What’s Wrong with USA Basketball?

As the buzzer sounded at the end of France vs. the U.S. in the quarterfinals of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) World Cup, U.S.’ tournament run came to an early end.

Final Score: France 89 United States 79. As the buzzer sounded at the end of France vs. the U.S. in the quarterfinals of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) World Cup, U.S.’ tournament run came to an early end. This loss sent the U.S. into the loser’s bracket where it suffered another loss to Serbia, led by Nikola Jokic and Bogdan Bogdanovic, before picking up a win against Poland in its final game. These results mean the U.S. placed seventh in the final standings of the tournament which was the team's lowest placing ever. This loss snapped the U.S.’ dominant streak of 58 wins in FIBA and Olympic competitions. In hindsight, early signs of the U.S. roster’s weaknesses were apparent from the beginning. Prior to the tournament, the team lost in an exhibition match to Australia and ended a streak of 78 consecutive wins in international competitions. In addition, the team barely survived a 92-91 overtime nailbiter against Turkey in the group stage of the tournament. The 2019 U.S. men’s basketball team was doomed to fail from the start due to a multitude of reasons, but the big question remains: How can team U.S. fix these problems when it comes to putting together a roster for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo?

One major reason for team U.S.’ disappointing tournament exit was the lack of star talent on the roster. Big names such as Lebron James, Steph Curry, and James Harden, along with many other perennial All-Stars, pulled out of the tournament. They cited a “need for rest to prepare for the long, grueling season” as the primary factor in their decision to withdraw. In addition, after the more elite talent withdrew, other players followed as they didn’t want to lead a roster that had the potential to lose in the tournament. These withdrawals led the team to be headlined by all-star Kemba Walker, but Walker is widely considered to be the fourth-best player in the entire tournament behind names such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, and Rudy Gobert. The team lost out on promising young talents in Jayson Tatum and Kyle Kuzma as both athletes suffered injuries that stopped their stint with the team down the stretch. The rest of the roster was filled with two other fringe all-stars, Khris Middleton and Donovan Mitchell, and role players such as Myles Turner, Jaylen Brown, Joe Harris, and others. This roster is a far cry from the dominant, superstar-studded rosters that the U.S. team normally assembles. The biggest weakness was the team’s lack of playmakers and frontcourt players. Its frontcourt rotation suffered from a lack of depth as the team went small ball while only having three true big men on the roster. This weak frontcourt depth led to them being outrebounded by teams like France with Gobert leading the way. For the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the U.S. will look to attract superstars that pulled out of this year’s FIBA cup to form a second rendition of the famous 2008 “Redeem Team.” Warriors’ stars Steph Curry and Draymond Green have already expressed interest in playing on the 2020 team, and more stars will soon follow.

Another factor contributing to team U.S.’ exit was its lack of experience playing under FIBA rules and team chemistry. This factor was evident as Kemba Walker stated, “It’s a different game than the NBA; it’s a lot more physical.” FIBA also has a more lenient policy on goaltending. In addition, the duration of a FIBA game is shorter and clocks in at 40 minutes compared to the 48 minutes of an NBA game. That eight-minute difference is significant as it could have affected the timing of players, all of who have close to no experience playing internationally. Team U.S. also puts together a group of players from multiple different teams, so the chemistry of the team is lackluster compared to most of the European teams who were more accustomed to playing together. Normally, the sheer talent of team U.S. is able to offset this absence of team chemistry, but this year's roster did not have the overwhelming talent needed to counteract this weakness.

As other countries close the gap in talent, U.S. Basketball will have to increase its sense of urgency to find players who are accustomed to the rules of international tournaments and create a roster that can successfully play well together. With national pride on the line, change will be necessary to achieve the ultimate goal: Winning it all.

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