After two stumbles, Team USA starts to look more like itself

By Jonathan Abrams

Fresh off winning the 1992 NCAA championship with Duke, Grant Hill joined a team of college players in La Jolla, California, to scrimmage against the first Dream Team in preparation for the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

Most of the wide-eyed collegians thought of themselves as sacrificial lambs, thrilled to just share a court with the likes of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.

Instead, the college team of Hill, Allan Houston, Glenn Robinson and others thoroughly outplayed the NBA stars.

The Dream Team, still in its early days of coalescing, shrugged off the loss, beat the collegians the next day and bullied the competition at the Olympics.

The United States men’s basketball team has a little more to shrug off this week. The Americans fastened their best game in the ramp up to the Tokyo Games on Tuesday evening with a 108-80 victory over Argentina in Las Vegas.

Hill, who earned a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, is set to take over for Jerry Colangelo as the men’s national team managing director after the Tokyo Olympics. He has watched the exhibition games in Las Vegas and is hoping that the team can respond the same way the 1992 team did when the games begin to count.

The U.S. team, full of scorers but short on size, practiced for just four days before beginning exhibitions.

“After a short time together, there’s a lot of things that have to be covered,” coach Gregg Popovich said.

Reinforcements are imminent in the form of Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton and Phoenix’s Devin Booker, who are still competing in the NBA Finals, which the Suns led two games to one going into Game 4 on Wednesday night.

If anything, the early exhibitions reflect a gap that may have been closed between the U.S. team and other countries. Just five years ago, the U.S. beat Serbia, 96-66, in the gold medal game in Rio de Janeiro.

These Olympics will very likely be more contested. Countries like Nigeria, coached by Mike Brown, a former NBA head coach and current Golden State Warriors assistant, employ multiple NBA players. Nigeria beat the United States, 90-87, on Saturday.

The mystique of the U.S. team has evaporated as the game has gone global. Members of other national teams are familiar with playing against NBA competition.

“No disrespect to them, they’re a hell of a team,” said Australia’s Joe Ingles, a member of the Utah Jazz. “Obviously the guys they’ve got on their roster and Pop standing up there is always nice to see, but we came in here expecting to win the game and that’s what we did.”

On Tuesday, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal each scored 17 points in the end-to-end win over Argentina. The result was a turnaround from the previous games, when the Americans were in the games late but could not close out Nigeria or Australia.

“We’re not just going to come out here, roll the ball out and beat these teams,” Damian Lillard told reporters following the Australia loss. “We’ve got to play the right way, compete, and we’ve got to come out here to win and do everything to give ourselves our best chance to win. If we don’t, we can be beat.”

That much has been made clear. Bam Adebayo and Kevin Love are the roster’s lone traditional interior players, and the team was outmuscled in the first two exhibitions. Popovich said players are still working on their conditioning.

“And when that happens, you get hit mentally a little bit, too,” he said of the Australia exhibition. We didn’t sustain the boards the same way, the defense wasn’t the same, our pace wasn’t the same, so we got some guys that have to get their legs and rhythm back, but in general, we need more conditioning, which is totally understandable.”

The U.S. women’s team will play Australia in an exhibition on Friday after having taken on the WNBA All-Stars on Wednesday. The U.S. women, though, remain a heavy favorite to win at the Games, where they will be seeking their seventh straight gold medal.

Despite the losses, the men’s team’s chances for success remain high, something Nigeria and Australia appeared to realize: Neither celebrated their victories particularly effusively.

The U.S. has still won 15 of the 19 Olympic gold medals awarded in men’s basketball, including six of seven in the Dream Team era, and sportsbooks still have the U.S. as the heavy favorite for the gold in Tokyo. The group stage at the Olympics, beginning July 25, should be less of a challenge: The U.S. is scheduled to play France (with Rudy Gobert of the Jazz), the Czech Republic and Iran. Second place, and maybe even third, should be enough to advance to the quarterfinals.

But then, the Americans will face as many as three straight knockout games, and losing any one of them will cost them the gold. Their opponents could be Australia or Nigeria again, but they could also face deeper teams like Argentina and Spain.

How the team performs in Tokyo is likely to influence how Hill approaches the position once his tenure begins.

Shortly after the United States’ disappointing bronze finish at the 2004 Athens Games, Colangelo dumped the selection committee and revamped the team’s construction. He sought commitments from players for two or three consecutive summers to build continuity heading into the 2008 Olympics in London.

Players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade pledged to restore the U.S. on a global stage. That mentality was maintained through the next couple of Olympic cycles as the U.S. won gold medals in 2012 and 2016.

The momentum is mostly lost heading into Tokyo.

The team finished seventh overall and lost to France in the quarterfinals of the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Durant and Draymond Green are the only holdovers from the 2016 Olympics.

Many NBA stars, including Jimmy Butler, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, are not participating after the quick turnaround between NBA seasons during the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. roster includes fewer All-NBA first team members (zero) than Slovenia (Luka Doncic).

Hill knows that an exhibition stumble (or two) may be enough to jump-start a talented team.

The task he inherits may involve renewing long-term commitments from the NBA’s brightest players.

But in a global game, the game’s greatest stars are no longer just Americans.

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