TOKYO — The globalization of basketball has been well documented for decades. International tournaments are more competitive than ever. Elite talent sprouts up everywhere. Players from some national teams train together for half their lives, establishing a yearslong harmony that expresses itself on the court.
To begin wrapping your head around the United States’ tremulous start in the Olympic competition, then, consider that some players on the team were so unprepared for this tournament — because of health protocols and the NBA playoff schedule — that they could barely get a grip. On the ball, that is.
Although the same size as the NBA basketballs, the official Olympic balls are a different brand with a different feel, players said, as they discovered when dribbling and passing and shooting in their opening game late Sunday night in Tokyo.
As one of two inanimate objects brought together to form the sport’s name, the ball plays something of an important role in a team’s success.
“That’s probably one of the biggest adjustments,” guard Jrue Holiday said after the Americans’ 83-76 loss to France, “just because we do have to put the ball in the basket.”
Consider, too, that Holiday, who led the team in points with 18, was one of three players who had arrived at the team’s hotel around 1 a.m. that same day after a late flight from the United States. And he had just finished helping the Milwaukee Bucks win the NBA championship.
“This is my first day — literally my first day,” Holiday said after the game with the glassy-eyed weariness of a college student navigating midterms.
These did not come off as excuses, just nods to reality. But harsh realities could engender harsh consequences this summer. International basketball has never been less forgiving, and the United States, even as it remains heavily favored, has never been less assured of success.
NBA players now come from 41 countries, the competitive landscape keeps morphing, power in the game keeps diffusing.
The NBA has increasingly become a showcase for, and in some senses dominated by, foreign superstars. Nikola Jokic of Serbia won the Most Valuable Player Award this season, playing for the Denver Nuggets, and Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece claimed it two seasons ago before leading the Bucks to the championship last week.
“We are good at basketball,” said Joe Ingles of Australia, who plays for the Utah Jazz.
This dynamic has been acknowledged since at least 2004, when the Americans could only muster a bronze medal at the Olympics in Athens, Greece. Individual talent — in the years since and likely for a few generations to come, at least — is not the problem; the United States develops it by the truckload, at a pace and volume no country can dream of matching.
As Zach LaVine said before the game, “If we do what we do good, I don’t think there’s any team out here that’s going to come close to us. So as long as we go out there, execute, be ourselves, be Team USA, I think we’ll be all right.”
He joined the team in Japan after clearing coronavirus precautionary protocols but Bradley Beal, the Washington Wizards star, did not clear them and stayed home. Kevin Love, the Cleveland Cavaliers forward and another high scorer, also did not join the team, because of a calf injury.
Team USA at this point may be more of an ideal than an identity. The aura remains, even as the faces change.
The days of cobbling together a random assortment of NBA players and expecting to dominate on the Olympic stage faded years ago. Gregg Popovich, the coach of the American team, said as much after the game, calling it a “little bit of hubris” for anyone to think the Americans could “roll out the ball and win.”
But, in some ways, that is what they still try to do.
Only two players who appeared on the United States’ 12-man roster at the world championships in 2019 are back for the Olympics: Khris Middleton and Jayson Tatum. For comparison’s sake, seven players are back for France, and Vincent Collet, the French coach, has been at the team’s helm since 2009.
“A lot of these teams have been planning for five, 10 years,” Draymond Green said, “and the consistency, the continuity that they have in their offense, the familiarity that they have among each other, that’s the one thing that we can never substitute for.”
For all their talent, the Americans do not have all of their best players, or the ones most experienced in international competition, here in Japan. Stars like LeBron James, Stephen Curry and James Harden, to name a few, stayed home. Imagine Cristiano Ronaldo sitting out a World Cup.
But priorities are different among the current crop of U.S. players, and the Olympics are not the World Cup — not to the Americans, at least. It was eye-opening, for instance, to hear Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks’ star point guard, say before the tournament that he would rather win a gold medal with Slovenia than an NBA title.
Taken together, these are not ideal conditions for success. Rudy Gobert of France — and the Utah Jazz — sounded almost sympathetic after the game explaining all the little aspects of international play — the officiating, particularly — that Americans would find unfamiliar and discomfiting.
“I mean, there’s a lot of nuances,” Gobert said.
The United States will be OK for now. As Hamed Haddadi of Iran, the Americans’ opponent on Wednesday, helpfully pointed out, “They’re much, much, much better than us.”
But Sunday’s loss carried warning signs about the limits of raw ability.
Popovich, for example, was frustrated by what he called “dry possessions,” moments when the team’s offense looked lethargic and failed to score. France, in comparison, looked smooth, self-assured, self-aware.
As the game slipped from the Americans’ grasp, a group of volunteers in the arena, some of the only spectators on hand, became increasingly engaged with the action, turning to the court, crowding around television sets, inching closer with every errant shot, emitting little shouts of surprise with each mishap.
The buzzer sounded, and they laughed together in disbelief.
After all the growth in the game, after everything that has changed, it is still something to watch a giant fall.