Every four years since he was tasked with assembling USA Basketball rosters, Jerry Colangelo has maintained his own quadrennial tradition.
As reliably as the Olympics themselves, Colangelo, as the program’s managing director, emerges to make the same plea on behalf of the team USAB will send to the FIBA World Cup.
“I would like to keep the focus on who is there, not on who’s not there,” Colangelo said in a telephone interview this week.
Because of a format change by FIBA, it has been five years since the sport’s last world championship. The tournament returns Aug. 31 in China, pushed back from its expected 2018 edition because basketball’s world governing body wanted its foremost event to be contested on a four-year cycle that does not clash with soccer’s World Cup.
Colangelo’s messaging, by contrast, is essentially unchanged from the glass-half-full proclamations he made going into this competition in 2010 and 2014. Amid a steady stream of pullouts by a slew of top American players, he insists that the United States will be represented by a 12-man squad capable of winning a third consecutive FIBA title — no matter how pedestrian the group looks on paper.
“I think we’re going to be fine,” Colangelo said.
As the Americans prepare to open training camp Monday on the campus of Nevada-Las Vegas, under new coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, there is no shortage of naysayers prepared to challenge Colangelo’s view. No other basketball-playing nation will shed a tear for USAB officials, given the depths of the talent pool in this country, but the fact remains that the dozen players who ultimately earn a seat on the plane to China will comprise the least-decorated team the United States has fielded since Colangelo and the previous coach, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, took charge starting with the 2006 Worlds in Japan.
Of the 11 Americans who occupied the 15 slots on last season’s All-NBA team, only one will be in Las Vegas: Boston’s Kemba Walker. Of the 20 Americans who earned All-Star status last season, only two are currently available to Popovich: Walker and Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton. That number stretches to three if Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, who recently underwent thumb surgery, can recover in time — but also only if Lowry resists joining the nine established players who have dropped out just since USAB announced its preliminary 20-man roster on June 10.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ Anthony Davis, Houston’s James Harden and Eric Gordon, Cleveland’s Kevin Love, Portland’s Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Detroit’s Andre Drummond, Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris and Denver’s Paul Millsap all withdrew in July. A variety of individual reasons have been cited, but the underlying justification is a familiar one: NBA stars are reluctant to surrender six weeks of their offseason for a tournament that, in America’s basketball culture, drastically pales in significance to the Olympics.
Winning a World Cup in basketball simply carries little cachet on these shores. The fact that NBA-crazed China is oft-cited as a fertile market for players interested in brand-building clearly hasn’t changed that sentiment — not with less than two weeks of recovery time from the Sept. 15 final in Beijing until NBA training camps open. USAB officials are likewise convinced that FIBA’s new format, which puts the World Cup and Olympic tournaments in consecutive years, has further discouraged participation.
For the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, Colangelo and Popovich are banking on having far more than 12 starry volunteers to choose from despite the growing leaguewide emphasis on prioritizing time off under the heading of “load management.”
For China, though, they are already down to a modest foursome at center to counter the might of Serbia’s Nikola Jokic: Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez, Indiana’s Myles Turner, Miami’s Bam Adebayo and Jokic’s Denver teammate Mason Plumlee.
“We understand that some people out there feel we’re vulnerable,” Colangelo said.
To counter such chatter, Colangelo points to the 2010 gold-medal-winning team in Istanbul, which featured Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant (three seasons into his NBA career), Golden State’s Stephen Curry (fresh off his rookie season) and “no holdovers” from the victorious 2008 Olympic team. Four players from that squad — Durant, Curry, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook — went on to win regular-season Most Valuable Player Award trophies after their national-team debuts.
Another rash of roster pullouts before the 2014 Worlds in Spain left Krzyzewski with what some pundits regarded as a C team more than a B team. Of course, still boasting the emerging likes of Kyrie Irving, Harden and Davis, as well as the Golden State duo of Curry and Klay Thompson, Team USA managed to post a 9-0 record and an average margin of victory of 33 points.
Yet the reality is that those squads, as young as many of those now-familiar names were, possessed more established talent than the 2019 roster will.
On-the-rise players like Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, Boston’s Jayson Tatum and the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma are expected to land roster spots alongside Walker and Middleton — and younger outsiders from a “select” practice squad, like Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox and Atlanta’s Trae Young, could also make the leap given that speed and athleticism at the guard spots often rank as the key difference-makers for the United States. But future MVP material appears to be in short supply.
The surest source of star wattage will be found on the U.S. bench, with Golden State Coach Steve Kerr and Villanova’s Jay Wright enlisted as assistants to Popovich alongside Atlanta Coach Lloyd Pierce. Popovich has also invited Krzyzewski, who posted a record of 88-1 from 2006 through the 2016 Olympics, to spend part of the Vegas camp embedded with the new staff.
Yet you can safely give Colangelo this much: What he is too diplomatic to say is that the Americans, for all the recent fretting, are actually only as vulnerable as the competition dictates. And the uncomfortable truth for international basketball’s poor chasing pack remains that no rival nation has managed to do anything meaningful to close the gap since the two Olympic gold-medal game scares that Spain inflicted on the United States in 2008 and 2012.
Spain (led by Toronto’s Marc Gasol) and France (led by Utah’s Rudy Gobert) continue to be classified as dangerous but are realistically not as strong as they once were. Australia and Canada have rosters filled with NBA names but lack the winning pedigree possessed by their European counterparts. Both nations will also have their own high-profile absentees; Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and the Knicks’ R.J. Barrett, respectively. The most accomplished player in the bloated 32-team field, meanwhile, can be found on Greece’s roster, but it remains to be seen how much Greece can really put around Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Serbia thus looks like the strongest threat — by far — to Team USA, with a number of quality players (Bogdan Bogdanovic, Milos Teodosic, Boban Marjanovic, Marko Guduric and Nemanja Bjelica) likely to flank Jokic and a considerable continuity edge over Popovich’s potluck squad. Yet it must be noted that Serbia was the Americans’ opponent in the last two major finals — losing by 37 points at the 2014 World Cup in Spain and by 30 points at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.
How much can even Jokic, at his peak, narrow that gulf? Does any country have the sufficient quality in the backcourt to truly take advantage of the numerous American absentees? The various oddsmakers who have handicapped the FIBA field, such as the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook, are clearly skeptical, judging by the United States’ usual status as an overwhelming 1-to-3 favorite.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” Colangelo said of the 30-player contingent that will gather in the desert. “Out of this — I don’t want to call it adversity — out of these circumstances comes opportunity for the young guys. Some young guys who I think are ready to bust out.”