Team USA in action against Puerto Rico earlier this August. Source: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Team USA in action against Puerto Rico earlier this August. Source: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Is Team USA still the one to beat?

Basketball OlyBet 28.08.2023

For decades, the United States set the benchmark for basketball. They would like to think that this is still the case, but recent patterns suggest otherwise. The world of basketball might be changing for good.

James Naismith was indeed Canadian by birth, but by the time he figured out the first set of rules for the game, he had already moved to the States (Massachusetts, to be exact – the birthplace of basketball). Over the next 131 years, Americans have led the rat race more often than not. Nobody in their right mind would argue that.

Take the Olympics as a measuring stick for the best. Although the U.S. only used amateur players up to Seoul 1988, they won nine of the first eleven golds – with the Soviet’s triumph in 1972 being highly controversial as well, but let that be a story for another time. Since 1992 and the Dream Team, the U.S. have failed just once, in Athens 2004.

That was the first time ever Team USA looked mortal. Between 2002 and 2006, they were sixth, third, and third, if we also include the World Cups. Their response? Between 2006 and 2019, they won five major tournaments in a row without conceding a single game. They went 58 and 0 in that period.

At the 2019 World Cup, they won their first five games before meeting France in the quarter-finals; seven up in the fourth quarter with 7:39 to go, they somehow managed to lose by ten. A shock, but maybe they had it coming after some narrow escapes over the years. After losing to Serbia in their next game, they finished seventh – the worst-ever result for Team USA.

A new day, a new team

For the Olympics two years later, just two of the twelve players on the roster returned, with several National Basketball Association (NBA) stars now called up to save face. Their first match in Tokyo? Against France, and a seven-point loss. But in the end, Team USA won their next five games while getting the sweetest possible revenge in the final – it might have been tight at times, but they led for the last 38 minutes and won 87-82 vs France.

To be fair, there were issues regarding team preparation for head coach Gregg Popovich. A plethora of stars were either injured or withdrew, with the NBA Finals ending just five days before the game with France. Players like Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Damian Lillard, and Devin Booker made sure to restore Team USA to the top of the food chain. But the team going to the 2023 World Cup looks completely different again.

There is a new president of operations (Grant Hill), a new head coach (Steve Kerr), and just four NBA All-Stars in Edwards, Haliburton, Jackson Jr., and Ingram, while no player has the experience of representing Team USA at the senior level. Can the aforementioned quartet come good together with Banchero, Bridges, Brunson, Hart, Johnson, Kessler, Portis, and Reaves?

That list was also a hidden quiz: how many first names of those twelve can you put down? The cheat sheet can be found later, but in the meantime, you can also try the same exercise with Boozer, Kidd, James, Williams, Redd, Wade, Bryant, Howard, Bosh, Paul, Prince, and Anthony – members of the Redeem Team in 2008.

Moving the needle

If there is just one thing that the team going to the World Cup needs to point at, it would be the ridiculous depth of United States basketball. 68 active players have been named NBA All-Stars, and 52 of them are American; no other country has more than two. This gives the U.S. a star player pool roughly 26 times deeper than any competitor.

The numbers are even more lop-sided when considering that the NBA as a whole employed 501 players on the opening night of the 2022/23 season, 381 of which were from the United States. Only Canada with 22 could also put out a full roster of NBA players, while Australia (10), France (9), and Germany (6) complete the top five.

It then seems almost like a typo that the last time an American was named the NBA MVP (Most Valuable Player) was all the way back in 2017-18, so five years ago, while before that just four foreigners had ever won MVP. There was just one American in the All-NBA First Team in 2022/23, while arguably the four best players currently in the league are from abroad.

Also, consider the smaller dimensions of the court in international games and it starts to make sense why winning is not as straightforward for Team USA as it used to be – the world has simply caught up and players playing away from the NBA can be as talented as the ones in it. When the best of the best are there, the United States probably remain number one due to their depth, but the margins are closer than ever.

Who is the competition?

That showed before the World Cup as well. After dominating Puerto Rico (117-74) and a Slovenian team without Luka Doncic (92-62), the U.S. had tighter affairs with Spain (99-88) and Germany (99-91). Being undefeated at this point may work against them by creating a false sense of security, something that sometimes happens to young teams.

They should have no issues navigating through Group C either way, with Jordan and New Zealand the clear outsiders. The third opponent is Greece, who is without two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo – and was soundly beaten in an exhibition game too (108-86).

In the second group round, the two best teams from Groups C and D will meet. From D, one will likely be Lithuania (also without their leader, NBA All-Star Domantas Sabonis), and the other either Mexico, Montenegro, or Egypt. All good teams by their own standards, but if the U.S. does not enter the quarter-finals on a winning streak, it would be a shock.

They will face a sterner test then, with either Italy (a group of good-but-not-great players) or Serbia (without two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic) looking likely. Looking further, why not Germany, who at one point led against the U.S. by 16 in the lost training game? Or Canada, who has seven NBA players on their list? Even Slovenia, now with Luka Doncic?

Last year, regular heavyweights Spain and France met in the EuroBasket final. Spain will again be competitive, but lost their star point guards before the tournament in Lorenzo Brown and Ricky Rubio; France will meanwhile be preparing for the Paris 2024 Olympics without NBA draft first pick/future unicorn Victor Wembanyama.

Looking toward Paris, another game-changing decision is on the cards. Current NBA MVP Joel Embiid, born in Cameroon, received citizenship from both France and the United States in the last year. He is yet to commit to either. Will that decision eventually pull Team USA down from the pedestal? We shall see.

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Members of the 2023 squad: Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Ingram, Paolo Banchero, Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, Cameron Johnson, Walker Kessler, Bobby Portis, Austin Reaves.

Members of the 2008 squad: Carlos Boozer, Jason Kidd, LeBron James, Deron Williams, Michael Redd, Dwayne Wade, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul, Tayshaun Prince, Carmelo Anthony


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