2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup
After 7th place finish, Team USA reflects on what went wrong, next steps
BEIJING — The result of Saturday’s seventh-place game didn’t really matter.
Once the United States Men’s National Team beat Brazil in its final pool play game at the FIBA World Cup, it had qualified for the Olympics. Once it lost to France in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, its run of five straight major tournament titles had come to an end with no shot at a medal. And once it lost to Serbia on Thursday, it was doomed to the second worst tournament finish in USA Basketball history, with the only worse result coming when a team of junior college players went 0-4 at the 2001 FIBA Americas tournament.
But the U.S. beat Poland 87-74 on Saturday to finish seventh at the World Cup and put an end to its first two-game losing streak since 2002. Only nine Americans played, with Kemba Walker (neck) joining Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart on the sideline. Donovan Mitchell led the way with 16 points and 10 assists.
Gregg Popovich said afterward that there’s neither shame nor blame to be distributed following the Americans’ worst finish in a tournament to which it sent NBA players.
“Like we should be ashamed because we didn’t win the gold medal?,” Popovich said. “That’s a ridiculous attitude. It’s immature. It’s arrogant, and it shows that whoever thinks that doesn’t respect all the other teams in the world and doesn’t respect that these guys did the best they could.”
Falling short of their gold-medal goal still comes with pain, something the Americans have had to deal with since losing to France in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, and something that won’t go away when they arrive back in the States on Sunday.
“That’s something,” Myles Turner admitted, “that’s going to stick with us for the rest of our lives.”
The sting could ultimately be worse for the players who will never again have the chance to play for the national team. That could be a significant portion of this roster, with higher profile Americans expected to play at next year’s Olympics in Tokyo, and with the next World Cup four years away.
A lack of top-flight talent is the easy answer for why this was the first American team of NBA players to lose since the 2006 World Championship. And it’s not a wrong answer. Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and James Harden would obviously have made a difference.
But when asked about his country’s failure to win gold this year, Kobe Bryant insisted that, no matter who is wearing the red, white and blue, losses will happen.
“It’s not a matter of the rest of the world catching up to the U.S.,” Bryant said at a FIBA press conference on Friday. “The rest of the world has been caught up for quite some time. It’s to the point now where us in the U.S., we’re going to win some and we’re going to lose some. That’s just how it goes.”
Bryant brought up the 2008 Olympics, when one of the most talented teams ever assembled led Spain by just two points early in the fourth quarter of the gold medal game. At the World Championship two years later, a U.S. Team with four future NBA MVPs escaped with a two-point win over Brazil in pool play.
“Put the best players that you think are going to make the best team out there on the floor,” Bryant said, “we are still going to have challenges. It’s not going to be a cakewalk. The days of the ’92 Barcelona Dream Team are gone. They’re over.”
That doesn’t mean that the United States couldn’t have won this tournament with the players that it had, some of which had disappointing performances on the world stage.
In each of the last five major international tournaments, the U.S. ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency. Through its first six games in this tournament, it ranked ninth offensively. Before breaking with a 12-for-25 performance against Poland on Saturday, the Americans had shot just 33.3 percent from 3-point range, well below the NBA league average (35.5 percent), even though the 3-point distance is shorter on the FIBA floor.
The general sentiment among the players was that the loss to France was an “anything can happen on any given night” situation, but Harrison Barnes said that it was “executing on the offensive end” where the team fell short in a general sense.
“If you look at a lot of these teams and how they played,” Barnes continued, “they’re able to fall back on their system. They’re able to fall back on things that they know, things that they’ve run, guys that have been playing together for five, six, seven years. For us, we had to put our hat on defense. That was what we kind of made our calling card. Offensively, we knew we weren’t going to ever get to that place where, ‘OK, here are two or three quick-hitters.’ But we did the best that we could.”
Though the U.S. was one of the best defensive teams in the tournament, it couldn’t turn enough stops into transition opportunities. In each of the five major tournaments that the U.S. won from 2008 to 2016, it ranked first or second in pace. Through its first six games, this U.S. team ranked 13th of 32 World Cup teams in pace (an estimated 75 possessions per 40 minutes).
Fewer fast breaks led to more half-court offense, where the execution just wasn’t there consistently enough. There’s something to be said about ingrained teamwork and the difference between how American and international players are developed. But four weeks of preparation and five pool-play games isn’t enough time to build the requisite chemistry when the Americans bring back an almost entirely new roster every time they compete in a major tournament.
This team also had less practice time than previous editions of Team USA. From the day before its first game in China to the end of the tournament, the U.S. never practiced on days between games, choosing only to get in the gym for one-hour shootarounds in the morning on game days.
Next year’s Olympics are earlier in the summer, so that preparation time will likely be shorter than the four weeks that this team was together before the start of the World Cup. And without the same chemistry that their opponents have, more talent — guys that can get buckets on cue — is needed.
That means more roster turnover. And if some of these players never put on the USA uniform again, they can at least hope that the work that they’ve put in over the last six weeks will propel them to strong NBA seasons as a silver lining.
“Individually, across the board, everybody gets a lot better by playing and going through this entire process,” Joe Harris said this week. “You spent 39-plus days with one of the best coaches in the world, one of the best coaches in the game in Pop.
“Just being around them, learning their approach to the game, being around all these great players, competing with them night in and night out, whether it’s practices or games, and competing at a high level every night against some of the best players in the world, this is the best offseason preparation you can have going into the season.”
There don’t seem to be any misgivings among the players about spending the last four weeks on the other side of the world.
There are no regrets from our group in terms of what we’ve given, what we sacrificed, the commitment that everyone has made away from their families, teams, organizations, all of that.”
— Harrison Barnes
“We made that pact that we were going to do whatever we could to win basketball games,” Barnes said. “To go out there and try to win gold medals. On the flip side of that is that there’s a chance that we may not win. And, I think there are no regrets from our group in terms of what we’ve given, what we sacrificed, the commitment that everyone has made away from their families, teams, organizations, all of that.”
They all have an NBA season to prepare for now, and at least some of them would love a shot at redemption next summer.
“There’s no telling,” Walker said about possibly playing next year. “It’s not up to me. I would love to. It was really fun to be a part of. I would love to do it again.”
Hopefully with better results.
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