The first week of the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup has proven troublesome for Team USA. Even though the group stage of the tournament was not expected to present much of a challenge, USA narrowly defeated Turkey on Tuesday by just one point in overtime. Even so, Turkey should have won, only missing free throws in the closing moments to choke away the contest. Considering USA also lost to Australia in an exhibition game leading up to the tournament, it is clear that this edition of the international team is not the country’s strongest. So what has gone wrong, and how can U.S.A. Basketball fix the current situation?
First of all, the NBA’s most elite superstars don’t play for Team USA in World Cups. Kemba Walker and Donovan Mitchell, top 25 but certainly not top 10 NBA players, are the best on the roster for this World Cup, which makes sense. The Olympics represent more of a chance for international advancement of an individual’s brand. But the World Cup? It’s under the radar and largely unnoticed by the general public. So we shouldn’t expect names like Stephen Curry and James Harden to appear — there’s no need for the sport’s biggest faces to risk injury when they already carry their respective teams through long NBA seasons. And after Paul George’s serious leg injury in a 2014 Team USA scrimmage, the league’s superstars will choose carefully when to participate in international events.
That being said, even with an absence of superstars and a number of other dropouts (including players such as De’Aaron Fox and Montrezl Harrell), there was still plenty of potential for Team USA to field a more effective team. A quick scan at the roster reveals glaring weaknesses. Between Harrison Barnes, Khris Middleton and Jayson Tatum, there are a lot of possessions that end in tough and contested shots after little ball movement. For that matter, no one on Team USA is known for tremendous passing. Walker and Mitchell are fine at it but aren’t exactly known for major assist totals as they focus on creating their own shots. Backups like Derrick White, meanwhile, don’t have the ability to set everyone else up for easy chances.
Another glaring issue has been the lack of creation on offense from Team USA’s bigs. Myles Turner boasts incredible shot blocking and rim protection, but he needs others to orchestrate open shots and dunks for him. Brook Lopez camps out behind the three-point line to space the floor. Mason Plumlee is mobile, but he isn’t someone who demands the ball and makes dribble moves.
And so, Team USA’s offense regularly becomes repetitive with lots of iso ball. Walker, Mitchell, Tatum, Barnes and Middleton go against a defender one-on-one, take up lots of time and shoot. Opposing defenses can focus on whomever has the ball, leaving USA’s bigs alone, since no one is passing to them and they don’t pose a legitimate threat on their own.
The key for 2023 will be creating a more cohesive team. That means more pass-heavy guards, bigs with well-rounded skill sets and solid role players who can move the ball effectively. Barnes and Tatum, for instance, can’t thrive in reduced roles because their games are predicated on lots of touches and shot attempts.
But for now, Team USA must make some quick adjustments in order to win the World Cup. Beating Turkey, who is ranked only 17th in the world, by one point does not inspire much confidence. USA’s best chance is to spread the floor as much as possible, since there is so little space generated by its collection of playmakers. That means starting Walker, Mitchell, Joe Harris, Middleton and Lopez against most teams (though not against the imposing offensive skills of Nikola Jokic and Serbia). This lineup looks small for sure, but Middleton’s defensive abilities and Lopez’s height, not to mention the sub-NBA quality of offense in the World Cup, can help to mitigate the problem.
Team USA should also start to reward those performing at a high level with more playing time. Tatum, who struggled mightily and shot only 31.8 percent in the group stage, saw lots of action, averaging the second-most minutes per game on the team. The forward will miss at least two games with a sprained ankle, but if he returns to the tournament, coach Gregg Popovich should resist the urge to give him big minutes over better-performing players.
USA faces Giannis Antetokounmpo and Greece in the next round on Saturday. Hopefully the team comes out with better energy and ball movement than it has displayed for most of the tournament. Greece is ranked eighth in the world, so top-ranked Team USA should be able to take control of the game quickly. But if the American players continue to struggle and fail to play with pace, it’s easy to imagine Giannis dominating the proceedings and securing an upset. USA must change, or face disheartening consequences.
George Klein ’20 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.