The question came in waves over the course of 48 hours. And each and every time Gregg Popovich did his best to answer it without any of the blazing sarcasm he reserves for in-game interviews he conducts with sideline reporters during San Antonio Spurs games.
As the new coach of the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team, Popovich has a clear understanding of the team’s mission as the qualification for next summer’s FIBA World Cup in China cranks up.
Anything that went on during last week’s two-day mini-camp in Las Vegas wasn’t about any single individual. It was about the team and only the team, he insisted. If it required him saying it over and over again, so be it.
The culture of the program and the nature of the competitions they are committed to continue dominating, Popovich said require that sort of laser focus from all involved. That goes not only for the staff at USA Basketball and the coaching staff, but also the 35 players on the National Team roster.
“I’m here to coach the USA Basketball team and I have no interest in the NBA at this point, I’ll worry about all that when I get back to San Antonio,” Pop said when asked to assess the play of specific players who worked out during the camp in Las Vegas. “Right now, this is a higher level. This is USA Basketball. And I want these guys to be thinking strictly about that when we’re together and I have to be thinking about that as well. This group right here, making them a family and making them a team, that’s what is important. It’s not about any one player, it’s about the entire group.”
What shape that group takes between now and next summer, and even beyond that to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, is also not something Popovich felt comfortable discussing or even speculating about.
The time between competitions makes it difficult to prepare with specific players in mind because so much can change in the course of the NBA season. Player availability for FIBA competition rests largely on who is available, and perhaps most important, who is healthy at that time.
I’m here to coach the USA Basketball team and I have no interest in the NBA at this point, I’ll worry about all that when I get back to San Antonio. Right now, this is a higher level. This is USA Basketball.
“We’re not going to make any kinds of decisions on people and how it’s going to go and who’s going to want to go or not go,” Popovich said. “We’’ll find out during the season. And I’ll sit down with [USA Basketball Managing Director] Jerry Colangelo and [Senior Team Director] Sean Ford and some others who are going to be watching guys play all season long, invite a group and go from there. We won’t worry about whose going to go to the Olympics or talk about the Olympics at all. All we care about is the World Cup in China. But we have to qualify first.”
Colangelo confirmed as much. He made it clear that attendance last week will not determine the fortunes of any particular player on the roster. Just 23 of the 35 players on the roster were full participants in the mini-camp. Notable players missing included LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul and Draymond Green.
Colangelo said they are still in the planning stages for next summer, working on every single detail, the way they always have since he took over the program in 2005.
“We’re working the schedule right now, in terms of how much time we’re going to be here [Las Vegas] and we’re going to play a couple of games before we take off for the Far East and I think we may be playing in Australia next summer,” Colangelo said. “The point is, we need that time to make sure we have the young guys on the select team we’ll have in the pipeline to get acclimated as well. That’s the structure we’ve always used and it’s a good one, it works for our guys.”
They are relying on tried and true methods but they are not resting on the production that occurred under Popovic’s successor; Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski coached the team to three straight gold medals since the London Olympics in 2012 and complete dominance on the world stage and five gold medals overall.
But the past is just that, Colangelo said.
“This is today and we’ve got to go forward,” he said. “The five gold medals and all the success, the 88-1 run and all that, great. Wonderful. We established a mechanism and put the infrastructure in and made it hip again to be a part of USA Basketball and represent your country. But we still have work to do. No complacency. Zero. We’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of us. Everyone wants to knock us off.
“But that’s the thing that works for our guys, who are all in the NBA. They are so darn competitive. They love being in the gym. And you can see it here and you can feel it here. Guys like Carmelo [Anthony] shows up here to check on these guys after all he’s done for the program. They love it. It’s a good situation to be in and I don’t take it for granted. None of us do. And I’m very appreciative of the guys wanting to be a part of this and committing themselves to this process, however it plays out for them individually. Not everyone would. But ultimately, it all goes back to the love of the game. And all of our guys have it in surplus.”
That and the elite consistency in the coaching ranks.
It’s no coincidence that an icon like Popovich replaced a fellow icon in Krzyzewski. Colangelo said they had never really met or had a the chance to get acquainted before Popovich was named as Krzyzewski’s successor and visited with the team in camp before the Rio Olympics in 2016.
“The transition from Coach K to Pop has been seamless,” Colangelo said. “You’ve got an iconic college coach, one of the most successful of all time. And you’ve got a pro coach who is one of the best coaches of all time. And they never even knew each other. Isn’t that amazing, that they’d never really crossed paths before? But it gave them a chance to get together a little bit and get familiar with each other and our process and it’s that sort of consistency that will help us as we dial in on our main focus, which as Pop told these guys, is on China next summer.”
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