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The sobering reality, yet again, for the United States at the basketball World Cup
Translation (with further detailed explanation below in the Tuesday Newsletter Extravaganza): Only in defeat are you remembered
When Grant Hill visited my radio show in late July, soon to preside over his first national team training camp as USA Basketball’s new managing director for the men’s program, I suggested that he was about to face a level of expectation that even his best Duke teams never confronted.
The United States has lost plenty of basketball games at the highest level in the 21st century, but every L is still treated as an absolute shock in a country that boasts the world’s deepest talent pool.
Every loss, even though there have been six of them now in the United States’ last three major tournaments, still gets treated like an international incident.
And every W elicits a You’re Supposed To Win shrug.
"The way you describe it," Hill said after I rambled through my dramatized description of the stakes, "it sounds like a thankless job.
"I’ll tell you this," Hill added. "It is in no way, shape or form ceremonial."
Some six weeks later, Hill understands the challenges of the post all too acutely.
In the aftermath of USA Basketball’s fourth-place finish at the FIBA World Cup, we are already hearing about LeBron James’ desire to return to the squad for his fourth Olympics next summer in Paris and how he is lobbying other marquee names like his Los Angeles Lakers teammate Anthony Davis to join him in participating. We’ve been writing here since January about Stephen Curry’s desire to make his Olympic debut under his Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr in the Paris Games … and since last October about USAB’s efforts to convince Joel Embiid to represent the red, white and blue rather than France when Embiid finally chooses to pledge his international allegiance.
For the Olympics, like his predecessor Jerry Colangelo, Hill will likely never have trouble attracting a level of star power capable of overcoming the continuity and size issues that so badly plagued the Americans for the past two weeks in Manila. That figures to be doubly true given where the next two Olympics will be held: Los Angeles in 2028 after Paris.
Assembling a squad for the World Cup, by contrast, must be starting to feel as futile as the NBA’s efforts to try to convince star players to participate in the dunk contest. The dunkers we most want to see most never consent to participate — presumably because the risk of looking bad when the world is watching outweighs the potential payoffs of out-dunking the field — and one suspects that securing commitments for the 2027 World Cup in Qatar might prove similarly difficult after yet another miserable campaign that mostly generated nothing but scorn and shame for those who signed up.
Although the current 12-man squad was selected without tryouts or training camp cuts, as a measure Hill and Co. could control to try to mitigate potential embarrassment for players, three losses in its last four games left the Kerr-coached United States one spot out of the medals. What I wrote for The New York Times, after two losses at the 2019 World Cup in China dropped the Gregg Popovich-coached United States to a worst-in-program-history seventh place, thus applies yet again:
DONGGUAN, China — When it comes to basketball’s World Cup, this is how it works back home for American players: Only in defeat are you remembered.
In a tournament of such modest standing in our hoops culture, compared to the Olympics, typically only by losing does the United States men’s national basketball team command the attention of the mainstream sports public.
The 12 players who agreed to represent the United States at the 2019 FIBA World Cup knew the deal, deep down, when they signed up to join a roster that had been shunned by some 40 top pros — including all the biggest American stars. Yet those volunteers discovered the true depths of their no-win situation on Wednesday night, when the United States was outclassed early and late in an 89-79 quarterfinal loss to France at the Dongguan Basketball Center.
It’s been the same story, in truth, for more than two decades. The first FIBA competition I ever covered in person was the 2002 Worlds in Indianapolis, where the host Americans finished a humbling sixth. The rest of the planet only gets better at America’s game and FIBA’s top teams almost always boast a teamwork advantage over thrown-together rosters that only the upper, upper crust of the United States’ best players can eradicate.
The state of the American big man and the fact that ours have seemingly become more perimeter-based than Europe’s will continue to be a major talking point. I know I personally can’t let go of a stat you’ve surely read in this cyberspace before: There has staggeringly been only one U.S. representative among the league’s top 10 rebounders for each of the past three seasons.
Yet it was the utter inability of this World Cup team to play any defense that made its demise so difficult to stomach. Various USAB teams since the Indy debacle have tried to neutralize longstanding continuity issues and a routine lack of trusty bigs by relying on sticky perimeter defense to smother opponents, force turnovers and speed up the game. The small-ball squad USAB assembled for Hill’s debut event sadly proved as porous on D as any U.S. team we’ve ever seen.
The Americans allowed 110 points to Lithuania in a 40-minute game, then 113 points to Germany and 127 points in overtime loss to Canada in the bronze-medal game.
“We weren’t ever able to make them feel us defensively,” Kerr lamented after the semifinal loss to the eventual champions Germany.
Chances are things will be different at next summer’s Olympics, with or without Embiid, if LeBron and AD and Steph and Kevin Durant all participate. The line of stars willing to grace the foremost stage in international sport — in a glamorous global metropolis like Paris — figures to be long.
Yet we might not be far away from the day that relying on extreme star power to preserve USA Basketball’s penchant for achieving Olympic glory won’t work, either. The Americans have won seven of eight gold medals since the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, when NBA players were allowed to participate for the first time, but France nearly toppled a Mike Krzyzewski-coached Team USA at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil that featured Durant, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving. At the Tokyo Olympics contested in 2021, France beat the Durant-led Americans in the teams’ first meeting before the United States rebounded to win the gold-medal-game rematch.
After Lithuania inflicted the Americans’ first loss in Manila, Serbia routed Lithuania by 19 … without the resting Nikola Jokić. So rest assured that both Serbia and Germany will be a serious problem in Paris if healthy, no matter who suits up for the United States, while the French hosts might well have both Embiid and Victor Wembanyama on their roster by that point.
"I think there’s maybe, in a way, a lack of appreciation for the international game here in the U.S.," Hill said in our recent radio interview. “And what I mean by that is that it’s hard. It’s not easy.
"The rest of the world has improved. The talent level has increased. It’s a game that they are more familiar with. The game is officiated differently. The rules are different. … I’m not trying to make excuses, but really just trying to illustrate that this is not easy."
Hill, remember, said all that in late July. Guess he actually understood how thankless this could all be even then.
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Turner Sports' Chris Haynes and I are about a month away from resuming our usual twice-weekly cadence for the #thisleague UNCUT podcast as we move into our second season as an audio duo.
The audio fix I can offer in the interim is the podcast from my weekly Saturday radio show on 97.1 The Freak in Dallas. On last weekend’s show we talked tons of FIBA World Cup with special guest Nikola Vučević from the Chicago Bulls and during two segments sandwiching my chat with Vučević in which I was joined by Mavericks radio play-by-play voice Chuck Cooperstein.
Click below to connect to the Apple version of the podcast or look up The Saturday Stein Line via the podcast provider of your choice.
The NBA season starts in 15 days. It's true: Dallas and Minnesota will hold their first practices of the 2023-24 campaign on Sept. 27, with both teams granted a head start on the rest of the league because they will play two exhibition games abroad in Abu Dhabi on Oct. 5 and 7.
The first practice for the other 28 teams is 21 days away on Oct. 3. Media Day for those 28 teams is Oct. 2.
The United States, as mentioned above, has now lost at least one game in three successive major tournaments since the 2016 Olympics. Team USA lost twice at the 2019 World Cup in China en route to a seventh-place finish and once at the Tokyo Olympics contested in 2021 before rebounding to win gold.
Should Germany be classified as a basketball country now? The Germans are up to five World Cup triumphs if you add Sunday's FIBA World Cup breakthrough to the four FIFA World Cups they've won in soccer ... and German national soccer coach Hansi Flick was fired Sunday on the same day Germany recorded its greatest international success on hardwood.
Germany's World Cup win Sunday came eight years to the day that Dirk Nowitzki played his last game for the national team in September 2015.
I have personally covered three FIBA World Cups in person: 2002 in Indianapolis, 2014 in Spain and 2019 in China. The United States has won just one of those three tournaments.
Indiana's Daniel Theis scored 21 points in Germany's semifinal victory over the United States. As my pal Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press notes, Theis has scored 21 points or more just six times in his six-season NBA career.
No American was likely to average double-digit rebounds in the tournament, given how widely minutes are distributed among USA Basketball's 12 NBA players on the roster, but it was still stunning to see that the Grizzlies' Jaren Jackson Jr. averaged just 2.8 rebounds per game in the tournament as Team USA's starting center (and as the NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year). Jackson could not make the adjustment to play without a traditional center beside him like he usually does in Memphis (Steven Adams).
Golden State recently announced that it is naming the media workroom at Chase Center after Jim Barnett, who has been a Warriors broadcaster on television and radio for the past 37 years. Barnett, 79, is moving to an ambassadorial role in Warriors community relations this season and played 11 seasons in the NBA — including three with Golden State in the 1970s.
Readers in the Dallas area — or those who want to listen online — can catch me live for an hour on Saturdays talking NBA on 97.1 The Freak. The Saturday Stein Line debuted on July 1 and can be found via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
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