The rest of the world got very good at basketball, and nobody told the United States…
With Team USA crashing out of the FIBA World Cup in China on Wednesday, the sporting world was left reeling by what was considered an unprecedented upset. By the numbers, considering the USA hadn’t lost in competitive international play for 58 straight games, a betting person may argue that this defeat was difficult, if not impossible to foresee. However, when you start to look a bit closer, it really shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise to anyone. In reality, France, as with the rest of the top nations, have quietly been building a solid team for years. Whilst it is no secret that many of Team USA’s premier players, such as Kawhi Leonard and James Harden opted to skip summer ball in favour of preparing for the upcoming NBA season. Despite this being common knowledge, Coach Gregg Popovich’s team were still the favourites going into China. To make matters worse for the reigning champions, after being eliminé by France, they turned in an abysmal performance against Serbia in the battle for the not-so-glamourous 5th place position, trailing a horrifying 32-7 after just 10 minutes of play. What is for certain, is that the prospect of a new champion makes for exciting viewing, with a mega-final between Spain and Argentina now going down on Sunday afternoon. However, whilst it seems it is naturally doom and gloom for Team USA, this massive upheaval of what has essentially become basketball tradition, is good for all nations of international basketball – including, surprisingly enough, Team USA themselves.
It must be said, whilst it may be understandable that American players chose to put themselves ahead of the national team, they may have in fact been doing themselves a disservice. Tempting as it may be to rest and train individually after a gruelling NBA season, it is no mystery to understand why certain player’s careers have skyrocketed following time overseas. Case in point, Kyrie Irving, the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar who went to the FIBA World Cup in 2014 where he won both a gold medal and the Most Valuable Player award. The following season, Irving hit one of the most legendary shots of all time to take down the seemingly unbeatable Golden State Warriors and win the NBA title – the first in Cleveland’s sporting history. Clearly, Irving was not feeling the effects of the extra 9 games played in Spain that summer. In fact, in said tournament he played on average 24 minutes per game for a total of 216 minutes, as opposed to the 33 minutes Irving has averaged over his career in the NBA. Therefore, by his ‘usual’ standards, he was really only playing about an extra 6.5 games. Whilst my maths may not be a certainty, what is for sure is that Irving came back from Spain fresh and poised for a breakout year – and he is not the first! He then went on to receive a mega-contract from the Boston Celtics so clearly his summer adventures paid off… literally. It can be argued that someone who has perhaps been in the league for over a decade, and has had every success domestically and internationally, such as a Lebron James, may wish to take a step aside and give the next generation their chance to shine, but players in their mid-twenties who have yet to taste gold internationally opting to sit out are shooting themselves in the foot.
On the contrary, for international stars, this World Cup has been the perfect time to shine, and has been the break-out tournament for several players who may now be on the cusp of stardom. Bogdan Bogdanović has had two very respectable years in the NBA, yet he plays in a small media market in Sacramento, and whilst looking promising, was unlikely to be a household name any time soon. Whilst no doubt he will be disappointed with his nation’s overall position this year, on a personal level, Bogdanović’s career just took a major leap, not least due to outplaying fellow Serbian and one of the NBA’s top players, Nikola Jokić throughout the tournament. Therefore, this tournament will come in very handy when it is time to renegotiate his contract with the Kings, or peruse the free agency. So, as we can see, the American loss has been very beneficial for international superstars such as Bogdanović, Australia’s Patty Mills, Argentina’s Facundo Campazzo, and has allowed them to elevate both their level of play and level of fame.
So we have discussed how players have benefitted personally from the shake-up in China this year, now let’s turn towards how America’s despair has boosted teams internationally. Naturally, if Spain is to defeat Argentina on Sunday, Spanish basketball will be at an all-time high. The same goes for Argentina, as well as all the teams who medal this year. This means, more money going into funding (probably being divested from soccer) for grassroots basketball, which in turn is only going to lead to better players, teams, coaches, scouts and stadiums in future generations.
European basketball has gained a bit more traction in the States thanks largely to exceptional imports such as Slovenian rookie, Luka Doncić, coming over and wreaking havoc on the league, delighting the Dallas fans night in, night out. However, in reality, Eurobasket is at an all-time high in level of quality and the level of the top teams easily surpasses that of the top USA college teams, which attract 10000+ fans to games. Unfortunately, a major TV deal to broadcast the Euroleague (the annual tournament akin to the Champions League in football) in the United States has not yet been established. The more respected, and indeed feared, international basketball becomes, the more likely it is to reach such a deal, which again pumps more and more resources into countries where basketball is maybe the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th most popular sport.
So we can see how this is all great for international players and teams, but right now, it all seems pretty bleak for the United States as they make the long journey home empty-handed. But let’s look on the bright side. The fact that the rest of the world has begun to massively narrow the gap on the USA is bad in the short-term context of the World Cup. However, the implication of this outcome is that top NBA teams are going to be sending scouts worldwide to scour every corner of the globe looking to pick up the next Giannis Antetokounmpo from obscurity. Currently most scouting goes on domestically at university level. The benefit to looking internationally is that teams can also acquire professional players in the NBA Draft alongside players from American colleges. So, whilst Luka Doncić technically was a 19 year old rookie when he was ripping into the Houston Rockets, he has been playing professionally against grown men since his early teens for Real Madrid, one of the top teams in all of Europe. Whilst this may seem disadvantageous for American prospects were all NBA teams began to focus their attention internationally rather than domestically, it actually could lead to a positive chain reaction. Players would be encouraged to remain at the university level for all 4 years, rather than dropping out after just 1 year in favour of going pro. This would lead to more developed players entering the league who are more mature both physically and mentally, which would in turn create a wealth of fantastic choices for the future US National Team and continue to contribute to their international dominance.
With talent coming from all over the globe, the level of the product is improved, it attracts more viewers, makes more money, and produces better players. This year, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player is from Greece. The NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year is from France. Before basketball really started to grip the imagination of Europe, the NBA was more limited to the talent produced domestically, and it was far more difficult for international talent to break into the premier league of basketball. In the modern era, not only is the globalisation of basketball making it easier for international superstars to reach the NBA, it is also developing the other leagues worldwide into legitimate world-class organisations, where stars can play at an elite level and in some cases by paid comparable amounts to what they may make in the United States.
Despite attempting to justify how this tournament has been a win-win-win, at this moment in time Team USA are getting the worst out of this deal, naturally, as they were utterly humiliated. However, the most likely scenario by far is that to restore a sense of national pride, the United States will respond with sending a mega-team to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics. Whilst in football, the World Cup is easily the biggest event and Olympic football barely registers in comparison, the opposite is true for basketball. In 2008, after losing to Greece in 2004, Team USA sent what is perhaps one of the greatest teams ever assembled, and naturally they won every game (although not without a dogfight with Spain in the Gold-medal game). However, times have changed since 2008 and indeed 2016. Gone are the days where the team with the most NBA players would win by default:
It’s not going to be a cakewalk. The Days of the 92 Barcelona Dream Team are gone. They’re over, so it’s going to be tough.”Kobe Bryant via Brian Windhorst
To prove my (and Kobe’s) point, just look at Argentina, who have reached the finals of this World Cup with zero NBA players. However, that is not to say that they do not have any NBA-calibre players. Whereas in historic teams, the 12 American men sent to the Games contained more or less the best 12 players in the tournament, in 2020 the complexion of the tournament is looking very different. If a Team Earth were to compete against Team Mars, in a sort of Space Jam themed rip-off, Team Earth would no doubt feature at least 3-5 non-Americans.
There is almost no doubt Team USA will fare much better in the next major international tournament, but it is no longer simply a question of the best players showing up. The best players need to show up and play to their absolute highest ability to contend in the ever-changing landscape of basketball. However, if the United States Dream Team 3.0 does in fact return to wipe the floor with Europe, that is not to say that all the hard work accomplished over the past few years will be undone. In fact, fortunately it is quite the opposite! In 1992, NBA players were first permitted to play in the Olympic Games and Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and every other basketball player your parents can probably name went to Barcelona and did not break a sweat. Despite the United States showing their all-out dominance, instead of being disgusted and discouraged, Europe was amazed. Never before had they, or anyone, seen such an incredible level of play here in Europe, and the popularity of basketball in general surged tremendously. This in turn was more or less the building blocks for the solid teams Spain have been pumping out for the last 2 decades.
Ultimately, it is an understatement to say that Team USA underperformed this summer. However, this will be a huge boost to international basketball which has been patiently waiting for the chance to shine on the big stage after coming too close for comfort in 2008 and 2012. This is also great for the international players, many of whom dream of playing in the NBA. Although, at this current rate, it may not be inconceivable to think in just a few generations that not only will international players be rivalling American players, but that international leagues could begin to pose a threat to the NBA’s supremacy! This disappointment in turn will inevitably stir a huge storm in Team USA, who for the first time in a decade will have to go back to basics. The only losers in this situation are the young leaders of the under-equipped USA team, who hopefully will retain their places in the Olympic squad so as not to be penalised for being the only ones willing to make an effort this summer. Whilst Team USA have seemed content for the past several years to party like it’s 1992, the rest of the world has conspired against the United States to diligently improve their basketball programmes to the point where Tokyo 2020 will be the biggest international showdown to date.
[Featured Image @ Herald Sun.au]