It's been an ugly start for the United States national basketball team.
As they ramp up for the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, Team USA has lost their first two exhibition games against Nigeria and Australia — two teams with far less talent. Sure, it’s just exhibition games, but Team USA has much more talent than everyone else that they shouldn’t be losing any games at all.
Team USA is shooting a meager 43% from the field after two exhibition games. They look disjointed and are getting beat by more experienced international squads that have played together for much longer.
So, is Team USA really in trouble of missing out on a medal in the upcoming Olympics, or are these just growing pains?
We're Talking About Exhibitions
As Allen Iverson famously put it: "We're talking about practice."
And while exhibitions aren't technically practice, these games don't count in the win or loss column and the players might not be taking them as seriously as many hope they would.
The games might not matter, yes, but It's still setting a bad precedent for the future of the squad.
Multiple Team USA members have played shoddy defense while showing a lack of urgency. In fact, before Team USA dropped two in a row, they were 54-2 in exhibition games since 1992.
Bad exhibition play may not be as important as real games, but it’s still not exactly a great sign of flourishing team chemistry.
This Team Has No Chemistry... Yet
Developing team chemistry isn’t something that happens at the snap of a finger, no matter how supremely talented the players are. This Team USA squad is no different.
Other than Draymond Green and Kevin Durant on the current Team USA roster who have played together. Compare that to 2016’s squad, which had Green, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes with the Warriors and DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry from the Toronto Raptors.
While it's clear Team USA is lacking any semblance of continuity so far, that isn't a prerequisite to dominating in international tournaments.
The 2012 roster didn't gel quickly and they won the gold medal, but it appears this year's Team USA will need to develop chemistry quickly if they want to avoid a disappointing defeat. But how can Team USA come together?
So much of chemistry is simply defining roles, and that’s the biggest obstacle coach Gregg Popovich and his staff has to tackle. Virtually the entire roster is used to being the first or second most important player on their team, and now they’ll have to learn to be part of an ensemble cast.
Of course, if Team USA puts it all together then they should cakewalk to the gold medal, but, that's easier said than done.
Adjusting To International Play
Based on watching the first two games, it’s clear that many Team USA players, all of whom currently play in the NBA, were having some trouble adjusting to the way referees officiate the international game.
While the NBA has become riddled with non-basketball plays as stars heave their bodies into other players with the hope of drawing an easy foul call, the international refs are not as quick to blow their whistles.
These guys are STRUGGLING without NBA refs lol pic.twitter.com/xK6hssOffC— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) July 13, 2021
It’s clear that all of that body-flopping and foul-baiting in the NBA is not going to fly in Tokyo.
To exacerbate this issue, the rest of the qualifying teams are so used to playing a more physical brand of ball that they don’t need to adjust as much. Hand checking is not as strictly enforced, and while Team USA players are more than capable of beating teams with brute force, it’s going to be yet another adjustment they have to incorporate.
Coming Off A Long Season
Team USA is full of NBA players who have a COVID-19 shortened season that culminated in the bubble followed by a 72-game schedule that was crammed into the calendar so players could still appear in the Olympics. Compare that to the Euro League which plays half as many games.
Rest is becoming more vital as players understand the importance it has on their long-term health. It’s the reason why the NBA is trying to cut down on back-to-back games. Coming off such a long season and jumping straight into more basketball is an exhausting ordeal, so some burnout is to be expected with some of these guys, specifically the ones who advanced in the playoffs.
Rest is precious, and that’s one area where the competition has Team USA beat.
Why There’s Still Hope
All of these concerns we’ve laid out are most likely small blemishes on what should be a gold medal roster. Just take a glance at Team USA’s roster. It’s chock-full of All Stars, an MVP, a Defensive Player of the Year and a Hall of Fame coaching staff. They should not lose, and they probably won’t.
Looking at the competition, it’s easy to see why the USA is the favorite. Sure, Slovenia presents a problem with Luka Doncic and Goran Dragic, while France has Evan Fournier, Nic Batum and Rudy Gobert. Spain has the Gasol brothers, Ricky Rubio, and international legends Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Llull.
The Aussies also have Patty Mills, who turns into a superstar in international play:
Patty Mills just turns into a superhero when he plays for Australia, it is really amazing. pic.twitter.com/5FMSIdzS3f— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) July 13, 2021
But the only other true NBA stars on other squads are Doncic and Gobert. Sure, other players will show out, but Team USA is at such an incredible talent advantage that it’s very difficult to envision them losing. But if they do, we’ll probably know why.
Photo: Getty Images