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Last month, Gregg Popovich stood in a gym in Las Vegas and tried to tell reporters, and basketball fans across this country, that our eyes were playing tricks on us.
“I’ve said that we’re going to be fine and by that what I really meant is that we’re blessed with a lot of depth in USA Basketball,” said Popovich trying to divert us from the fact that stars were continually withdrawing their names from consideration.
“These are not ‘C’ players,” he said. “You’ve heard a lot of criticism about who isn’t here, and I keep repeating that it’s about who is here. There’s some really good talent and it’s going to be difficult getting to a 12-man roster when you really think about it.”
On Wednesday morning, all we could do was think about who wasn’t wearing a Team USA uniform, because the ones that were lost to France 89-79 in the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup, snapping a 58-game win streak the U.S. had compiled in FIBA and Olympics games with NBA players on the roster.
It was an embarrassing loss and one that Popovich, an Air Force Academy alum, has to own.
“I think it’s a disrespectful notion to even bring something like [the stars who withdrew] up,” said Popovich after the game. “That’s disrespectful to France and whoever else is in this tournament. France beat us. It doesn’t matter who was on the team.”
But what Popovich doesn’t understand is that it does matter who was on both teams. His excuse lost all validity when he told us that we were “going to be fine,” just last month. He claimed that these were not “C players” and that we had some “really good talent,” even when it never felt that way.
France’s roster included five NBA players compared to our 12. And while most of us understood that this version of Team USA was lacking star power, no one associated with the team ever accepted what was so obvious.
On August 14, Team USA lost 36-17 in a scrimmage to G-League and overseas players like Justin Anderson, Chris Chiozza, Scottie Hopson, DaQuan Jeffries, John Jenkins, Yante Maten, Ben Moore, Chinanu Onuaku, Chasson Randle, Travis Trice, and Travis Wear. And if you watch the footage from the scrimmage, it looks even worse than it sounds.
And according to some reports, the group of G-Leaguers had already beaten Team USA by three points earlier in the day.
Less than two weeks later, all hell broke loose when Team USA fell to Australia 98-94 in an exhibition game. It was the first loss for Team USA in a major international tournament or exhibition since the 2006 World Championship semifinals against Greece.
Australia had never beaten Team USA before and was 0-30 entering the game. In just 40 minutes, a 78-game winning streak was snapped.
“Some of it is expected with a new group that’s trying to learn about each other and learn a system,” said Popovich after that game. “So it’s not surprising. But the Aussies gave us a great lesson as far as where we want to be and how you have to play in this kind of a competition.”
But it was surprising, especially when Patty Mills, a member of Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs, dropped 30 on Team USA. In his nine-year NBA career, Mills is an 8.4 points per game scorer that has only eclipsed the 30-point mark a few times.
That same type of puzzlement was evident against France as Evan Fournier and Frank Ntilikina combined for 33 points, while Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert went for 21 points, 16 rebounds, and three blocks.
In basketball, when the talent level amongst players is pretty even games are often decided by the better of the two coaches. And on Wednesday, Popovich got schooled by France’s Vincent Collett, a guy with no NBA coaching experience who only had one player (Gobert) on his team with any type of clout.
However, the biggest headscratcher on Wednesday morning was Popovich’s defensive strategy against the 7’1” Gobert. In a quarterfinal matchup, Popovich decided to go small and at times had Jaylen Brown (6’7”) and Marcus Smart (6’4”) guarding him while Mason Plumlee (6’11”), Myles Turner (6’11”), and Brook Lopez (7’0”) combined to play less than 16 minutes.
It was a far cry from four days earlier when Team held NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to just 15 points and 11 shots, as Greece could only muster 53 points against the American defense.
With Team USA already qualifying for next summer’s Olympics, in which it is believed that many of the stars will suit up, there will be many theories about why this summer was such a failure.
Most will point to the talent, while others will mention all the happenings that took place during free agency.
But I’m going to focus on the common denominator, Gregg Popovich.
In 2004, Team USA took home bronze in an embarrassing showing in the Olympic Games in Athens. It led to a restructuring of USA Basketball that was orchestrated by Jerry Colangelo and Coach K. And since 2008’s “Redeem Team,” order had been restored.
Well, until this summer.
Popovich was an assistant on that 2004 team and is the man in charge now. And while the names on the backs of the uniforms have changed over the years, he’s the one person who has been there at both of USA Basketball’s lowest moments over the last 15 years.
And if that isn’t a cause for blame, then I don’t know what is.