The United States Men’s Basketball Team’s 7th-place finish in in the 2019 FIBA World Cup is by far their worst in any major tournament since NBA players started participating. That much is indisputable. However, what is up for debate is how much criticism they actually deserve, and make no mistake: there has been plenty of it.
Following his team’s win over Poland on Saturday, head coach Gregg Popovich did what he does best and told the media what he thought of their negative coverage of his team:
“Some people want to play the blame game. There’s no blame to be placed anywhere. They want to play the shame game, like we should be ashamed because we didn’t win a gold medal? 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.
“Their effort was fantastic. They allowed us to coach them. You give people credit for what they did, and that’s it. But it’s not a blame and shame game. That’s ridiculous.”
As is often the case, Pop is right. While media pundits go on about what steps need to be taken to “fix” Team USA before the Olympics or praying that the superstars will “save” them next year, what is being overlooked is why this squad ended up with the relative lack of talent everyone is used to seeing and who is actually to blame — if anyone.
It has been noted that 31 of 35 players who were on the Team USA roster last summer backed out. Many have pointed to the “mysterious” drop off coinciding with Pop taking over for Mike Krzyzewski, wondering why it happened despite many stars saying Pop is the coach “they’d most like to play for” and coming to conclusions such as maybe he’s too similar to his mentor Larry Brown, making him not the right coach for the job.
What the media hasn’t done is take some time to consider maybe the coach isn’t entirely to blame, but rather the circumstances and schedule. Not only did an unusually high number of stars suffer injury late in the NBA season or playoffs earlier this year, but there were also injuries with Team USA as well. Kyle Kuzma and P.J. Tucker were injured late in training camp, Jayson Tatum missed 6 of the 8 World Cup Games, Marcus Smart missed three, and Kemba Walker sat out the last one with a neck injury.
Another factor that is seemingly being overlooked is the timing of the tournament itself. Between the World Cup being moved from two summers before the Olympics to the year before to avoid conflict with other big tournaments (like the Men’s FIFA World Cup) and the late timing (NBA training camp starts two weeks from today, giving the participants very little time to recover), FIBA is just asking for less NBA participation in future World Cups, and that affects the Americans the most.
The reality is few if any NBA stars who are used to playing well into May or June want to play two straight summers for Team USA and risk injury, wear and tear, especially if the World Cup is going to be so close to the start of training camp. As long as this new format continues (and there’s no end in sight), US stars are going to save their energy for the Olympics and blow off the World Cup, and everyone can generally expect a C-team or worse at the less popular of the two tournaments while the A-team heads to the Olympics.
This brings us back to Pop’s comments to the press about not respecting the players who did go. If anything, they deserve kudos for putting their bodies on the line — and apparently their reputations as well — to represent their country when most other top-tier candidates backed out. As previously mentioned, it’s completely understandable why the A-team didn’t go, but why do those who backed out for non-injury related reasons get a free pass, but the players who went and gave their best deserve nothing but flack?
The reality is this Team USA squad was not set up to win it all this time around, but that’s through no fault of the players who participated or the coaches. Could they have done better than 7th? Of course, and they possibly could have at least played for a medal, but all the teams who did were just as deserving — another point of emphasis from Pop. It is not set in stone that the U.S. must win every gold medal, especially as basketball popularity continues to grow world-wide.
Even so, if there must be a blame game, it’s on FIBA and the stars who dropped out, but as noted they all have legit reason for the decision. NBA stars have every right to decide what is best for them, as does FIBA. If the talent drop off continues and spreads to other teams, maybe they’ll reconsider and go back to the old format, but for now they’re banking on ratings via playing at a time that lacks other competition, which they have every right to do.
In the meantime, nothing but love and appreciation should go out to the players who participated with the Team USA this summer while achieving the ultimate goal of getting the team into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, even though most of them likely won’t get the chance to play then. Odds are there are no “solutions” that need to be found between this summer and the next to “fix” this squad because all the refreshed superstars who backed out this summer will be ready to compete for the gold medal that matters the most: the Olympic one.