When the USA Men’s Basketball team plays, the expectation is for them to win and win big. Regardless of the opponent, location, and circumstance, the overarching notion is that the Americans are more talented, and therefore they will come out victorious. This feeling didn’t just spring up out of nowhere. Decades of Team USA victories from the Olympics to World Championships to exhibitions have conditioned viewers that the USA is operating at a higher level than the rest of these nations.
For the most part, all of that has rung true. Since basketball was established in the Olympics, Team USA has won 16 out of 19 gold medals. More than that, they are a staggering 143-6 against other countries in the games. It’s safe to say in other competitions, they have fared well too. The USA has won five out of the 20 FIBA World Cups and placed no worse than 7th since the tournament was established in 1950.
Then there is the cultural dominance. The NBA has been considered the top echelon for professional basketball players since at least the early 70s. The league hasn’t shied away from globetrotting its players around the globe to showcase their abilities. Former stars like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Kobe Bryant became exponentially more popular because of the international exposure they received via USA basketball. Their skillset resonated, and the impact was the belief that America had by far the best players.
Whatever hold the USA had on international basketball is weakening. That’s not only because the World Cup team led by Anthony Edwards and stewarded by coach Steve Kerr finished fourth in the most recent tournament in the Philippines. That certainly matters, but the identity crisis problem facing Team USA has been years in the making. While there are discussions of a reunion (more like an Avenger-style team-up) for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, France, the issue facing Team USA won’t be solved by another Gold Medal. But it could continue a destructive cycle.
Champions of What
🗣️ “World Champions of what? The United States?”
Athlete Noah Lyles jokes about NBA winners calling themselves ‘World Champions’ 😅🏀 pic.twitter.com/Tfax1eMenV
— SPORTbible (@sportbible) August 29, 2023
USA Track and Field athlete Noah Lyles made quite the introduction to audiences a few weeks back. Lyles, a decorated sprinter, was competing at the World Athletic Championships in Budapest, Turkey when he turned heads with his view on what it means to be a “world champion.” Lyles should be nominated for “Take of the Year” for how much discussion he prompted after exposing an uncomfortable truth.
“The World Champions Fallacy,” as it should now be called, is an entirely American creation that goes beyond basketball. Lyles questioned the authenticity of the Denver Nuggets’ title of “World Champions” because, well, it was a league championship. But the same is the case for the Houston Astros, Kansas City Chiefs, and Las Vegas Golden Knights, considered the reigning world champions in their respective sports.
Now, let’s not fool around here. Calling champions of North American sports leagues, specifically the Denver freaking Nuggets, world champions isn’t that far off. There is some reality baked into it. After all, compare the NBA to other professional leagues worldwide; you will see a difference in skill, size, and talent. Many of the top players in other countries aspire to join the NBA because, in their own words, it’s the best league in the world. Take the latest number-one overall pick, Victor Wembanyama. From his early teens, scouts have been projecting his era-defining dominance to the NBA. At 19 years old, he had already outgrown the level of play in France’s LNB Pro A league. The only logical step forward was the NBA.
Lyles’s “Champion Fallacy” does identify how the thinking has changed. Thirty years ago, the NBA sent its players to the 1992 Olympics. They showed what the true might of American basketball was. That moment has transformed what it means to be on Team USA. The trickle-down effect has seeped its way into the NBA, where players think because basketball in America is supposedly the best, they adorn themselves as champions of the world. The bravado and arrogance have shaped what USA basketball has been about over recent competitions. Simply showing up should be good enough.
Roster Under Construction
There are tiers for who is qualified to be on which squad for Team USA. For the World Cup, generally, you don’t see too many American All-NBA or, for that matter, All-Stars suiting up. The most recent team had four all-stars: Jaren Jackson Jr., Tyrese Haliburton, Brandon Ingram, and Anthony Edwards, all of whom are young and have never competed in international competition. Look at other nations like France and Germany, and you see their best players aren’t sitting out. Dennis Schroder doesn’t choose when he plays for Germany. His commitment is to his team regardless of the stage. That experience showed when Germany ultimately ousted the United States.
I’m a huge believer in roster construction in every sport, but especially basketball. NBA, NCAA, Euro, International it matters. Obviously you need guys to want to play, but the build of team USA was always suspect to me. Look how other international rosters are built.
— Matt Strout (@TheRealStrout) September 8, 2023
Expecting to drop inexperienced players in an international competition is a losing strategy. USA Basketball has been through this situation before. In 2004 and 2006, the national teams failed at both the Olympics and World Cup because the players that were picked weren’t ready. They were put in a bad position because of the basketball fit of those teams.
Coincidentally, the same is the case for the 2023 World Cup team. On the fly, the coaching staff had to figure out who would initiate the scoring. Initially, it was Jalen Brunson; at least, that’s what they had us believe. It soon became apparent that Anthony Edwards was that guy. A lot of responsibility was put on Jaren Jackson Jr.’s shoulders to be the primary big man. As teams attacked his weaknesses, it wasn’t entirely all on Jackson Jr., as Team USA had little depth at that spot. Bobby Portis is not the type of bruising big man a team needs in international ball, and as for Walker Kessler, Why have him on the team if he isn’t going to play? He was not given a chance, but the likelihood of him making an Olympic roster after this is slim.
LeBron Playing Savior
Sources: LeBron James wants to represent Team USA at 2024 Paris Olympics and is spearheading group of future Hall of Famers – including Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant – prepared to commit.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) September 11, 2023
Something that would perpetuate Team USA’s problems is LeBron James acting as coordinating director. To his credit, James is one of the greatest American basketball players ever. He has two gold medals for a reason. But James returning and recruiting doesn’t change the issue at hand. Team USA needs direction. Having what amounts to an All-Star game roster every four years will keep them in contention for an Olympic gold medal, but it will severely hurt the development of their program. Ultimately, that will catch up to them.
Team USA is already operating in a universe where Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo exist. Another country having the best player on the court is already a reality with those players. What needs to be re-established is a sense of pride to be on the national team. Not necessarily a nationalistic “Make American Basketball Great Again” campaign, but players should feel honored to play for Team USA, not feel like the fourth or fifth choice.
All of this goes back to why having LeBron James pick the squad for 2024 seems so lost. How is that going to change anything? Other countries have overtaken Team USA in how much they care. Players wait their whole playing career to compete for their home country. Questions have come up about why players like Kristaps Porzingis would risk injury to play, and the answer is that it matters to them.
Team USA In 2024 And Beyond
A rational person would still go back to what was laid out at the top of this piece and see that whatever formula Team USA has used up and until now has primarily worked. However, ignoring the hiccups would also lay credence to the argument that the people running the team haven’t learned much at all. A band-aid of superstars like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, and a longshot chance at Joel Embiid isn’t going to stop the speed at which other nations are not only catching up with skill but, in some cases, how they have already sped by in terms of organization.
What makes American basketball so impressive is that it has so much talent at its disposal. The abundance of talent allows them to potentially do innovative things with how it rewards players with national team opportunities. Letting the stars run the teams becomes a tricky balance of appeasement and competitiveness. It’s time to steady that before it’s too late.
Matt Strout is an Editor for Back Sports Page. Matt studied Journalism and Sociology at Temple University for four years and graduated in May of 2022. While there, Matt wrote for multiple student and professional publications covering sports and the City of Philadelphia. Matt is originally from Maine and now resides in California. He has written content primarily for the NBA and PGA Tour. You can catch Matt frequently as a guest on the “Cut The Nets” podcast featured on the Back Sports Page network. When Matt is not writing, he enjoys cooking and playing golf. Follow Matt’s social media on Twitter @TheRealStrout or Instagram @matt_strout96