Americans expect to win gold medals at every international basketball competition like it’s our birthright.
When the USA men fall short — as Team USA did against Germany in the semi-finals of the 2023 FIBA World Cup — it leads to hard questions, some soul searching, and the chance for some to climb on a soapbox and rail about the failings of the American basketball system.
However, the answer in this case is a little clearer: America’s best players chose the Paris Olympics over the World Cup.
That statement needs to come with some context. In this case, the USA’s loss Friday is the culmination of a couple of things that have led to the USA winning the gold at just two of the last six World Cups. USA coach Steve Kerr got at one after the USA’s loss Friday.
“The game has been globalized over the last 30 years. These games are difficult,” Kerr said. “This is not 1992 anymore. Players are better all over the world. Teams are better. It’s not easy to win the World Cup or the Olympics.”
That’s undoubtedly true, the world has caught up. Which is why when the USA sends its “B” team to a tournament — as it did to Manilla for this World Cup — it’s a coin flip whether they win gold or not. That’s not to say there is no talent on this roster, there undoubtedly is, but there is not one All-NBA player, nor is there a player who has been on the senior men’s national team for a major tournament before.
This is partly because FIBA, in its “infinite” wisdom, puts the World Cup and Olympics back-to-back summers. The world’s best players—those who expect to be playing for their clubs into May and June — would essentially be playing two full years without an extended recovery break if they play in both international events.
The best players are forced to choose between the World Cup and the Olympics.
They chose Paris.
Stephen Curry. Jayson Tatum. Anthony Davis and/or Bam Adebayo — two versatile, defensive bigs the USA could have really used. Kevin Durant. Joel Embiid (who can play for the USA, France, or Cameroon). Devin Booker. Damian Lillard. Donovan Mitchell. Jaylen Brown. Zach LaVine. A healthy Zion Williamson. Jrue Holiday. Ja Morant. LeBron James (although whether he wants to chase a third gold medal at age 39 is a fair question).
None of those players were part of this Team USA roster. Every one of them has expressed interest in playing in Paris or can expect a call from Grant Hill, head of the USA men’s national team.
It isn’t just the USA. After a deep playoff run for the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic didn’t play for Serbia (they are doing just fine without him and are on to the gold medal game) nor did Jamal Murray suit up for Canada. A number of other top players sat out as well.
It needs to be emphasized that the roster the USA sent to Manilla had genuine talent and was capable of winning gold. However, it had no margin for error, and the world’s best teams and ones with size to exploit the USA’s weakness in the paint — Lithuania and Germany — did exactly that.
Some of this year’s roster players will be in France next summer. Anthony Edwards certainly earned a spot. Mikal Bridges’ two-way play, Tyrese Haliburton’s passing and Josh Hart’s grit could land them a spot on the Paris roster, for example. Cade Cunningham stood out on the Select Team at the USA training camp, and if he has a strong season for the Pistons he could get an invite.
However, there is another level of American talent and those guys chose Paris over the World Cup.
Also, expect Hill and Kerr to consider a few different role players who the USA for the Olympics — how much would Kevon Looney have helped on the glass in Manilla? Would Alex Caruso fill a defensive role on the 12-man roster? There are other players who are not All-Stars but could help an American roster at the Olympics in specific ways.
The USA’s results at the World Cup — they play Canada Sunday for the bronze medal — are not a sign of a failing of USA Basketball. It’s not an unmitigated disaster of some kind.
It’s the new reality of basketball around the globe. The world has largely caught up, and if we don’t send our very best then it’s 50/50 whether the Americans take home the gold. This time, things did not break our way.