USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo never had such a struggle to field a team than he did in the past few months, when he had a difficult time encouraging NBA players to participate in the FIBA World Cup, which ends Sunday, about two weeks before training camps begin.
The search was wide-ranging, and Colangelo also had to deal with a series of surprising rejections and departures. Landry Shamet, P.J. Tucker, Tobias Harris, De’Aaron Fox, Devin Booker, and CJ McCollum either declined invitations or dropped out during the process.
And that’s not to mention NBA superstars such as LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook, who didn’t see the value of spending nearly a month in China and wearing down before training camp.
Still, USA Basketball was supposed to put together a gold medal-winning team regardless. There was enough talent. Or so we thought, until the Americans were thumped by France in the quarterfinals, and then folded to Serbia in the consolation round in a game they actually trailed, 32-7.
Although Team USA played hard in the quarterfinals and may have advanced with some Marcus Smart made free throws, or a foul call or two for Donovan Mitchell and Kemba Walker, it lacked the talent, togetherness, and execution of previous teams.
“I’m proud of every last one of my teammates,” Smart said. “We gave it all we had.”
So, there is likely going to be a major reboot before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, with perhaps Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, and Walker the only players from the World Cup team who stand a chance of making the Olympic team.
But what the heck happened in China? Team USA’s coaching staff was loaded with future Hall of Famers in Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and Jay Wright, along with rising coach Lloyd Pierce. Mitchell and Walker are considered top 20 NBA players. Jaylen Brown and Smart are top defenders, while Harrison Barnes is a strong second-tier NBA player.
The problem was Team USA lacked a consistent post presence for the FIBA game, the majority of which is played in the half court. There are very few 100-point games because the pace is slower, fouls are more prevalent, and the game is eight minutes shorter.
Myles Turner is a strong defender in the NBA but lacked the physicality to compete with some of the international centers, and against France’s 7-foot-2-inch Rudy Gobert he posed little threat of pulling the big man away from the basket. So Gobert was allowed to roam near the rim and alter shots.
Also, without Tatum, who missed Team USA’s final five games because of a sprained left ankle, the team lacked not only a consistent outside shooter but a player with length who could slash to the basket. Shooting became a major issue for Team USA. Joe Harris was supposed to be this team’s version of Carmelo Anthony, but Harris only attempted three 3-pointers per game, making an average of 1.6. So, his long-range impact was minimized.
Entering Saturday’s seventh-place game against Poland, Team USA was eighth in the 32-team field in points per game (86.4), 16th in 3-point percentage (33.3), and 16th in field goal percentage (44.2).
Defensively, Popovich figured out quickly he couldn’t play Brook Lopez or Mason Plumlee much because neither is a post threat or a rim protector. So, Team USA wasted 14 feet worth of center on the bench.
And the Khris Middleton that Celtics fans have watched terrorize the Green the last two years hardly showed up in China. The Bucks All-Star guard shot 41 percent from the field in the first seven games, and just 34.6 percent from the 3-point line. Team USA had no problem getting shots up, it just didn’t make them nearly as often as needed.
That includes Walker, who was the team’s leading scorer but often faltered down the stretch as he tried take over games, especially in the quarterfinal against France. Mitchell scored 29 points through the first three quarters of that game but didn’t score in the fourth.
What is disheartening is that Team USA could have won this tournament with the team it had, but needed better execution. It seemed no one on the roster brought his best game overseas. We’ve seen better from Mitchell, Brown, Walker, and Smart.
Middleton seemed tentative and never picked his moment to take over a game. Argentina, which features no NBA players, is opposing Spain, which has four NBA players, in Sunday’s final. Team USA could have beaten either with better preparation, more familiarity with the FIBA game, and increased fortitude.
Team USA played as if it expected opponents to lay down the moment it exerted its will. Teams aren’t afraid of the Americans anymore. This isn’t the Dream Team. There will be no postgame photos with Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley.
Team USA has to better prepare for the Olympics, and the players have to be ready for competition for roster spots instead of withdrawing because there is a chance they will be cut. It’s time for a Team USA reboot with a mix of younger players, experienced veterans, and workmanlike players for a more complete and impactful team.
Green never shy in speaking up
Draymond Green is approaching 30 and has transformed himself from a perceived NBA hothead into an honest, engaging player who still gives cutting-edge opinions on various topics and is one of the league’s bigger critics.
Green offered his thoughts on the California bill that would allow college athletes to profit off their names, images, and likenesses. Of course, most athletes have come out in support of the bill, while the NCAA has no intention of allowing players to earn money while they are students.
“I think that’s a great step in the right direction,” Green said in an interview with CNBC. “For so many years, myself included, [athletes] made these universities a ton of money, and you don’t profit off that at all. You get — if you’re eligible you get a Pell Grant and, you know, you get a few dollars for food and that’s about it. Yet some of these colleges are bringing in $2 million, $3 million a game just off the gate and, you know, the athletes aren’t able to profit off that at all. So, I think this is a great step in the right direction. I’m extremely excited about it and excited for the kids of the future to be able to profit off their likeness the way they should be able to.”
Meanwhile, Green signed a four-year contract extension in the offseason and will return to a Warriors squad that is expected to take a major dip with Kevin Durant signing with the Nets and Klay Thompson out with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
The Warriors have won three of the last five NBA titles, and lost the Finals last season to the Raptors largely without Durant and DeMarcus Cousins because of injuries.
“If you look at the NBA, the NFL, any other sport, there’s usually maybe three to four teams a year competing — really competing for a championship,” Green said. “And that’s just the nature of the sports that we play. I think, you know, we have definitely had a great run and I don’t think our run is over. But there’s also some other teams that are trying to put it together.
“However, I think the NBA is probably in the best place that it’s ever been as a league. [Commissioner] Adam Silver is doing an amazing job and, you know, all the teams are doing a great job, and taking this game and making it a global game. And so, there’s no complaints from our way. If people feel that teams aren’t good enough or can’t compete, I mean, that’s on that particular team. We all have the same salary cap. We abide by the same rules. It’s on you what you decide to do with it.”
Green was asked about basketball becoming a year-round sport. If you include the FIBA World Cup, there has been very little time without professional basketball. And now we are two weeks from the beginning of NBA training camps.
“It has a lot of people talking, and obviously that’s a huge and large credit to LeBron James,” Green said of the success of the NBA. “With what he’s done in his career, that’s kind of shown everybody else the power that you have as a player. And that’s why you saw the movement this year is because the athlete, the basketball players, have taken control of their own future. We’ve taken control of our destiny. And I think a lot of people hate that, but I think that’s one of . . . you know, everybody celebrates LeBron for his basketball career and the things he’s been able to accomplish. I think the doors that he’s opened for athletes, and especially basketball players, is his biggest accomplishment.”
And finally, Green was asked about Carmelo Anthony, who remains a free agent. Anthony hasn’t played since November of 2018, when he was let go by the Rockets after 10 games.
“Obviously, I think Carmelo is a great player who has had a great career and looks as if he still has a lot left in the tank,” Green said. “You never know what’s going to happen, whether he’ll get picked up before the season or not. Obviously, you know, as a player, as someone who’s won a gold medal with Melo, definitely want to see him in the league and getting what he deserves. He’s given so much to this league and so many great moments. I think it’s kind of crazy that he’s not on an NBA roster. There’s a lot of players that he’s better than, that’s for sure.”
Gasol can add another title
Marc Gasol had 33 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in Spain’s 95-88 double-overtime win over Australia to advance to the FIBA World Cup final, and now he has a chance to win a gold medal and the NBA Finals within three months.
If there was any doubt about Gasol’s Hall of Fame chances, they have likely been erased with his incredible summer. And make no mistake, the Hall takes into account international accomplishments. Gasol has been on two silver medal Olympic teams and led Spain to eight international medals overall, and it will be nine regardless of Sunday’s result.
Gasol was critical to the Raptors’ run to the NBA title, providing the type of leadership the organization needed. But he isn’t thinking about pairing an NBA title and gold medal, at least not yet.
“I am so deep in the rabbit hole right now that you don’t get to see much light,” he said after the semifinal win over Australia. “You are so focused in on your opponent, your next rival, your recovery, trying to get into a rhythm, doing whatever is necessary to win games, that you don’t look at the big picture.
“Obviously, it’s been great and I am very fortunate. I knew that committing to the national team this summer would not be easy physically because we were so lucky to stretch our season and get a championship. But it’s completely worth it, and not only just because we are playing in the final. But also because of the responsibility of passing along that commitment, that loyalty to the team, those values that we were taught through so many years from the older players.”
It was interesting that Gasol mentioned committing to the national team, considering many of the top American players refused to play for Team USA because of the time crunch between the World Cup and training camps. But Gasol decided to sacrifice for his country, and he realizes at age 34 he could be nearing the end of such opportunities. Spain could be a primary competitor to the US for the gold medal in Tokyo next summer.
“Now it’s our turn to pass on the legacy to the next generation. That’s not talent. That’s just commitment,” Gasol said. “When you come to the national team for 8-10 weeks in the summer, it’s not very practical because you don’t get to work on your game, you don’t get to recover, you don’t get to work on your body like you would if you had like 20 weeks off. You’re committing to a lot of time and to your teammates, and it’s completely worth it. We’re very lucky because we’ve been doing it for so many years — since we were 11-12 years old. When we get that letter from the national team, we get very excited. I like to be here.”
Gasol will return to the Raptors after opting into the final year of his contract at $25 million. The Raptors acquired Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson, and Cameron Payne in the offseason, but Gasol’s role could expand with Kawhi Leonard signing with the Clippers.
Yet despite his importance to his NBA team, Gasol willingly played for his national team.
The Pistons agreed to terms with Joe Johnson on a partially guaranteed one-year contract after his successful Big3 season. Johnson was named MVP in the third year of the league, and his signing with the Pistons provides hope for other players to get another NBA chance. The FIBA World Cup also was an opening for players to return to the NBA who had been considered too old or ineffective. If Argentina beats Spain in Sunday’s final, former NBA forward Luis Scola is likely to be named tournament MVP. Scola is 39 and has not played in the NBA since a 36-game stint with the Nets in 2016-17. But if a player like Scola is able to dominate an international competition filled with NBA players, including 12 NBA players on Team USA, he should perhaps get another NBA opportunity. International basketball is different than the NBA, but Scola had 28 points and 13 rebounds in the semifinals against a French team with the best defensive player in the NBA in Rudy Gobert. Gobert, who dominated in the quarterfinal win over the US, scored just 3 points on 1-for-4 shooting against Argentina. Players such as Vince Carter have proven there is life after 40 for NBA players, and perhaps Scola, who has shown no signs of retiring, could get another opportunity for a contender. Scola played 10 NBA seasons, five with the Rockets, and was a productive player. Maybe fewer games, better conditioning, and the desire to return to the NBA have him turning back the clock . . . Meanwhile, Scola’s Argentina teammate Facundo Campazzo continues to flourish in the World Cup, fueling speculation that he will soon emerge on NBA radars. Campazzo gave Kyrie Irving fits when they matched up in the 2016 Olympics, and the point guard contributed 16 points, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds in the semifinal win over France. Campazzo is contractually obligated to Real Madrid for the next two seasons, but he told the Globe in 2016 that he aspires to play in the NBA.