TOKYO — Never has there been an Olympics in the past 30 years where both the men’s and women’s Team USA basketball squads were not overwhelming favorites to win gold.
The men’s team has been besieged with COVID-19 issues and the departure of Kevin Love while waiting for three members to finish the NBA Finals. Because of those factors and what coach Gregg Popovich said was “lack of conditioning,” Team USA dropped its first two exhibition games before rallying to win its final two.
Team USA men were 54-2 in exhibition games prior to those losses to Nigeria and Australia.
The Team USA women are vying for a seventh consecutive gold medal but dropped the WNBA All-Star Game to a group of league All-Stars and then lost to Australia without All-Star Elizabeth Cambage. While the women remain the favorites to win the Olympic tournament, this team is flawed.
Point guard Sue Bird is 40. Star guard Diana Taurasi is 39. Center Sylvia Fowles is 35. Tina Charles is 32. Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner are 30. It’s a talented but aging team and they will have to rely on younger members such as Breanna Stewart and A’Ja Wilson to overcome competitors such as Australia, Spain, and Canada.
With no fans allowed in the stands, no family allowed to accompany players, and the COVID-19 storyline hovering over the games, winning gold will be a considerable challenge for both teams.
“This is a team that it’s its first time together; we have a lot of first-time Olympians,” Bird said. “Obviously we lost those two games back to back, which nobody wanted to do but at the same time I thought it taught us some things. We’re gonna use that. Those losses could end up being our biggest wins, if you will.”
For the men, they brought eight players to Tokyo initially because Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine remained in COVID-19 protocol. He was able to join the team Wednesday while the trio of Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Devin Booker will land on Saturday having not played a minute with their new teammates because of their NBA playoff obligation.
Those are difficult circumstances entering the team’s opener Sunday against France, which knocked USA out of the World Cup two years ago and features three former/current Celtics in Evan Fournier, Guerschon Yabusele, and Vincent Poirier.
What’s more, the French team has nine players with NBA experience and three starters on their respective teams this season. Three-time NBA defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert anchors the French team.
“There are more great players all over the world,” Popovich said when asked about the closing talent gap between the United States and the world. “There are more and more foreign players every year in the NBA and they go back and play for their home countries, as they should, and it makes the competition even greater and more challenging for everybody, including us.”
The rosters for the Olympic tournament are littered with NBA players and that’s not only Team USA. Luka Dončić, Facundo Campazzo, Patty Mills, Aron Baynes, Danilo Gallinari, Nicolas Batum, Matisse Thybulle, Frank Ntilikina, Joe Ingles, Rui Hachimura, Tomáš Satoranský, Marc Gasol, and Josh Okogie are among those NBA players on other rosters.
“It’s all about us but we understand how talented these teams are, how good their chemistry is,” USA forward Kevin Durant said. “So we’re looking forward to the challenge. Adding three guys, two champions, and another guy who has been on that stage, adding that IQ to the team is going to help.”
A major disadvantage Team USA faces at each Olympics is lack of familiarity. One of the primary reasons why countries such as Australia (without Ben Simmons) or Spain (with an aging roster) are so dangerous is their chemistry and cohesion. The experience playing together narrows the talent gap.
Many members of Team USA are just trying to get accustomed to FIBA rules — 10-minute quarters, no defensive 3-second rule, knocking a missed shot off the rim allowed. The clogging of the paint slows down the game, meaning the usual up-tempo NBA style is replaced by half-court possessions where ball movement becomes critical.
Players such as Damian Lillard, Durant, Jayson Tatum, and LaVine are accustomed to scoring in bunches. But that will be near impossible in this FIBA environment.
“We’re understanding what Coach wants from us at both ends of the floor,” Durant said. “Guys are getting more comfortable with each other and their roles on the team and that’s only going to bode well for us as we start to play real games. It was good to kind of get a punch in the mouth early on to remind us that it’s not going to be a cakewalk.
“So many people are used to Team USA coming in and blowing everybody out and it was good for us to see that and hopefully those are the last losses.”
After Team USA lost to Australia, Popovich snapped at a reporter who made references to the Americans generally blowing out opponents in the past, saying that is no longer the Team USA expectation.
It appears that Team USA men and women each realize maybe what the general American basketball public hasn’t, that the rest of the world is no longer intimidated by the red, white, and blue, especially since the best international players have flourished in American basketball leagues for years.
Each team enters Tokyo as vulnerable as they have been in more than a decade. While the men are going to have to mesh quickly and get a boost from the three new additions, the women are banking that Bird and Taurasi have at least one more run left, and their younger core can respond quickly to international play.
It will not be a shock if either loses a game in pool play. And what we’ve learned over the past few years is Team USA is no longer focused on the dominant, resounding win, but just winning period, especially considering the unique circumstances surrounding these Tokyo Games.
“I’m excited; I’m ready,” Tatum said. “We’ve been working at [chemistry] and there’s been a lot of progress since Day One. The only thing that matters is if we win the gold medal or not, not how many points you score. Just do anything to contribute to winning.”