Team USA is struggling and nobody wants to address the real reason why:
Coach Gregg Popovich.
It is never easy to question an all-time great in any field, but it becomes harder when that person is beloved throughout sports. Popovich is loved for many aspects, a lot of which are off the court intangibles. He relates to NBA players and they love him for that. But his narrow view on playing basketball the “Spurs way” when he has the most talented roster is harming Team USA’s chances at gold.
Multiple sources reported Monday morning that players were visibly and audibly frustrated after losing to France, lamenting that they were running the “Spurs’ offense,” or a system that, in the opinion of the players logging the complaint, seemed to limit scoring ability.
There are a number of alpha scorers on the roster, from Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and Jayson Tatum to Devin Booker and Zach LaVine.
Devin Booker once scored 70 points in a game by himself.
In his last NBA game this season, Kevin Durant poured in 48. Damian Lillard scored 50 and Jayson Tatum hit 60 in league games this season.
The pure offensive talent and bucket getters on this roster is too great for the team to accumulate just 76 points like they did against France.
“Our adjustment is just, make more shots,” Kevin Durant said. “We have the best talent in the world on the team. It’s a make-or-miss game that dictates a lot of what you do on the floor. Just be more efficient with making our shots and we’ll be in good shape.”
In a vacuum, the remedy of making more shots is always true. Durant missed eight of the 12 he took in Sunday’s loss to France, just by himself. As a team, the Americans shot just 36 percent from the field and the other two mega-scorers on the team — Lillard and Tatum — were a combined 6-for-19.
But whether it’s this iteration of Team USA or the group that went to China for the World Cup, of late the Americans are dramatically underperforming compared with past teams, at a time when the 3-pointer, and offense in general, is exploding. Since the start of the World Cup in 2019, under Popovich the Americans have gone over 100 points exactly one time — and that was in a friendly against Argentina in Las Vegas two weeks ago.
In 2012, with arguably the greatest Olympic basketball team ever, the Americans averaged 115.5 points. Durant was on that team with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. In 2008, Team USA averaged 106.2 points per game, and in 2016, the Durant-led USAB averaged 109.9 points. Previous World Cup teams were equally proficient scorers. But it’s fallen off the map since Popovich took over, and at least publicly no one seems to want to address why.
There has been a certain hesitancy that the Americans have played with under Popovich, and in each game Team USA has lost under him (six out of 17) there has been a dramatic failure at the end to execute. If everything else we’ve heard to excuse all these losses is true — that the talent gap has shrunk, the continuity other countries have is vastly superior to the Americans, and it makes a difference, and the rules of international basketball create a different game than the NBA players are used to — then perhaps more structure is needed. Not in terms of play calls, but a hierarchy. Player A eats first and often, and on down the line.
Durant said it was never that way on his previous teams, but if the Americans’ margin for error has evaporated, then perhaps they need to find a way to unlock one of their dominant scorers and build around him with the superior talent on the roster by asking those players to fill ancillary roles.
Against France, Jrue Holiday led Team USA with 13 shots, while Durant attempted a dozen and Lillard 10. Evan Fournier, on the other side, chucked 22 shots. What might have happened if one of the Americans’ volume scorers was able to take 20 shots? What kind of groove might he have found?
“We know how to play with each other, we know how to make the right pass, and nobody here is expecting to lead the team in shot attempts,” Durant said. “We know we have guys that can catch and shoot the basketball.
“The teams I played on, the last two or three teams, I might have 30 one night and I might have 20 the next night. … Nobody came in saying we’re going to start the game off giving the ball to Kobe or me or Bron. We have guys that have high IQ, and whatever is presented to us, we adapt.”
Team USA will adapt tonight when they play Iran who is vastly inferior. Durant and company will likely win by 30 and it will appear all is well for the Americans. If it’s not a total blowout, then the problems inside USA Basketball run deeper than first thought. A close game against Iran may be insight that this team isn’t winning gold, and maybe not even silver.
A blow out gives us zero answers, a close game gives us every answer.