than happy to allow famous footballers to represent their countries. Clubs see the long-term value in growing the game through the World Cup, UEFA and CONCACAF events. New fans are drawn to the international tournaments and often continue to watch their favorite stars with their pro teams after the events. In the end, everybody makes more money.
In other sports, club teams often fight to keep high-priced players away from world competition.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman pulled off a plot at the Winter Olympics which ought to have been literally against the law, forcing the IOC to hold a special “qualifying round” for certain shorthanded teams while the National Hockey League squeezed-in a few more games prior to its Olympic break. When the so-called “qualifying” nations (which had already qualified to play in the Games) lost-out thanks to missing their best goalies or skaters from the NHL, the marquee teams would arrive and breeze past round-robin opponents which were often easier to beat as a result of other, stronger teams getting royally screwed by Bettman.
Basketball at least has the common sense to hold its World Cup in the NBA offseason. That doesn’t mean, though, that NBA superstars are eligible to play in qualifying.
Team USA qualified for the 2019 FIBA World Cup with rosters primarily composed of NBA G-League players and free agents coached by Jeff Van Gundy. But the U.S. squads played well, going 10-2 in 2 qualification rounds with losses to Mexico and Argentina. The 12-man roster for the World Cup in China, to be coached by Gregg Popovich, will be selected from a pool of 35 NBA players named in April 2018.
Current NBA players who could potentially return to the World Cup stage include Curry, Cousins, Anthony Davis, Harden, Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan, Andre Drummond, and Kyrie Irving, who was voted MVP of the World Cup in 2014.
There is also speculation that Zion Williamson of the Duke Blue Devils, the presumed #1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, could potentially join the roster.
But no matter how many All-Stars sign up to play, the key to the tournament will be the NBA ballers’ ability to convalesce around Popovich just as they have around Coach K in the past.
Here’s a glance at 7 other likely contenders in the FIBA tourney, which tips-off in Beijing and other cities on August 31st.
Spain: NBA Reinforcements for a Dynamo
The Spanish team is the last non-American squad to win a FIBA World Cup, taking home the 2006 gold medal by defeating Greece in the final round.
Spain has been sorely disappointed in international play since then, managing only a pair of silver medals at the Olympic Games.
Spain easily qualified with a 10-2 record, point guard Quino Colom leading the way with a 13.7-point and 4.8-assist average throughout the dozen games.
The likely additions of point guard Ricky Rubio, Nikola Mirotić, the Gasol brothers, the Hernangómez brothers, and other NBA and Euro workhorses will lend tremendous upside to the Spanish roster.
Serbia: Bridesmaid Seeks Gold for Necking, Strings Attached
Serbia was one of the nations to suffer most from the qualification schedule following a silver medal in Rio in 2016. It’s hard to break through for the gold when you don’t even get to play, and the Serbians struggled through a 7-5 record to barely make it into the 2019 World Cup.
Don’t read too much into the games played without best-available talent on the floor. NBA All-Star Nikola Jokić, former European Player of the Year Miloš Teodosić, and 7’3” center Boban Marjanović should make the Serbian team one of toughest in the competition yet again.
Head coach Aleksandar Đorđević has coached the Serbian national team since 2013 and will lead another crop of versatile players in a winnable Group D against Italy, Angola and the Philippines.
France is Back in the Dance
The France National Team did not have any such problems in qualifying, going 10-2 to secure 1st place in group standings.
France missed the gold medal game of the 2014 FIBA World Cup following a 5-point loss to Serbia in the semifinals. A high-scoring victory over Lithuania earned bronze, but the 2016 Summer Olympics did not go nearly as well as the French team was eliminated in a quarterfinal blowout to Spain.
Standouts on the roster include Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier, Rudy Gobert, and 4-time All-EuroLeague standout Nando de Colo.
Lithuania: Size and Quickness
The old Soviet province breezed through European qualifiers, with its only defeat coming in a nail-biter to Italy. Lithuania is known for imposing size and a stubborn physical style on the court, but the players have finesse skills too, and the squad put up impressive offensive numbers in 11 wins.
The Lithuanian team has always been a force in FIBA and especially at the Olympic Games, taking 3 straight Olympic bronze medals from 1992 to 2000.
Notable players who could suit up for Lithuania this summer include Lithuanian Player of the Year Domantas Sabonis, combo-guard Mantas Kalnietis, and 7’0” center Jonas Valančiūnas.
Greece: Fantastic News from the Freak
NBA MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo revealed his intentions to compete for Greece at the FIBA World Cup heading into the All-Star break. Barring any health concerns that crop up during the remainder of the NBA season, the addition of The Greek Freak could make Greece a fierce contender to medal for the first time since scoring a silver medal in 2006.
Even without the Freak, Greece has still put out a talented roster that breezed in the European qualifiers with an 11-1 record. The only loss was a lopsided 84-61 defeat to powerhouse Serbia.
Other standout performers for the Greece national team include All-EuroLeague point guard Nick Calathes, veteran power forward Georgios Printezis, and 7’0” center Kosta Koufos.
Look for a Sleeper Down Under
The Aussies could become a popular “sleeper” futures betting pick to make noise and leave China with a medal. The team has rich talent pool and could field an entire 12-man roster composed of NBA players.
A mixture of veterans like Joe Ingles, Andrew Bogut, and Matthew Dellavedova and talented youngsters such as NBA All-Star Ben Simmons and Dante Exum will give Australia a squad to be reckoned with despite being placed in the “group of death” with Lithuania, Canada, and Senegal,
The Boomers lost a nail-biter to Spain in the bronze medal game at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Turkey: Bad Draw vs the USA
Turkey is the highest-ranked nation next to the United States in Group E.
The 17th-ranked Turkish squad was eliminated by Lithuania in the quarterfinals of the 2014 FIBA World Cup and did not qualify for the Summer Olympics in Rio.
An 8-4 record in the European qualifiers was just enough to squeak by Montenegro and Latvia, earning a spot in the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
Shooting guard Furkan Korkmaz was outstanding in his limited qualifying appearances with a 20.3 point average in 4 games. Point guard Scottie Wilbekin, Cedi Osman, and big-man Ersan İlyasova are also likely to represent Turkey in August and September.