2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup

2019 FIBA World Cup Preview: The U.S., the competition and the stakes

Kemba Walker leads balanced squad that might need breakout performances

> FIBA World Cup: Team USA vs. Czech Republic (LIVE on ESPN+)

SHANGHAI — The United States has won each of the last five major international tournaments on the senior level: three Olympics (2008, ’12 and ’16) and two World Cups (’10 and ’14). Though they were undefeated throughout, finishing 42-0 across those five competitions, the U.S. has had some close calls.

The 2019 FIBA World Cup could mark the toughest challenge for the United States since they finished third at the 2006 World Championship. Yet – wielding the most talent from 1-12 on any roster – the U.S. remains the favorite.

But depth isn’t as critical in a single-elimination scenario, nor in a game that’s only 40 minutes long. The U.S. loss to Australia in an pre-tourney exhibition served as a reminder that there exists a thin line between victory and defeat, that before the Americans even compete for a medal, they could again face Australia, this time in the quarterfinals.

“We were humbled a little bit,” Myles Turner said. “Just because you are Team USA doesn’t mean you are going to win every game. Teams are looking to beat us, and we understand that now. We just have to bring it every night. There are no nights off.”

The US Roster: Who’s in?

There are at least three rosters worth of American players who declined to play this summer or withdrew from consideration after an initial, 20-man, training-camp roster was announced in early June. In fact, after that, the U.S. added 11 more players for consideration. And to get from that group of 31 to a final, 12-man roster for the World Cup, it only had to cut two players. The other 17 either suffered injuries or withdrew.

Almost four weeks into the process, after the team’s first practice in Shanghai, the players were still being asked questions about the stars who decided they weren’t going to play.

“That doesn’t matter,” said point guard Kemba Walker on Thursday. “It’s all about the guys who are here. We’re the ones who are going to take on this challenge and do what we can to represent our country the best way we can.”

The “guys who are here” rank as solid players, but there’s no question that the roster lacks star power. The U.S. Team has just two players – Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – who were drafted in the top five; every other USA roster with NBA players since 1992 has had at least four top-five picks. Just one player – Kemba Walker – has ever made an All-NBA team; he placed on the Third Team last season.

The only players with senior-level, national-team experience are Mason Plumlee and Harrison Barnes, who had minor roles on the 2014 and 2016 teams, respectively. But experience isn’t as important as the ability to just get buckets when they’re needed. The U.S. has Walker, Tatum and Donovan Mitchell for that task, but those guys are a step below Kevin Durant (who has scored at least 28 points in each of the three gold-medal games in which he’s played), Kyrie Irving (26 in the 2014 gold-medal game) and James Harden (23 in that same 2014 game) in that regard.

Though the Australia outcome belies it, the U.S. certainly has the ability to be the best defensive team in the tournament.

“That’s going to be our ticket,” Walker said earlier in training. “That’s going to be what gets us over the hump. Defensively, we just have to be monsters. We have to.”

The format and the field

The U.S. will begin play in Group E, playing games in Shanghai against the Czech Republic (Sept. 1), Turkey (Sept. 3) and Japan (Sept. 5). The top two teams from that pool will advance to the second round, where they will join with the top two teams from Group F (Brazil, Greece, Montenegro and New Zealand) to form Group K in Shenzhen. One of those four games (the two teams from Group E will play one game apiece against the two games from Group F) will very likely feature the U.S. facing NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Greece.

That probably won’t be an elimination game, but only two teams from Group K will advance to the quarterfinals. Eight groups of four (A-H) turn into four groups of four (I-L), and from those four groups, we get eight teams for the single-elimination tournament that begins September 10 in Dongguan and Shanghai.

The groups aren’t all that balanced. You could argue that there are three teams in Group H (Australia, Canada and Lithuania) better than any team in Group A.

Argentina isn’t nearly the same team it was several years ago, but it’s likely the best team in Groups A/B/I. The two teams that emerge from Group H, meanwhile, will have to compete with France out of Group G for two of the spots in the quarterfinals.

Assuming that the U.S. advances out of Group K, its quarterfinal opponent will come from that Australia-France-Lithuania mix. So the Americans could have an elimination-game against a medal-worthy opponent right away.

If the favorite isn’t the United States, it’s Serbia, which went 10-0 in its exhibition slate, beating France, Greece, Italy (twice), Lithuania (twice) and Turkey. The Serbs were the silver medalists at the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, and they now have an improved and more mature Nikola Jokic (though the tournament won’t be the same without the injured Milos Teodosic).

Jokic is Exhibit A of how most of the top talent on other teams is on the frontline. France has Rudy Gobert, Australia has Aron Baynes and Andrew Bogut, Spain has Marc Gasol, and Lithuania has both Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas.

Qualifying for Tokyo 2020

Seven teams from the World Cup will qualify for next year’s Olympics in Tokyo, but they’re not necessarily the top seven finishers. The teams that will qualify for the Olympics are:

  • The top finisher from Africa
  • The top two finishers from the Americas
  • The top finisher from Asia
  • The top two finishers from Europe
  • The top finisher from Oceania

As the host, Japan is automatically qualified for the Olympics. The other four teams in the 12-team Olympic field will come from qualifying tournaments that take place early next summer.

That’s not too fair to Europe, which accounts for 12 of the 32 (and probably six of the top eight) teams in the World Cup field. But that’s the way it works.

So, even if the U.S. were to lose in the knockout rounds, it will almost surely qualify for the Olympics, because it probably won’t finish lower than two other teams from the Americas. As noted above, Argentina has a very good chance of reaching the quarterfinals, but it will be difficult for any of the other five teams from the Americas – Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela – to break through.

The Americans aren’t here just to qualify for the Olympics, though. Ten new players on the roster means 10 guys who have never won gold. A standard has been set and a loss, no matter how many players declined to be here, would be a huge disappointment.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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