As the United States looks back on this FIBA catastrophe, there is no doubt that things must change. Coach Gregg Popovich may have said that it is “arrogant” to be ashamed that the U.S. did not win the gold medal, but the United States did not win any medal. They finished seventh, being upset by France and then being nearly blown out by Serbia before making a comeback of sorts.
This tournament was a disappointment, and Team USA should be ashamed of what happened. But now the question becomes: what is next? Are the days of U.S. basketball domination over?
The FIBA vs. the Olympics
It is perfectly possible that the U.S. will bring back their top players for next year’s Olympics and we will go back to thinking that everything is fine. A major reason for Team USA’s struggles this year was that they had few players who could create their own shot. This gave them limited offensive options compared to foreign teams who can create shots through execution and teamwork, and Team USA had one of the worse offenses throughout this tournament.
With James Harden, Steph Curry, and Damian Lillard among others who might play next work, shot creation will become a strength rather than a weakness. And despite this year’s disappointment, Team USA should still be the overwhelming favorites going into next year’s Olympics.
But what about over the long term? If we look at the NBA’s best players under the age of 25, an increasingly large number of them are foreign. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece), Karl Anthony Towns (Dominican Republic), and Nikola Jokic (Serbia) are arguably the two best young players in the league, and there are others like Luka Doncic and Ben Simmons who did not even attend this tournament.
The FIBA tournament has never attracted American star talent like the Olympics has, but it has been a place for young talent to show that they have arrived. Kevin Durant in 2010 is the signature example, but everyone knew even before that tournament that he was all but certain to be one of the all-time greats. Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell are great players, but whether they become Hall of Fame players is another story.
Team USA may win next year. But as players like Harden and LeBron age and leave the league over the next 5 to 10 years, new players will rise to be the NBA’s stars. And there is a real possibility that at that point, we will see a replay at the Olympics of what we saw happen at FIBA this year. As Kobe Bryant observed, the rest of the world has finally caught up to Team USA and American will win some and lose some.
What is to be Done?
As we look at the fact that international players will continue to surpass American players, there is something that becomes obvious. It is not just that international players are becoming better. It is that American players are not being developed as well. And the ways in which we develop (or rather, not develop) young players needs to be changed from the ground-up.
Above all else, the U.S. should be looking to learn from how Europe develops its players. Young Europeans do not just jump from one AAU team to the next on short notice. There is more focus on the fundamentals, on drills and passing and teamwork in contrast to athleticism and shooting a bunch of 3-pointers. The result is far from perfect, but look at how individual European countries, particularly a poorer smaller country like Spain, has stood up to the cream of what the United States can offer.
In theory, the NCAA has been the place where young talent is supposed to develop and learn the fundamentals. But the “one and done” process and the massive monetization of the league has made such an ideal a joke, and young Americans should be learning such fundamentals before they turn 18 anyways. A true youth developmental league where players would stay with one league and competition would be determined by more than who had the best athletes would help the U.S. stay ahead of the rest of the world over the long run.
The unfortunate reality is that given how much money is in place to keep AAU basketball and the NCAA propped up, it is unlikely that real reform will happen anytime soon. The U.S. rebounded from its shocking 2004 defeat with over a decade of domination. But while the U.S. should rebound from this defeat with Olympic gold next year, we are entering an era where the U.S. is just one among equals rather than the unparalleled basketball powerhouse.