Coming home empty handed was not the outcome the USA expected or what it looked like this roster might accomplish after it swept through five tune-up games and its first four games at the World Cup. The USA looked golden.
The Americans went on to lose three of their next four games and are heading home without a medal. What happened, and what should we read into the USA’s second consecutive World Cup without any hardware? Here are five takeaways from Team USA’s 2023 FIBA World Cup performance.
1) Welcome to the new normal
The biggest takeaway from the World Cup should be there’s not much to take away — this is the new reality.
It’s this simple: If Team USA doesn’t send its best, it’s 50/50 — at best — if they win a medal.
“The game has been globalized over the last 30 years. These games are difficult. This is not 1992 anymore,” was how USA coach Steve Kerr put it after his team fell to eventual champion Germany. “Players are better all over the world. Teams are better. It’s not easy to win the World Cup or the Olympics.”
The USA sent a talented roster to Manilla but not its “A” team — not one All-NBA player, not one player who had been on the roster for a previous World Cup or Olympics — and the USA needs that overwhelming talent to overcome their other deficiency… which brings us to:
2) America’s issue was cohesion, which showed on defense
Team USA couldn’t beat any team it couldn’t athletically overwhelm.
I’m not alone in that observation, or this one: The core flaw of the system that USA Basketball has put together is the lack of cohesion. The USA talent pool is so deep that we can just take the guys willing to go, put them in a training camp for a couple of weeks, and hope that is enough.
For a long time it was enough, but not only is the rest of the world catching up to our talent level, they have fewer NBA-level guys, so there is pressure on those players to come almost every summer and represent their country. That means those elite players play more games together over the years (often since youth) in the same system, they know each other and play with a cohesion the USA lacks.
You see it most on the defensive end. Kerr and his deep coaching staff — Erik Spoelstra, Tyronn Lue, Mark Few — had a strong game plan for Canada in the gold medal game and it didn’t take long for Shai Gilgious-Alexander to shred it and the American defenders.
The international defensive rules are different — no defensive three seconds, no illegal defense calls, and more physicality allowed — so the best teams bring help in the post much earlier with the belief that if a kick-out pass comes they can scramble to contest at the shorter 3-point line. The USA and their slapped-together roster had only Jaren Jackson Jr. as a legit rim protector and he was often in foul trouble (they had Walker Kessler on the roster but he was usually glued to the bench as Steve Kerr leaned into small ball with Paolo Banchero at the five). Post help was slow to arrive, and at times smaller American wings got targeted (Lithuania did this to Austin Reaves). There also were limited quality perimeter defenders and the American’s defensive rotations were not sharp.
The three teams that beat the USA at the World Cup — Lithuania, Germany and Canada — all scored more than 100 points in a 40-minute game. The USA had plenty of offensive talent but couldn’t get stops, which was more about cohesion and teamwork than raw talent.
The problem is fixing that requires something Mike Krzyzewski did — to play in the Olympics, a player has to commit to the World Cup. The problem is a couple of cycles ago FIBA moved the World Cup to the year before the Olympics, so to ask a player to do both is to ask them to play basically two consecutive full calendar years. Head of USA Basketball Grant Hill recognizes that in a recovery-based NBA that’s not happening with the elite players, so he has wisely abandoned the practice.
Which brings us back to this being the new normal for the USA — forced to choose between the World Cup and Olympics, the game’s elite players will choose the Olympics. So we roll out a good but not elite roster that can physically overwhelm most teams but not all, and here we are. And the Americans lose some big games.
3) Anthony Edwards looks ready to make a leap
“He’s unquestionably the guy,” Kerr said of the Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards after he led a comeback from 16 down against Germany in a tune-up game. “You can see he knows it. But now the team knows it, and I think the fans see it… He genuinely believes he’s the best player in the gym every single night. And he’s such a dynamic young player. I think he’s taking a leap.”
Edwards looked like a player ready to follow in a proud tradition of using USA basketball as a springboard to taking the next step in their career. Or maybe it’s announcing they are about to make that leap. Either way, it’s something Devin Booker and Kevin Durant did, and now Edwards looks ready. Edwards was the lone American to make the All-World Cup team, averaging 18.9 points per game through the World Cup.
That’s good news for the Timberwolves, although it could mean some roster massaging to build around Ant and get players that fit better with him. He looks ready to be an All-NBA, top-10 player, build a title contender around this guy kind of player. Watching him take that confidence to the NBA this season will be fun.
A number of USA players looked good at the World Cup, but three stood out above the rest in my eyes.
Tyrese Haliburton was a game-changer for the USA — when he came in off the bench the tempo picked up, the ball started moving, and the USA just looked better. He showed he is one of the top three passers in the game, shot 47.2% from 3, plus he is just a joy to watch (which is why it’s a crime Haliburton and the Pacers have one TNT/ESPN game all season). Haliburton led Team USA with 5.6 assists a game, but the more telling stat is he led the roster with a +13.6 plus/minus for the World Cup.
Austin Reaves, paired with Haliburton, made the USA bench a force and ended up the second-leading scorer on the roster averaging 13.8 points a game. He just does all the little things well. Watching him was a reminder the Lakers got an absolute steal on his new contract — four years, $53.8 million — thanks to restricted free agency.
Mikal Bridges showed why he looked like a guy making a leap on the Nets after he was traded there last season — 13.6 points per game, shooting 55.6% from 3, and had the play of the tournament to force overtime against Canada, getting his own rebound off a missed free throw and hitting a contested, turn-around corner 3.
5) The USA still qualified for the Paris Olympics and is bringing the big guns
The USA’s primary goal at the World Cup was to qualify for the Paris Olympics and Team USA did that (by being one of the two highest finishers from the Americas). The USA has won four consecutive Olympic golds because that’s what is prioritized over the World Cup.
And the USA is bringing the big guns.
LeBron James reportedly wants to play and has reached out to Stephen Curry (who does not have an Olympic gold and was expected to play), Kevin Durant, and also joining them could be Jayson Tatum, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Devin Booker, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Kyrie Irving, among others.
The USA didn’t beat anybody in Manilla they could not just overwhelm with talent, but bring that roster to Paris and there is no team the USA could not overwhelm.