Team USA is still the favorite to win a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, but they are by no means invincible.
Team USA might be in a little trouble at the Olympics this year. So far, they are 1-2 in exhibition games with losses coming against Australia and Nigeria.
Kevin Durant and company were able to bounce back with a runaway victory over Argentina, but that doesn’t change the fact that Team USA has issues.
The transition to FIBA rules, Gregg Popovich’s concerning record, and poor roster construction are three reasons why Team USA is looking sloppy after three exhibition games.
At its core, the international basketball game is the same as the NBA. It’s basketball.
However, there are some distinct differences from the NBA to FIBA play, most notably the physicality of the games. NBA stars like Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal are used to drawing fouls on soft contact. That’s not the case in international games. Players are only given five fouls, but it’s not so easy to draw cheap fouls.
Look at this play from Lillard in the exhibition against Nigeria. He feels the slightest bit of contact and chucks up the shot, hoping to draw the foul call.
— Danny Small (@dwsmall8) July 15, 2021
Even the big men on Team USA are looking for ticky-tack foul calls. Bam Adebayo is barely touched on this next play. But rather than fighting through the contact, he gives up on the play to try and draw the foul.
— Danny Small (@dwsmall8) July 15, 2021
This is all part of the reasoning behind playing exhibition games. For NBA stars who have not played much international basketball, these games are necessary. It takes time to adjust to the new style of play.
The question is simple though — can these stars break the habits they have built up over years? Probably, but it’s not a given at this point.
Gregg Popovich Questions
Gregg Popovich’s coaching record is unimpeachable — five championships and three Coach of the Year awards are more than enough to solidify yourself as one of the all-time greats.
However, it’s fair to raise questions about Popovich as the coach of Team USA. Legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski finished his tenure at the helm of USA Basketball with a remarkable 75-1 record.
Popovich lost twice last week and finished in seventh place at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Of course, Team USA didn’t have its full complement of players in the World Cup, but with names like Donovan Mitchell, Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Khris Middleton, and Jaylen Brown, the result should have been better.
Again, it’s almost considered basketball sacrilege to say anything negative about Popovich, but the Spurs are on an obvious decline since their breakup with Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs have posted back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1988 and 1989.
Winning is a lot tougher without David Robinson, Tim Duncan, or Kawhi Leonard.
Poor Roster Construction
We touched on how the players are struggling to adjust to the international game and Popovich’s suspect Team USA coaching record, but perhaps the most blame should go to Jerry Colangelo.
Colangelo is the director of USA Basketball and he’s the main decision-maker when it comes to the roster. What the hell is going on with this Team USA roster, Jerry?
Kevin Love over Julius Randle?
Sure, Love is a former gold medal winner and Colangelo values that experience. It’s one thing to value loyalty and experience, but taking Love over Randle makes absolutely no sense from a basketball perspective. There is no on-court argument for putting Love on this team over Randle.
Randle was one of the four best forwards in the league last season (Second Team All-NBA) and he has the physicality to play the five in the international game. Despite his natural fit on this roster, he’s at home watching like the rest of us.
Meanwhile, Love is coming off of the worst season of his career. He racked up three fouls in three minutes of action in the exhibition against Nigeria.
But Love isn’t the only issue with the roster. Currently, Team USA is waiting on three more guys who are still playing in the NBA Finals — Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton.
The NBA Finals are tied at two games apiece and if it goes to a Game 7, all three guys will be playing until July 22. Team USA’s first game in the Tokyo Olympics is on July 25.
The good news is that these three guys will come into the Olympics without any rust at all. The bad news is that they will have to deal with issues like jet lag, adjusting to the FIBA rules, and potential injuries on the fly.
It’s also worth noting that if Booker, Holiday, or Middleton are forced to pull out, Team USA would likely call up Darius Garland, Saddiq Bey, or Keldon Johnson from the Select Team. For all intents and purposes, either player would be the last guy on the bench and an unrealistic option for Popovich in a close game.
There are serious issues at every level of USA Basketball right now. From the front office to the coaching staff to the players, everyone is on notice entering these Olympics.
In all likelihood, another gold is in store for Team USA this year. They have way more firepower than any other nation in Tokyo, but nothing is guaranteed.
Popovich and his squad will have another opportunity to prepare for the real thing with an exhibition game against Australia on July 16 (6 p.m. ET) and Spain on July 18 (9 p.m. ET).