The Olympics are not about basketball. We make it seem that way in America because we’re the best in the world at it and find fascinating any story in which we’re the protagonists, but especially this year, man: the NBA Finals just wrapped up. I am pretty basketball’d out, and it is my job to care about the sport. I want to watch swimmers and sprinters and gymnasts and maybe colossally bored on a weekday afternoon tune into some javelin-throwing and immediately become deeply attached to some gargantuan Swede with a peculiar delivery. I get so much Kevin Durant from November to June. There are towering stacks of Kevin Durant in the cobwebbed warehouse of my mind, Kevin Durant I cannot move, that needs to be pulped or remaindered. I am making room for Ariarne Titmus, and keeping half an eye on the draft, because I am kind of a professional.
I view Team USA’s basketball outfit this way—wearily, slightly annoyed—because they themselves do not seem particularly invested in their own success. We went through a period such as this in the mid-aughts, when America got sloppy, threw together a mismatched mish-mash of stars, showed up without a plan and finished third in Athens. That led to a Jerry Colangelo-helmed reimagining of the national team setup, which amounted to keeping guys at least a little bit engaged with the program between Olympiads, establishing a pipeline through which younger players could familiarize themselves with coaches, play in some scrimmages and less important games and better understand what they needed to do to eventually nab a spot on World Cup and Olympic squads.
After America got back to the business of dominating lesser basketball nations and holding firm against near-rivals such as Spain, France and Argentina, Colangelo and company crowed like they had built something state-of-the-art and spectacular when really all they did was provide some basic structure where there was previously almost none. If the job was so difficult, Colangelo wouldn’t have been doing it for the past 16 years in semi-retirement, Mike Krzyzewski wouldn’t have been able to coach Duke while also racking up gold medals. They were bringing prime Carmelo Anthony off the bench against teams that were depending heavily on borderline NBA talent such as Juan Carlos Navarro and Pablo Prigioni. It was a challenge defeated more or less by a willingness to meet it.
And now Team USA has gotten complacent again. Exhibition duds against Australia and Nigeria, a defeat against France in the opening round-robin game. A roster of abundant ability but not much synergy. (Where’s the point guard on this roster?) Three guys who were playing for a championship in Milwaukee less than two weeks ago. A head coach in Gregg Popovich who’s slightly detached in temperament and yet too doctrinaire in trying to get a bunch of players who mostly aren’t familiar with each other to imitate a kinetic, Spurs-y style that you can’t effectively teach in a short amount of time. On Sunday morning, they looked improvisational and disjointed, characterized by the hesitant rhythms of pickup ball. Are you gonna—all right, well—what if I? as the shot clock ticked down. They also missed quite a few shots late in the game. Call it a product of pandemic season legs if you want, although France prominently features a handful of NBA players too, including Evan “Air” Fournier, comfortably the best on the floor on Sunday with 28 points on 50 percent shooting.
Such that there’s analysis to be done on this: the U.S. should run more simplified spread pick-and-roll sets and probably not play Draymond Green and Bam Adebayo together. It faces Iran on Wednesday and the Czechs on Sunday. Both of those should be walkovers, contests in which the fellas can get comfortable and trade some high-fives. Building confidence isn’t something that a team using Zach LaVine and Devin Booker as auxiliary scorers should have to do, but everybody feels better after a 22-point win. And then they’ll head into the quarters and see what happens against some genuinely good but severely outgunned competition.
The European Football Championship and the Copa America concluded a few weeks ago, with Italy edging out England on penalties and Argentina beating Brazil 1-0, respectively. The level of competition in international soccer tournaments such as these isn’t quite as high as what we see at the very top of the table in England or Spain or Germany, or in the latter stages of the Champions League—the same fundamental problem international basketball has: the players don’t play with each other enough to develop ideal in-game chemistry—but it’s riveting stuff. In part because soccer talent is spread all across the globe and so there’s no one nation heading into a tournament as a surefire favorite, but also because the players and coaches truly care. (The national FAs, on the other hand, are typically their own corrupt and self-serving nightmares.) It was as big a deal—even bigger!—for Leo Messi to win a Copa America for Argentina as it has been for him to win any of the many, many titles he’s won with Barcelona. He’s 34 now, and has accomplished about as much as anybody else in his sport’s history, and yet couldn’t contain himself after the Copa win. The moment flattened him.
This is simply not the way American basketball players think about the Olympics. That’s not a criticism so much as an observation. The stakes are moderate; staying motivated is a struggle. The U.S. should win every time and stumble only when it is insufficiently focused, ill-prepared. Following a grueling NBA season, feeling more obligation than pride, this might be one of those rare tournaments where Team USA falls because it couldn’t quite three-quarters-act its way to first place. Or perhaps it will pull through, on talent alone. Anyway, there are a bunch of world-class swimmers going for golds, silvers and bronzes on Monday and Tuesday night. The gymnasts are dancing over balance beams and soaring through the air midweek, and the sprinters are running this weekend. I hardly know any of their names, but this is the biggest competition of their lives. That is something for which to make time. You don’t have to work to find the joy in it.