Team USA has had a rough start on their way to Tokyo, and presumably, the gold. Ever since the Dream Team was assembled, anything but the gold is considered a failure. The NBA's finest should win with ease, right? I mean, when a team wins a North American League, they call themselves world champions/the best in the world. That's why yesterday's result against Australia set a precedent many people are finding hard to digest.
The competition is better
The most obvious reason why the global basketball landscape has changed is the internalization of the NBA. Dražen and Divac opened the door and proved international players can lead teams - since then, we've seen a steady increase in international players playing significant roles on title contenders. This has two effects. First of all, the global basketball community has upped its game, and a significant transfer of knowledge and experience happened. Secondly, the more international players play, less US players get significant minutes - it decreases the domestic talent pool.
A similar thing happened to English soccer btw. They have the (financially) strongest league, so they buy up all the talent. The pendulum swung farthest on Valentine's Day 2005 when Arsenal played without a single Englishman on the active roster list - both the starting 11 and everyone on the bench were foreigners. That day raised the alarm bells in the English Football Association (their version of the NBA League Office), as there was a straight correlation between that fact and the poor results the English National Team had in international tournaments.
The current MVP is Serbian, and the runner-up is from Cameroon. Two years before that, the MVP was Greek, and a kid from Slovenia is the heir apparent to LeBron. So why are people shocked the times of “I don’t know anything about Angola, but Angola’s in trouble” are long gone? Arrogance and media coverage. The NBA is not an American League anymore - it's international. Yet, a lot of reporters still can't pronounce Dončić and Jokić. Hell, Byron Scott said, "Yugoslavia is among Team USA's top contenders to medal in Tokyo." Small detail here - Yugoslavia dissolved in 1992. If we were kind to Byron, we could give him the Serbia + Montenegro reduced federative state, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). Still, they also dropped the Yugoslavia name in 2003 and went by Serbia and Montenegro until 2006, when Montenegro seceded.
The latest example of that arrogance is unfolding right now, with Steven A. Smith getting a lot of criticism for his segment on Team USA losing to Nigeria. Acting as if Team USA should've won like Nigeria is Angola in 1992, Smith went on a rant in which he implied the proof of Nigeria's lack of basketball strength is the fact he can't pronounce their names. The players clapped back immediately.
���There’s no excuse to lose to Nigeria. [To lose to] some dude Gabe Nnamdi, who goes by Gabe Vincent for the Miami Heat. Or Caleb Agada. Or Nma…however the hell you pronounce his name. You give up 60 points on 3’s? Excuse me, you can do better than that.”
Stephen A. Smith, First Take
Unlike Angola in '92, more and more international teams are starting NBA players and have a few NBA and Euroleague players on the bench. The days of Team USA walking over almost everyone are over. If they can stay on their feet, to begin with...
The soft NBA
The aforementioned Vlade Divac didn't just bring chain-smoking to the NBA. He is most often credited for bringing the soccer tradition of flopping to the NBA. At first, everyone mocked Divac and used it as a prop to mock soccer as a sport. "Hold my beer," said the modern NBA. "Anything you can do, we can do worse." The overall sentiment of Team USA fans can be summed up with this comment - "Just watching some of the fouls Team USA was trying to bait during this game was embarrassing."
There's a lot less bulls**t calls and a lot more basketball on the international stage. The James Harden/Trae Young/Chris Paul moves won't work nearly as well in the Olympics. I'm sure you'll watch a lot of Slovenia in the Olympics - keep an eye on Luka and how often he tries to bait for fouls, then compare it to an NBA game. I suspect there will be a significant difference. Unlike his NBA peers, Dončić played in Europe and knows the difference.
Team USA is still the most talented team by a mile. There's not a single team that can come close in top talent or depth. But the disparity is not that large anymore for them to mess around thinking they can just flip a switch and walk through the tournament. You need an offensive pecking order, a defensive identity, and tough players ready to play physical basketball - more commonly known in the rest of the world as "basketball."
The first two, offensive and defensive systems, can be established in the relative short term. Bt the third part needs to be addressed on an NBA level and then consistently enforced. If guys are used to getting calls and spend summers developing moves to get foul calls if someone gives them a mean look, they're not going to be able to adapt to a normal basketball game.
The internalization of basketball, the arrogant failure to realize there aren't a lot of '92 Angola's out there, and the softness of the NBA created a perfect storm that led to losing to Nigeria and Australia. If they get their act together, Team USA is still the favorite to win the gold. Will they get their act together? That's the million-dollar question.
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