For Americans, losing an international tournament - any international tournament - is hard to accept. It’s our game. We invented it.
The truth though is that it’s not like it used to be, as we saw in the FIBA World Cup. And we’ve been here previously.
The rest of the has world caught up before. The Russians beat the US in 1972. It was controversial and ugly, but they got the gold. In 1988, the US fell hard, getting only bronze in the Olympics.
After the Dream Team redefined the sport globally, the rest of the world eventually caught up again. The US lost badly in FIBA play in 2002, finishing sixth. In the 2004 Olympics, the US took Allen Iverson and Stephen Marbury, among others, and just failed, winning bronze.
Larry Brown was not happy, at one point saying this after losing to Puerto Rico: “I’m not mystified. The first day we got with this group I knew what was in store, basically. I’m angry because the mentality of this team has been like this from Day One. Now, we’ve got to coach them better and find out if we’re truly ready to become a team.”
When Mike Krzyzewski took over - on the recommendation of Dean Smith, by the way - he overcame some of the problems by requiring a three-year commitment from Team USA players. His record in international play was 75-1.
Obviously the guy was a wildly gifted leader and no one can be exactly what anyone else was. K was not Bob Knight and no one from UCLA has been John Wooden.
That’s not to knock Steve Kerr.
Kerr recognizes the issues with this year’s team. Here’s what he said: “I feel bad for my guys. It’s hard to build continuity because we have so much turnover from year to year. We have to focus on what’s winning a FIBA game. The NBA is very different from FIBA, and some things will be good and vice versa. There’s a lot to learn for sure.”
There is a relatively easy potential solution to this though and it’s been around since 1976 and it was debuted by none other than Dean Smith.
In 1976, the US was still outraged by how the US lost to the Soviets in 1972. That team, like most American teams, was built in an ad-hoc manner.
In ‘76, Smith took four of his own players - Phil Ford, Walter Davis, Mitch Kupchak and Tommy LaGarde, giving him a core that understood his principles. Then he also added Tate Armstrong (Duke), Kenny Carr (NC State) and Steve Sheppard (Maryland), all of whom had a working knowledge of said system. The US won gold again in 1976.
The NBA could do that with a core of US players from, say, the Boston Celtics. If you could seed Team USA with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Malcolm Brogdon, Robert Williams, Patton Pritchard and Derrick White, you’d have a core that would be very difficult to defeat. You’d overcome the experience gap, you’d solve the unity problem and you’d still have the most talented team in the FIBA World Cup. Pick your additions. What about Paolo Banchero? Why not Mark Williams? Chet Holmgren? Matisse Thybulle?
With a core from one team, It’s hard to see that group losing to anyone. You can mix and match as needed, but with a much smaller pool of potential players.
Obviously there are some problems with that. Not everyone is going to want to play and some guys may not be able to. But if you could find a good team that could be the base, modifying it wouldn’t really be all that difficult.