First off, there’s no need to worry. Really. USA Basketball will most likely win Olympic gold on Sunday. After a sketchy couple of games in group play—beating Australia by 10, then Serbia and France by 3 apiece—they utterly dismantled Argentina’s Golden Generation on Wednesday night in their first game of the knockout round, 105-78. Spain awaits later today, and, provided the USA wins that, a rematch with the Australia/Serbia winner in the gold medal game on Sunday. So while they seem to be back on track, there is still work to be done. Win or lose though, it’s time to rethink how USA basketball operates. Again.
It was all supposed to change with the hiring of Jerry Colangelo as managing director in 2005, from a once-every-four-years, haphazardly constructed All-Star team to a more stable unit where everyone played together every summer, more or less. That never happened. Instead, superstars continued to superstar, choosing to only play in the Olympics. The biggest structural change was naming Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski head coach, who has since led the team to a 56-1 record. He has two games left in his tenure.
The US teams that have won gold didn’t win because they learned how to play together, they won because they featured the best goddamn players on the goddamn planet.
It’s interesting to think what would have happened—whether Colangelo would have been brought in at all—had the 2004 team not sputtered its way to bronze. This wasn’t a roster problem (outside of Kobe Bryant, who had to turn down his invite because he was on trial for sexual assault) as much as it was a usage problem—rookie-averse coach Larry Brown left LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony (and, to a lesser extent, Dwyane Wade) nailed to the bench while starting Allen Iverson every game despite a fractured thumb on his shooting hand. Had Brown given the Class of 2003 the minutes they deserved, nothing against Argentina, but the US of A likely has another gold.
Instead they lost to Argentina in the semis, and a wholesale Team USA shakeup occurred when the only fix necessary was “make sure Kobe isn’t in trouble with the law and maybe pick a coach who will play LeBron James.” So, for the past eight years we’ve seen veritable NBA All-Star teams coached by a sanctimonious college coach, players who more often than not couldn’t wait to get out of college—or never bothered going at all. Yes, they’ve won, but that’s been more because of LeBron and Kobe (and Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant) than because of any of Coach K’s Barnes & Noble leadership.
This is Krzyzewski’s last Olympics, as the 69-year-old Duke coach will turn the reins over to San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, who is all of two years younger. This is fine (no meme), except for the fact that Pop will be 71 by Tokyo 2020. If the point was to have Pop coach an Olympic team, the time to do that was 2012 or, well, this year. By 2020 maybe it’ll be time for Steve Kerr or Luke Walton or Tyronn Lue.
But the coach is beside the point. What it’s really time to do is to get rid of this idea that the US team is going to be anything but a loosely assembled team of highly paid mercenaries who get together for a couple weeks every four years to annihilate everyone. Forget the whole team building thing, NBA superstars aren’t trying to get together for weeks to bond and learn how to play team defense. We’re never going to be Argentina or Spain. Let poor Tom Thibodeau take the summer off and actually get some sleep for a change. If guys mess up defending the screen and roll, so what? The US teams that have won gold didn’t win because they learned how to play together, they won because they featured the best goddamn players on the goddamn planet. And as long as the USA coach remembers to play them, everything else will work out fine.
Even the players know this. Here’s what Kevin Durant had to say after the Argentina game: “I told myself before I left my room, I’m at my best if I don’t care if we win or lose,” Durant said. “It might be different for other players. But for me, I’m more free and aggressive, and it's way more fun for me if I don’t care about the outcome. I know if I go out there and be who I am, the outcome will dictate itself.”
By all means, continue to send two-way players. Jimmy Butler deserves to be an Olympian, and hopefully Kawhi Leonard can be convinced to go in 2020. But instead of fretting over defensive miscues, focus on exploiting the living hell out of international rules (get the ball off the rim!) and just plain outscoring everyone. If LeBron James comes back in 2020 and is joined by Durant, Paul George, Steph Curry, and Karl-Anthony Towns, one suspects there won’t be too many—if any—close games. The outcome will dictate itself.