The road to gold for Team USA won’t come as easy as anticipated after two exhibition losses last week in Las Vegas.
Despite its immense talent and legendary coach, the US men’s basketball team will have to improve quickly if it hopes to capture its fourth consecutive gold medal.
The team has already dealt with chaos and the plane hasn’t taken off for Tokyo. Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal will not play because of COVID-19 protocols, robbing them of an elite scorer. Jerami Grant of the Detroit Pistons is also in protocol and his status for Tokyo is uncertain.
Meanwhile, Kevin Love, the most controversial selection for Team USA because of his age (32) and apparent decline, backed out because of conditioning and injury issues. He played sparingly in the exhibition games.
Keldon Johnson, a two-year swingman for the San Antonio Spurs, and JaVale McGee, a defensive-minded center who has been an NBA journeyman, were added to the roster. Devin Booker, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday are in the NBA Finals and will have to fly immediately to Tokyo after the series concludes.
Team USA practiced Friday with seven players.
But these are considered just excuses. Team USA is not supposed to lose to Nigeria, who has never medaled, or Australia, a veteran team that didn’t medal in 2016. But here we are.
Team USA played strong first halves and faded in the second and then none of the prolific scorers — Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum — could deliver down the stretch.
“The first thing that comes to mind for me is these teams are experienced,” Lillard said. “They’ve spent a lot of time together and we’re still working at becoming a team, still getting our legs under us, getting in shape. We’re not just going to come out there, roll the ball out and beat these teams. We gotta play the right way, compete, and come out there to win. If we don’t, we could be beat.”
Nigeria is filled with players with NBA experience. Australia has a club with NBA role players with extensive international experience. They are all familiar with the FIBA game. The American players are still learning.
“It is different,” Lillard said. “In the past when I watched, you see one guy on a different team that is in rotation in the NBA and then they might have a guy on the bench that is just on a team. Now you go out there and the starting five are in the NBA and they are rotation players. That’s something that stood out to me.
“This is not the first time I’ve seen Team USA tested. These other teams and other countries just continue to improve. They get better, they get more confident, and they want to beat us badly.”
Coach Gregg Popovich said a major issue is most players reported to camp after taking a few weeks off following the NBA playoffs. Training camp began July 6, meaning the players have had less than two weeks together with three main players still absent.
“In the second half, we tired out,” Popovich said after the Australia loss. “When that happens, you get hit mentally a little bit too and we didn’t sustain the board the same way. The defense wasn’t the same. Our pace wasn’t the same. Some guys have to get their legs and rhythm back but in general, we need more conditioning, which is totally understandable, and we’re just sticking with the process of trying to get better every game.”
Popovich is starting to face criticism because he also coached Team USA’s seventh-place team in the World Cup. He is considered a more structured coach than predecessor Mike Krzyzewski, and the players are going to have to adjust to his discipline, in addition to many other differences from the NBA game.
TATUM IN PLAY
Changes coming on and off the court
Jayson Tatum is concentrating on playing for Team USA and a quest for gold, but it’s been an eventful month for the Celtics, who have changed their team president and head coach.
Brad Stevens was bumped up to president of basketball operations after Danny Ainge retired, and Ime Udoka was named head coach.
Tatum was asked about the departure of Ainge, who drafted him in 2017 when most thought the Celtics would certainly take Markelle Fultz first overall. Instead, Ainge traded down with the rival Philadelphia 76ers to get the third pick and an additional first-rounder and took Tatum.
“I was shocked. It wasn’t like I saw it coming,” Tatum said of Ainge leaving. “I’m happy for him. Something that he and his family discussed, but he felt like it was best for him. It made sense and I still have a good relationship with him. I don’t think anything will change in that aspect. He did what he thought was best for himself and his family. Sometimes change can be good, so we’ll see.”
Tatum said he will quickly adjust to Stevens being president.
“I’m just going to go with it,” he said. “Obviously it’s a change going from my coach to being in the front office. Seeing him in a different lens. But it’s the business of basketball. It happened and you gotta keep going.”
Team USA has struggled and Tatum missed an exhibition game with knee soreness. Tatum’s first international exposure as a professional was 2019 when Team USA finished seventh in the World Cup. Tatum sprained his ankle and did not play in the knockout round.
Tatum is thrilled for another chance with Team USA.
“It’s really a dream come true. I just have to remind myself sometimes in practice when I look around, I got [Damian Lillard] bringing the ball up and running the floor with [Kevin Durant] and me on the same court,” he said. “In the moment and enjoying it but still realizing it’s a really really cool experience.
“Not being able to play [in 2019] and watching it was tough. Watching your teammates play out there and not being able to help. Kind of the reason I really wanted to play this time is to try to get that revenge.”
One of the biggest adjustments for Team USA players are the FIBA rules. The Americans looked frazzled at times with the game’s physicality and slower pace.
“It’s a lot of differences,” Tatum said. “Players can’t call timeouts. You can smack the ball off the rim. The ball is different. You can sit in the paint all day. There’s less possessions because there’s less minutes in a game. There’s things in the heat of the game that you have to remind yourself. We’ve all just got to help each other and talk.”
A difficult aspect for all Olympians is that family and friends are not allowed to travel and watch the athletes play. Tatum and his teammates are headed to Tokyo alone.
“That’s the toughest part, going to the Olympics for the first time and not being able to enjoy that experience with your family,” he said. “That is the worst part about all of these. Moments like these you’re supposed to be able to share with the people you’re closest with.”
ON THE GROW
WNBA has put itself in prime spot
It’s sad that the WNBA had to squeeze in its All-Star Game between Team USA exhibitions and the MLB All-Star Game. But the league is taking positive steps toward growth. What’s more, Oakland is moving on an application to place a team at Oracle Arena when the league decides to expand. (More on that later).
The WNBA has the potential to flourish with proper management and commissioner Cathy Engelbert has attempted to take the league in a more positive financial direction. Each year the league is becoming more talented, filled with players who can be marketed and ideas such as the Commissioner’s Cup that could be adapted by its NBA brethren.
Not having fans last year was financially damaging, as it was with any other league, but perhaps more to the WNBA because it’s still trying to emerge as a profitable company.
“Last year we flipped the business model around because of no fans,” Engelbert said this past week. “We took on some of the expenses at the league to put on the bubble in Florida at IMG Academy. We’re still in recovery from that and limited fans so far this year.
“Some markets didn’t start with fans, but now all markets have fans. I think coming off the Olympic break, what we will do is a team still needs to comply with their state and local rules and regulations. Teams still need to abide by that. But we will open things up with close to a 100 percent fully vaccinated league — again, not just players; players and staff.
“We feel really good about, No. 1 was player health and safety and that of our staff. And with almost 100 percent fully vaccinated, we feel good about the data and the readouts.”
The hope is the COVID-19 situation improves in the United States during the Olympic break, allowing more fans into arenas. But in Los Angeles there was just a mandate passed requiring all people to wear masks indoors.
“Although obviously fully vaccinated people can still get the virus, I think as a society we’re going to see this evolve into something that we’re going to have to live with even as fully vaccinated and whether there will be boosters required,” Engelbert said.
The season has been ultra-competitive with only 6½ games separating the first and the eighth seeds with three others within 2½ games of a playoff spot. The break allows teams to get completely healthy for what should be an intriguing second half.
“The teams are already preparing, and we have been for about a month now, as we knew we were going to get to that 99 percent vaccination rate,” Engelbert said. “We’ve been preparing to open up for more fans, more courtside seats, because the fan experience is so enhanced the closer you are to the court. So that’s what we’ll be doing. And I expect you’ll see a different look in many arenas when we come back off the Olympic break.
“But really proud of the teams and where they are and the strength of the teams. As I said, we have a lot of transition work to do between the league and teams coming off the pandemic, but really proud where we are from a team and league perspective.”
As for expansion, the league is at 12 teams but there are cities showing interest in a new team. There hasn’t been a Bay Area team since the Sacramento Monarchs (which is about 75 miles from the Bay) folded in 2009.
The WNBA has been careful about expansion since then. Teams have relocated (Detroit to Tulsa to Dallas and San Antonio to Las Vegas) but the WNBA has stayed with the 12-team system for 11 years. A 16-team league would create two eight-team conferences and a potentially expanded schedule and playoffs. But the league, like its NBA counterpart, isn’t making expansion a top priority.
Will the first Olympic tournament in five years, which will certainly display the improved talent base outside the United States, foster expansion at home?
“I think the topic of expansion is always something we’re thinking about, especially as we see the depth and breadth of the league,” Engelbert said. “We see the globalization of our game, more global players coming into our game. You see the free agency. I think what happened in collective bargaining around free agency has been really exciting. But then it doesn’t free up as much spots for rookies coming in and players to get drafted. So expansion definitely is on the list.’'
With 12 teams and 12-player rosters, making a WNBA roster is difficult. Lauren Cox, the third overall pick in the 2020 draft, was waived recently by the Indiana Fever. It’s a testament to the competition for roster spots and playing time.
“As I told people, I think in advance of the draft, I said [expansion] would be something I would be talking with you more seriously about if it wasn’t for the pandemic,” Engelbert said. “But given that we had no fans last year and limited fans this year — we’re evaluating it constantly. I would say about this time next year we’ll be talking a lot more seriously about what that path looks like, how many teams, where, what cities.
“We have to do very thoughtful analysis about that. That’s what we’re working on now. We’re starting that analysis, but nothing yet to commit to. Nothing yet to talk about other than I do think I’d like to consider it when you’re only in 12 markets and you’re in a country of our size and scale. There are some cities where you would think a WNBA team would thrive. Those are the things we’re going to start to look at. It will be data-driven. It will be driven by fans. It will be driven by the popularity of the game at the college level. All those factors.”
Engelbert has to examine what NBA cities would make profitable and thriving WNBA cities. Cleveland, Utah, San Antonio, Sacramento, Detroit, Houston, Orlando, Miami, and Portland have had teams. But many of those clubs folded or relocated more than a decade ago, and the state of women’s basketball is different and the talent base has increased.
“A lot of things to look at when you try to select the next best place to put a WNBA team, whether it was a prior WNBA team, that market that thrived, or a new market where there hasn’t been a WNBA team,” Engelbert said. “We’re open to all of those.
“I get a lot of suggestions through social media about cities, and I’m sure those will keep coming. But we listen and we look at all the data. And, again, I would say once we get through this season, going into next year, as we come off free agency in the offseason, we’ll be seriously thinking about what that could look like in the future.”
The performance of Nigeria in these Tokyo Olympic warm-ups, which included a stunning win over Team USA and an impressive win over Argentina, has thrust Mike Brown back into contention for NBA head coaching jobs in the near future. Brown took over Team Nigeria last year and has the team playing with passion on defense and an exciting, long-range style on offense. It helps Brown that the Nigerian squad is filled with NBA players Precious Achiuwa, Josh Okogie, Gabe Vincent, KZ Okpala, and former Yale standout Miye Oni. But the Nigerians have a legitimate chance to medal in Tokyo and Brown, who has been an assistant with the Golden State Warriors for the past six years, could get another opportunity. He has coached the Cleveland Cavaliers on two occasions along with a one-year stint with the Los Angeles Lakers . . . The Orlando Magic are starting over with the hiring of former Dallas Mavericks assistant Jamahl Mosley as head coach. Mosley has been a prime candidate for a head coaching job for the past few years but it wasn’t going to happen in Dallas, despite the departure of Rick Carlisle, who took the Indiana Pacers’ job. Carlisle endorsed Jason Kidd for the job and not Mosley. There has been speculation that Carlisle thought Mosley wasn’t supportive enough of Carlisle during his final season. Superstar guard Luka Doncic apparently wasn’t pleased with Carlisle’s coaching style and favored Mosley. Mosley inherits a team that is in complete rebuild mode with two lottery picks and a youthful roster that features Cole Anthony, Jonathan Isaac, and Mo Bamba . . . The New Orleans Pelicans are going to hire longtime NBA player and assistant Willie Green as coach, completing a remarkable rise. In 2010, Green’s sister and cousin were killed in a car accident outside of Detroit just after watching Green’s Hornets play the Pistons. Green played 12 NBA seasons and then immediately joined Steve Kerr’s staff with the Warriors before joining Monty Williams’s staff with the Phoenix Suns two years ago. Green is considered one of the nicer guys in the NBA and the Pelicans job is considered a potential gem with Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and Kira Lewis Jr. as potential cornerstones.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.