Team USA won’t end its experience at this World Cup in China quite the way it expected. On Saturday, following losses to France in the quarterfinals and Serbia in the classification round, the Americans faced Poland with (ahem) seventh place on the line.
From retired NBA star Kobe Bryant, who anchored the 2008 U.S. Olympic team in China (the “Redeem Team”), the message is plain: Get used to it.
“It’s not going to be a cakewalk,” Bryant said at a press conference in Beijing, according to the AP. “The days of the 1992 Barcelona Dream Team are gone, over. It’s going to be tough.”
And, in fact, it already is tough. That’s not going to change.
“It’s not a matter of the rest of the world catching up to the U.S.,” Bryant said. “It’s that the rest of the world has been caught up for quite some time. It’s to the point now where the U.S., we’re going to win some and we’re going to lose some. That’s just how it goes.”
That would be a jolting reality for USA Basketball, which had won 58 straight international games before the loss to France. That included three Olympic gold medals and two World Championships.
NBA Stars Were Wary of the World Cup Schedule
Conventional wisdom held that the U.S. would have fared better had its best players agreed to be part of the tournament. Some key players, like Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, are coming back from serious injuries. Others, like James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Stephen Curry, simply refused invitations.
There has been talk, too, that LeBron James could come out of his retirement from international play to participate in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. James has hinted he’d be willing to play.
One reason given for passing on the World Cup was that the tournament was being held especially late in the calendar year. NBA players who participated in the tournament will have fewer than two weeks before training camp begins.
“The schedule this year was a little treacherous,” Warriors star Draymond Green said on CNBC Thursday, “with the games that was in America, and also the travel to Australia, which is why I think a lot of guys dropped out. You know, a long ways to China.”
The previous World Cup, though, had much the same schedule and players like Curry, Thompson and Davis still played. In the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the gold medal game took place on August 21.
Better Players Won’t Make the U.S. a Guaranteed Winner, Bryant Says
But as Bryant sees it, there is just too much competition among the top teams in the world. Even with a better roster and even as the presumed favorites in every tournament, the U.S. will be vulnerable.
“We’re going to have our challenges for the next team, whether it’s Redeem 2 or whatever you want to call it,” Bryant said. “No matter what team it is, it’s not going to be easy.”
Before losing to France, the Americans nearly lost to Turkey, which ranks 17th on FIBA’s world list. A pair of fortunate free throw and overtime were all that saved Team USA from a loss in that game.
Spain, the modern archenemy of Team USA, will advance to the gold medal game against Argentina. Those are the No. 2 and 5 teams according to FIBA’s rankings. The U.S. did lose during its exhibition games, falling to Australia (No. 11) just ahead of the World Cup.
Teams like France (3), Serbia (No. 4) and Greece (No. 8) have talented rosters that will continue to be Team USA threats in the future.
Facing the possibility of losing in these tournaments, too, could make things more difficult for USA Basketball to recruit players in the future. Portland star C.J. McCollum told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski in August that he suspected some players pulled out because of the threat of losing.
“I think other guys looked at it like, ‘Why would I want to go potentially be the face of what could be a losing roster?’” McCollum said.
Put what Bryant and McCollum said together and there could be a vicious cycle. Better international teams mean less of a guarantee that the U.S. can win. Less of a guarantee means NBA players will be gun-shy about signing up for Team USA. And that will mean more losses.
The Dream Team is, indeed, gone.