The members of U.S. Men’s National Basketball Team are enjoying themselves in Rio, and they should be—they’ve paid their dues in becoming world-class athletes through years of hard work. But their results on the court so far (winning by just three points against Serbia and then France) are incongruous with their nonchalant public attitudes. Their flippant, easygoing practices at the start of training camp–well-documented in the age of social media—showed that Team USA (and the rest of America, really) considered the gold already given.
They’re struggling in the parts of the game you’d predict a team of cobbled-together superstars with only a month of basketball played together would struggle in: low effort on- and off-ball defense, and isolation, stand-around offense. Team USA has managed to make a team full of all-stars look boring.
(Just a side note: when will players ever learn that iso-ball isn’t the way to go? Hasn’t it been proven again that Spurs-esque ball movement on offense will translate to the defensive end? Anyways.)
It’s a top-down problem. Despite director of USA men’s basketball Jerry Colangelo’s effort to maintain continuity on on Team USA, the chemistry simply is not there. Part of this is a personnel problem: for their health’s sake, they can’t consistently compete for their country every two years for both the FIBA World Cup and the Olympics, so most of the Olympic vets opt for just participating in the latter. This creates a disjointed team who can not be expected to mesh with each other only playing once every four years.
Coach Krzyzewski has been lackluster as well. He’s never really been criticized for his coaching tactics considering his résumé, but Coach K is for the first time in recent memory taking heat for his decisions. The aforementioned defensive effort issue could be solved by the team’s most high-effort defender—Draymond Green—but Krzyzewski didn’t play Green at all in the second half against France at all, and he’s seen inconsistent playing time elsewhere. The starters (Irving, Durant, Thompson, Anthony, Cousins) are all ball dominant players, and the movement stops after just one or two passes. There’s a lot of overlap of talent and skill, which points to both Coach K’s flawed rotations and also the haphazard composition of the team.
The inconsistent management and coaching manifests itself in the players’ attitudes and even their body language. Carmelo Anthony is the de facto leader since he’s the oldest and most experienced, but no one else seems willing to step up. Oklahoma City may take some twisted pleasure in seeing Durant struggle and generally looking lost, but his lack of vocal leadership is painfully apparent. KD just seems along for the ride when he really should be the number two guy for USA Basketball. Other players like DeMar DeRozan, Klay Thompson, and Kyle Lowry, have all disappointed with their selfish, ball-hoggish efforts.
Despite all of this, USA Basketball is still in a prime spot to win their third straight gold in the Olympics. They’ve gotten to the quarterfinals on talent and talent alone. None of this is to denigrate other countries with a surplus of basketball talent; countries like France, Argentina, and even Croatia and Serbia do not get the recognition they deserve for their basketball prowess. Still, based on the talent gap alone, the USA should win every game by double digits.
The entire USA Basketball organization must desperately maintain continuity, cultivate leadership, and make some personnel changes—in administration, in coaching, and in players—or face the embarrassment of bronze or worse, just like in 2004. Gold won’t ever be a sure thing again.
Team USA squares up against Argentina in the quarterfinals today at 4:45 CST.