Damian Lillard Team USA France
Photo: FIBA Basketball

Things haven’t been off to a great start for the United States men’s national basketball team.

Team USA started their 2021 Olympic campaign with two losses in exhibition games against Nigeria and Australia, respectively, and it looks like the United States’ dominance in international basketball is in danger.

After less than a month together, the US Olympic men’s basketball team is off to Tokyo to compete in the Olympics. With its lackluster performance in the exhibition games against competition that it dominates on paper, is Team USA bound to disappoint in the Olympics?

And why has the team not performed at its best?

A Relative Lack of Star Power

Even though the United States men’s basketball team is by far the most talented international team on paper, it could be argued that this roster isn’t composed of the best players that the United States can field.

It’s undeniable that everyone in Team USA is at the highest tier of the sport, but the star power in this team poses a stark difference as compared to legendary squads such as the 1992 Dream Team and the 2008 Redeem Team. Even compared to the last Olympic team to represent the United States in 2016, today’s national team has taken a dip talent and experience-wise.

For instance, the 2016 squad was composed almost exclusively of All-Stars and had a good number of players who have already found previous success international basketball, such as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Carmelo Anthony, and Klay Thompson.

On the other hand, this Tokyo Olympics squad only has previous Olympians Kevin Durant and Draymond Green in the lineup, and its other Team USA returnees which include Jayson Tatum and Khris Middleton were part of the squad that merely finished seventh in the 2019 FIBA World Cup. This is also the first Olympic squad since 2004 to have more than one non-All-Star in the roster.

There are numerous household names, such as Stephen Curry, Paul George, and Kyrie Irving, that aren’t part of the Tokyo squad. While it is indeed a good thing for young stars who have proven themselves in the NBA to gain experience and exposure by representing the US in international competition, Team USA could be better off with at least one more veteran in the team.

Continuity Issues

This is going to be first Olympic squad since 2008 which will not be coached by Mike Krzyzewski, and will be head coach Gregg Popovich’s first foray in helming the national team in the Olympics. Although Popovich has shown that he is an all-time great coach in the NBA, his international head coaching career has little to show as of yet.

There are also only two players from the gold medal-winning 2016 Olympic squad returning, Durant and Green. All other players in Team USA either have no Olympic experience at all or are yet to find success in international competition.

The lack of continuity definitely must have played a factor in Team USA’s relatively lackluster performance as of late. International basketball, unlike today’s NBA, is dominated by team play, and the individualistic, player-centric approach adopted by numerous NBA teams will not suffice. With most of the guys on the squad used to being the number one or number two option in their NBA teams, it will take an adjustment period for everyone to sink into their role and for team chemistry to gel, especially considering that most of these players have no prior experience in sharing the floor together in international competition.

Even within the team itself, there’s still uncertainty. Zach LaVine wasn’t allowed to travel to Tokyo with his teammates due to health and safety protocols, while Kevin Love and Bradley Beal who were initially slated to play had to be replaced by JaVale McGee and Keldon Johnson.

Players Playing on Tired Legs

Of this year’s Olympic Team, three players are still playing in the NBA Finals. Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Devin Booker are still in playoff mode and will have virtually no time to rest after the Finals are over before they have to suit up for Team USA.

Some of the other players in the team are likewise fresh from playoff runs, and the fatigue of the exhausting season and all-out playoff runs might play a factor considering that they may not have been able to have an actual break to fully recover from the season.

Other Countries’ Homegrown Talent are Catching Up

There’s no denying that the United States reigns supreme in international basketball when it comes to talent, but other countries are catching up. Even in the NBA, international players such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic have developed to be bona fide superstars and arguably top 10 players in the game.

The field in the Tokyo Olympics isn’t something to just brush off. Plenty of teams have high-tier NBA talent in their rosters. Slovenia, for example, is led by NBA veteran Goran Dragic and Doncic, while Spain has the Gasol brothers and Ricky Rubio. Australia, which beat Team USA in an exhibition match just recently, has Aron Baynes, Joe Ingles, Patty Mills, Dante Exum, and Matisse Thybulle.

While on paper, Team USA is the best team, the other countries have reached a point where the talent they have poses a significant threat to the United States’ supremacy.

Is There Hope?

With a 138-5 all-time record, the United States men’s basketball team is the most dominant team in international basketball, and although the exhibition performances of Team USA might appear discouraging, the talent and the history cannot be denied.

It should be remembered that Team USA only lost in exhibition matches, and that they played without key pieces who are still in the playoffs. Despite the reasons why Team USA may be struggling, it remains the team with the most star power and it still has ample time to get its chemistry right in pursuit of the United States’ fourth straight Olympic gold medal.