Team USA is trying to spin big money into Olympic basketball gold.
Under the auspices of outgoing managing director Jerry Colangelo, USA Basketball hastily put together a squad of stars and disparate parts, a 12-man roster that earned a collective $241.3 million to play for their various NBA teams this past season.
That didn’t help the U.S. in its first game this past Sunday against France, a stunning 83-76 loss that was worse than the final score looks. Team USA led by seven points with 3:41 to go and never hit another shot, with France finishing the game on an uncontested 16-2 run.
“There’s trouble in paradise,” former NBA coach Don Casey told Sportico. “It’s cloudy. It seems to me that these guys were going to a corporate meeting off site. There was no zest or sizzle or excitement.”
Now they have to defeat Iran on Wednesday and the Czech Republic on Saturday (Japan time) to ensure a spot with seven other teams in what’s now called the “knockout round.”
The skinny from Game 1 was this: Kevin Durant ($39 million), Khris Middleton ($33.1) and Devin Booker ($29.4 million) are the three top-paid players on the squad and among the top 25 salaried players this year in the league. Durant scored 10 points and fouled out of the 40-minute game. Booker had four points, and Middleton had zero.
Booker and Middleton could be excused because, along with Jrue Holiday, they had just stepped off an international flight through Seattle from Milwaukee, where a few days earlier the Bucks had vanquished the Suns in six games to win their first NBA title in 50 years. Holiday still starred for the U.S. by scoring 18 points, picking up right where he left off in the Finals.
“It’s been a bit of whirlwind,” Holiday said after the game in one of the great recent understatements.
It’s not going to get any easier if the U.S. intends to make good on defending its men’s basketball gold medals in the last three Olympics.
The format in their Group A bracket has them facing France, Iran and the Czech Republic. There are three such groups of four teams each. France has six current NBA players on the roster, including Nicolas Batum, Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier, who combined for 47 points. Fournier led all scorers with 28 points after averaging 17.1 points a game for the Boston Celtics this past season.
But Iran has no NBA players and the Czechs just one, Tomas Satoransky of the Chicago Bulls. The Czechs have already downed Iran, 84-78.
To make the quarterfinals, teams have to finish either first or second in their groups, or alternatively have one of the top two records among the three third-place teams. Got that?
Another loss in the preliminary round would put the U.S. in dismal shape. If Team USA survives that and makes the knockout round, they’ll be up against the best of rest, among them Spain, Australia and Slovenia. The U.S. already lost exhibition games in Las Vegas to Australia and Nigeria. And Slovenia just defeated Argentina, 118-100, with Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks scoring 48 points.
“Basketball is an international sport,” Team USA coach Gregg Popovich said. “There are very good teams all over the world. People shouldn’t be surprised by the French team or Australian team or Lithuanian team.
“It doesn’t matter who it is,” he said. “The gap in talent shrinks every year, as there are more and more players all over the world. You need to give the French team credit.”
Casey said one of the biggest problems is Team USA’s lack of a center. In the final minutes of the game against the French, Durant, Booker and Holiday all launched shots from beyond the three-point stripe with negative results. No one went down low to rebound or pick off easy two-point baskets. Booker insisted on playing in the Olympics but scored 19 points in the finale at Milwaukee; now he looks tired and out of sync.
“He’s a great player, easy to play with,” Holiday said about the All-Star Phoenix shooting guard. “Being able to go out there and play with him was pretty easy.”
But there are other major problems. When asked if Team USA had a center, Casey responded: “A legit center? None.
“There are no American stretch guys, they’re all international players,” he said. “The one-and-dones in college ball wiped out the [Patrick] Ewings, the Shaqs, the Larry Johnsons. They’re gone.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t post up Durant,” Casey added about a 6′ 10″ power forward who likes to handle the ball and play on the perimeter. “Zach [LaVine] you can post up. John Wooden had a statistic that every time Kareem touched the ball first the shooting percentage of everyone else went up 20%. You can post these guys up. They just don’t want to go down there.”
It’s nearing the end of an era for USA Basketball. Colangelo will retire when this tournament is over in lieu of Grant Hill because of “Father Time,” the now 81-year-old said. Popovich is one and done as Olympic coach. Duke czar Mike Krzyzewski had led the U.S. to the three consecutive gold medals before Tokyo.
This year’s team was put together hastily after two NBA seasons racked by COVID. Five of the players, including the three who were in the Finals, weren’t even there at the outset of a the two-week Vegas training camp. A bevy of NBA stars declined to participate because of injury and fatigue.
Sometimes you have to go into competition with the team you have, not the one you want, Popovich knows.
“I think that’s a little bit of hubris, if you think the Americans are supposed to just roll out the ball and win,” he said. “You have to work for it.”