When the United States fell, first to France on Wednesday and then Serbia the next day, to ensure the worst finish by the U.S. National Team in program history, alternating waves of panic and assurance followed, wondering what had gone wrong giving way to predictions of greatness returning in time for the 2020 Olympics.
After all, this was the B team that was assembled for this event after stars such as LeBron James and Stephen Curry declined to be part of this and even second-tier stars began to shed from the roster rather than commit to spending the final weeks before the NBA season across the world in China.
While the panic may be extreme, so too is the confidence that it immediately will get better. It’s easy to think that the United States will send a more representative squad to the Olympics than this group that boasted only one All-NBA player (All-NBA third team member Kemba Walker). So maybe the real stars will arrive for the Olympics.
So who? How about the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player? Oops, that’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who plays for Greece. How about the Defensive Player of the Year? Nope, that’s Rudy Gobert, who helped France knock out the U.S. Well, surely a young star will show up, perhaps the Rookie of the Year. No, that’s Luka Doncic of Slovenia.
Continue on down the list of NBA stars — Joel Embiid (Cameroon), Ben Simmons (Australia) and Karl-Anthony Towns (Dominican Republic), and you get the idea.
The point is that the basketball world is a big place now with stars, including the best of the NBA coming from far-flung locales. The U.S. may boast plenty of stars, enough to have depth unlike any other national team, but that is countered by the long history many of those other countries have playing together.
“I can only say, you can’t help but notice and remember who you thought you were going to war with and who didn’t show up,” Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo told reporters in China. “I’m a firm believer that you deal with the cards you’re dealt. All we could have done, and we did it, is get the commitments from a lot of players. So with that kind of a hand, you feel reasonably confident that you’re going to be able to put a very good, representative team on the court . . . No one would have anticipated the pullouts that we had.
“The players did everything they can do. They are a good group of guys. But we went in with higher expectations in terms of roster and it didn’t kind of happen the way we were hopeful and anticipating and expecting. That, to me, was a big disappointment.”
So who will sign on? Paul George was the runner-up in the MVP race and the top U.S. finisher among Defensive Player of the Year voting, but he might be coming off a long playoff run with the Clippers and can’t ignore the devastating injury he suffered when playing for the national team.
Likewise, it seems unlikely that Kevin Durant would play after spending this NBA season rehabilitating a torn Achilles tendon.
Does James have another run in him at 35 years old? How about his new Lakers teammate, Anthony Davis? Kawhi Leonard led the Raptors to a title this past season with load management as a strategy likely to spread.
Colangelo has hinted that some of the younger players who opted to pass up the chance to play this summer won’t be forgotten and will not be invited.
Zion Williamson almost certainly will get a chance to be the face of the future; his knee injury suffered in Las Vegas provided fair cover to keep him in the mix.
So do players such as Damian Lilliard, Devin Booker and De’Aaron Fox get forgiven?
“Going forward for USA Basketball, we’re going to need the cooperation of teams, agents, and then there has to be communication with players one-on-one to solidify those commitments,” Colangelo said. “I am going to be anxious to see how many players reach out early to indicate that they wish and want and desire to play . . . But I’ll make this statement: It’s as much about maybe who we don’t want as much as who we want.”
NEXT HIGHLIGHT FOR NTILIKINA
One player who did show up and raise his profile is Frank Ntilikina, who has accomplished little in the NBA since the Knicks made him a lottery pick two years ago.
With the team needing to make a decision next month on whether to exercise the fourth-year option on his rookie deal, the Knicks have shopped him unsuccessfully.
But in the fourth quarter of France’s win over the United States, Ntilikina was a solid contributor. He scored seven of his 11 points with an impressive drive, a confident three-point field goal and a long two, and he stifled Kemba Walker defensively with his 6-7 frame. Even when France was eliminated in the World Cup semifinal against Argentina on Friday, he put up 16 points.
So is that the wake-up call for his tenure in New York? Unlikely. The Knicks had Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay start over him at point guard last season, just as they had with Burke, Jarrett Jack and Ramon Sessions in his rookie season. He was shuttled around to different spots last season, with the bench his final destination more often than not.
Now it’s Dennis Smith Jr. whom the team has a huge interest in seeing succeed, thanks to the trade for Kristaps Porzingis that brought him to New York (especially given that the cap space that was supposed to land stars at Madison Square Garden came up empty). Add in that the Knicks brought in Elfrid Payton in free agency, and point guard seems crowded again.