After losing their group stage opener 83-76 to France at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics — the United States men’s basketball team’s first loss in Olympic play since 2004, when they lost to Argentina in the semi-finals — Gregg Popovich’s record coaching tournament play has dropped to 6-3, and reports are coming out that players are not happy with attempts to run “Spurs offense”. Per Jon Vardon of The Athletic:
“To be clear, Popovich is horrified by his own record coaching this team. He dwells on it and hates the losing. The players are frustrated, too, grumbling on their way back to the locker room about ‘running the San Antonio offense’ when apparently they feel like there are better ideas. Pop has said, because of the truncated nature of Team USA’s training camp, the offense would be based on ‘concepts’ instead of set plays.”
Maybe running “San Antonio” offense during the height of the “Beautiful Game” era would have sounded nice, but today it’s hard to know what exactly that means. As mentioned above, apparently Pop is trying to coach “concepts”, but maybe he’s trying too hard. While not the A-team that usually goes to the Olympics, he still has a squad featuring superstars Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard, among others. Maybe he should just let those guys run the show a bit more, or at least listen to their “better ideas”? (Of course, they’ll have to shoot better than a combined 7-22 to show that the offense should be centered around them.)
Of course, there’s also more factors to keep in mind that are beyond Pop’s control. For one, three of his key players — Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday — just got there after the NBA Finals ended last week, and only Holiday, who tied Bam Adebayo with a team-high 20 points, looked up to the task against France, while Middleton hardly played and Booker contributed just 4 points.
There’s also the obvious: Pop couldn’t have inherited the team at a worse time. After COVID delayed the Olympics from 2020 to 2021, he still has gotten a relative shell of a team that usually shows up for the Olympics. Because of the late, compressed NBA schedule, many mainstays such as LeBron James, Steph Curry, James Harden, and others that usually make the team virtually unbeatable have understandably chosen to stay home and get healthy ahead of the next season, which is expected to start on time in October. Instead, beyond Durant and Lillard, the squad is mostly made up of fringe all-stars, and in some cases players who aren’t even that high up the food chain.
As a result, a disadvantage that Team USA can usually overcome with shear talent is rearing its head, and that’s the fact that most other international teams — like France, Australia, Spain, etc. — are cohesive groups that have been playing together for years. As the game has grown internationally and more teams feature NBA talent, this particular American squad doesn’t have the experience and personnel to win on talent alone, and apparently Pop’s attempt to make up for it via “concepts” is not working.
In the end, Pop’s dream of finally coaching Team USA — after being the last player cut in 1970 and later snubbed as coach after 2004 in what many believe was a grudge move by Jerry Colangelo during the height of the Spurs-Suns rivalry — has not gone as expected. Fairly or not, he’s taking plenty of heat for his performance coaching the team so far, from the Dream Team-low 7th place finish in the 2019 FIBA World Cup (with again essentially no mainstays participating), to losing exhibitions to Nigeria and Australia a few weeks ago, and now opening Olympic play with a loss.
Hopefully the team can get it together in time to avoid their worst Olympic showing since 2004, when coincidently or not, Pop was an assistant coach for Larry Brown, and similar complaints were being made. They’ll have two good chances to get back on track in group play, beginning Wednesday against Iran on Wednesday (11:40 AM CT) and the Czech Republic on Saturday (7:00 AM CT).