Despite still being favorites to win a medal, the American team is suffering as a result of a lack of preparation and the game's global growth. TOKYO, JAPAN — Basketball's internationalization has been extensively documented for decades. International events have never been more competitive. Elite talent may be found almost everywhere. Some national teams' players train together for half their lives, developing a long-term bond that shows on the court.
Consider that certain players on the squad were so unprepared for this event — due to health rules and the NBA playoff schedule — that they couldn't even keep their heads above water. That is, on the ball. The official Olympic balls, although being the same size as NBA basketballs, are a different brand with a distinct feel, as players learned when dribbling, passing, and shooting in their first game late Sunday night in Tokyo.
The ball, being one of two inanimate things that combine to form the sport's name, plays a significant part in a team's success: "Just because we do have to put the ball in the hoop," player Jrue Holiday said after the Americans' 83-76 loss to France.
Consider that Holiday, who led the team in scoring with 18, was one of three players that arrived at the team's hotel around 1 a.m. the same day after arriving late from the United States. And he'd just finished assisting the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA title. Holiday stated after the game, "This is my first day — literally my first day," with the glassy-eyed fatigue of a college student enduring midterms.
These didn't come across as justifications, but rather as acknowledgments of fact. However, hard truths may have brutal repercussions this summer. International basketball legends has never been more forgiving, and the United States has never been less confident in its ability to win, while being greatly favored.
Players in the NBA now hail from 41 different nations, the competitive field is changing, and power in the game is shifting. The NBA has increasingly become a platform for international superstars, and in some ways has grown controlled by them. While playing for the Denver Nuggets, Nikola Jokic of Serbia earned the Most Valuable Player Award, and Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece won it two seasons ago before guiding the Milwaukee Bucks to the title last week.
"We're terrific at basketball," Australia's Joe Ingles, who plays for the Utah Jazz, said.
This dynamic has been recognized since at least 2004, when the Americans were only able to win a bronze medal in the Athens Olympics. Individual talent has not been an issue in the years afterwards, and is unlikely to be for at least a few generations; the United States creates it by the truckload, at a rate and volume that no other country can equal.
"If we do what we do well, I don't believe there's any team out here that can come close to us," Zach LaVine said before the game. So I believe we'll be OK as long as we go out there and execute, be ourselves, and be Team USA."
After clearing coronavirus preventive steps, he joined the squad in Japan, while Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards did not, and stayed at home. Kevin Love, a forward with the Cleveland Cavaliers and another top scorer, was also unable to join the squad due to a calf ailment.
At this point, the US team may be more of an ideal than an identity. Even when the faces change, the aura stays. Years ago, the days of putting together a haphazard collection of NBA players and expecting to triumph on the Olympic stage were long gone. After the game, American coach Gregg Popovich acknowledged as much, labeling anyone who thought the Americans could "roll out the ball and win" a "little bit of arrogance."
However, they continue to strive to do so in certain areas.
Only Khris Middleton and Jayson Tatum, who were both on the United States' 12-man squad at the 2019 World Championships, are returning for the Olympics. For the purpose of comparison, France has seven returning players, while coach Vincent Collet has been in charge of the squad since 2009.
"A lot of these teams have been planning for five, ten years," Draymond Green explained, "and the consistency, continuity, and familiarity that they have in their offense, it's the one thing that we can never compensate for."
Despite their talent, the Americans do not have all of its finest players, including those with the greatest international experience, in Japan. LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and James Harden, to mention a few, all chose to stay at home. Consider the possibility of Cristiano Ronaldo missing a World Cup.
However, among the current crop of American players, priorities are different, and the Olympics are not the World Cup – at least not for the Americans. Hearing Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks' point guard, state before the tournament that he would prefer win a gold medal with Slovenia than an NBA championship was eye-opening.
These aren't optimal circumstances for success when taken together. After the game, Rudy Gobert of France — and the Utah Jazz — seemed almost empathetic, detailing all the tiny facets of foreign play that Americans would find odd and unsettling, notably the refereeing.
"There are a lot of intricacies," Gobert explained.
For the time being, the United States will be OK. "They're much, much, much better than us," Iran's Hamed Haddadi, the Americans' opponent on Wednesday, pointed out.
However, the setback on Sunday served as a reminder about the limits of raw ability. Popovich, for example, was irritated by what he referred to as "dry possessions," or times when the offense appeared sluggish and failed to score. In comparison, France appeared to be calm and confident.
As the game slipped away from the Americans, a group of volunteers in the arena, some of the only onlookers, became increasingly engrossed in the action, turning to the court, crowding around television sets, inching closer with each errant shot, and erupting small shouts of surprise with each mishap. When the buzzer went off, they all burst out laughing. Even with all of the changes in the game, it's still exciting to see a big collapse.