For the first time in 13 years, spanning 58 official FIBA international games, USA Basketball suffered a loss, falling to France in the quarterfinals of the World Cup tournament, 89-79. For the first time since 2002, the Americans will have brought a team of NBA players to an international tournament and failed to win a medal.
The loss puts into focus the fading enthusiasm for Team USA among NBA players, a problem that appeared to have been resolved over the past decade as the American basketball program was revamped with Jerry Colangelo as chairman and Mike Krzyzewski as coach.
But Krzyzewski retired from Team USA after the Rio Olympics, with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich taking over. The problem, though, has not been the coaching. It’s been the quality of the players.
For Colangelo and the rest of USA Basketball, the question remains: Who will be the LeBron James of the next generation? And will it once again need to be James, who said he is open to playing in the 2020 Olympics?
LeBron James Was Critical to Saving USA Basketball After 2004
USA Basketball underwent an overhaul after an embarrassing showing by the American team in the 2004 Athens Olympics, during which players were portrayed as overly entitled, aloof from the rest of the American Olympic program and, in the end, not very good. Team USA won a bronze in that tournament, with budding young stars James and Carmelo Anthony mostly on the bench.
Years later, Colangelo remembered the recruiting pitch he made to James to stick with Team USA, to get him to be the leader of America’s resurgence on the international stage. He remembered meeting with James in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Chicago in the winter of 2005.
He was struck by the fact that James was bothered by what happened in Greece and by how seriously James took the meeting.
“We were supposed to meet in the lobby of the hotel at 9 a.m., and I was there a few minutes early,” Colangelo told me. “Right at 9 a.m., exactly, the double door of the elevator opens and out steps LeBron. Right on time. I started talking to him, and I was about halfway through my pitch to him, and he stopped me and said, ‘I’m in.’ Players talk to one another. That got us set up.”
James helped lead Team USA to gold medals in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Anthony, whom Colangelo recruited along with James, and Kevin Durant led the team in 2016 in Rio. The U.S. won the World Championship (as it was known) in 2010 and 2014, led largely by Durant in the former and James Harden in the latter.
Team USA Needs a LeBron James — Present and Future
James ended his involvement with Team USA after the London Olympics. He could rescue things once again in the Tokyo games, though, especially with the American program having fallen into disrepair. This team needs its stars to take international play seriously again, the way James did.
With Durant now 30 years old and recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon, the U.S. again has suffered a distinct lack of leadership. Of all the players who made this year’s All-Star Game, the only player who played for Team USA in China this year has been point guard Kemba Walker.
Harden, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis—they all pulled their names from consideration for the tournament. For international tournaments, once one star says, “No, thanks,” others tend to follow. No one wants the embarrassment of playing for an international loser.
With two or even one of those players on board, the U.S. might have had a different outcome. Against France, Rudy Gobert (21 points, 16 rebounds, three blocked shots) was the best player on the floor. Evan Fournier (22 points) might well have been the second-best.
That’s the issue with which Colangelo and Popovich are wrestling now. Will any NBA stars in their prime look at what happened in China and take some offense to it? Will the loss inspire Davis or Harden or George or anyone to rally themselves and other players to the Team USA cause? Is James the only player who can provide that leadership?
As the France game showed, the rest of the world has good players, better players than the ones who made up Team USA’s roster this year. The program needs LeBron now, but it also needs a new LeBron for this generation.