Team USA should be fired up. They know they are not the A team, or even the B team. Leading up to the 2019 FIBA World Cup, most of the discussion has been about all the players who have withdrawn from the roster rather than those who will actually be playing.
Team USA should be humbled. They lost to Australia in an exhibition game last weekend, with Joe Ingles picking them apart at the beginning and Patty Mills burying them at the end. Their coach, Gregg Popovich, preaches "appropriate fear" of opponents when he's coaching the San Antonio Spurs, but this team shouldn't require any lectures on that subject.
The World Cup begins on Saturday, and the United States will play its first game on Sunday in Shanghai at 8:30 a.m. ET (on ESPN+) against the Czech Republic. We have seven questions before the tournament starts:
1. So, uh, Team USA is basically a bunch of Celtics?
A third of the 12 players on the roster are Celtics: Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart. Walker is Team USA's lone All-NBA guy, and the only other All-Star is Khris Middleton. Here's a rough breakdown of the depth chart:
PG: Kemba Walker, Derrick White
SF: Khris Middleton, Jaylen Brown
PF: Jayson Tatum, Harrison Barnes
The starting lineup has been fluid throughout Team USA's exhibition games, especially at the forward spots, and Popovich could continue to tinker with the rotation in China. The United States doesn't have as much star power as it typically would in a major international tournament, but it does have more depth and much more defensive versatility than any of its competition. The Americans will likely play a lot of aggressive, full-court-pressure defense in this tournament, as they know substitutions will come quickly, just like in previous years. When they need someone to create offense out of thin air, they will have a few options, but none of them will be nearly as appealing as getting the ball to Kevin Durant.
2. Is this Kemba's team then?
He's the United States' most accomplished player, and Popovich is looking to him, Mitchell and Smart for leadership, per the New York Times' Marc Stein. You can expect Walker to run a ton of pick-and-rolls and bring the same combination of maturity, competitiveness and creativity that made him so beloved in Charlotte and so attractive to Boston. He called this "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," and, if he makes the most of it, there will be a case for rewarding him with a spot on next summer's Olympic team over bigger names.
Walker will not be ISOing opponents to death like James Harden, however. Popovich wants Team USA to play a Spurs-y style -- more on that soon -- and there will be room for others to make plays. Mitchell is a natural candidate to lead the team in scoring, as he should be able to get wherever he wants. I'm also curious about Tatum, in terms of what kind of shots he takes and how often they come within the flow of the offense.
3: What's with the role players?
Recent iterations of Team USA have featured 3-and-D guys and rim runners, so this isn't an enormous anomaly. Plumlee famously made the 2014 roster. Typically, though, All-Stars like Kyle Lowry and Draymond Green have been the United States' glorified glue guys, sacrificing shots and minutes for a medal. While USA Basketball would have preferred more of those types, it will have to settle for the next best thing: a team full of players who complement each other and don't take much off the table.
Harris and Lopez are zone killers, and Smart is essentially a guard version of Draymond. White didn't get much attention from non-nerds before the playoffs, but he had an outstanding 2018-19 season and his defense will drive opposing guards crazy. I wish P.J. Tucker hadn't pulled out, but this should still be the best defensive team in the tournament and it will have no problem fielding lineups that can play 5-out on offense.
4. With all of this versatility, is Pop going to get weird?
In their (ugly) game against Canada on Monday, Team USA used a frontcourt of Brown, Middleton and Barnes late in the second quarter. In the loss to Australia, they went with Brown, Tatum and Barnes up front late in the first. I'd love to see Popovich go small like this in the World Cup, especially with White and Smart being pests in the backcourt.
It is easy, however, to figure out why Turner, Lopez and Plumlee are all on the team. Serbia has Nikola Jokic and Boban Marjanovic. Spain has Marc Gasol and Willy Hernangomez. Lithuania has Jonas Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis. Australia has Aron Baynes and Andrew Bogut. France has Rudy Gobert. Team USA does not want to be pushed around.
5. Is the U.S. going to play like a classic Spurs team?
Ideally they will play like the 2014 Spurs, but let's be real: You can't throw a group together like this and expect that kind of harmony. If you find yourself wondering why Popovich doesn't seem to trust a certain player, you might want to look at how quickly he made decisions and how well he moved without the ball when he had a chance.
"We've had guys in the past who are great isolation players, but we can't rely on that with this team," Turner said, via ESPN's Brian Windhorst. "His emphasis is 0.5. You have half a second, shoot it, pass it and go. We're learning."
The Washington Post's Ben Golliver dubbed this team the United Spurs of America, pointing out that Walker and Mitchell can be neatly compared to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. There is no Tim Duncan here, though, and the United States doesn't have years of what Popovich likes to refer to as "institutional knowledge." In the loss to Australia, the Boomers had 22 assists to Team USA's 11. Simply having Popovich and Steve Kerr on the sideline does not guarantee beautiful passing, especially when their forwards are not natural facilitators.
6. Is Team USA in trouble?
The United States is rightfully the favorite to win gold, but it appears more vulnerable than it has been since it came home with bronze 13 years ago. At times during exhibition play, Team USA made poor decisions under pressure. (In the loss to Australia, an announcer exclaimed that Brown had a "brain explosion" when he mistook a referee for a teammate and passed the ball out of bounds.) This group does not have much international experience -- only Barnes was on the 2016 team -- and chemistry could be an issue. It should be able to blow out weaker teams, but who knows if this relatively young team will have the composure and poise it needs in close games?
Serbia, led by Jokic, dominated its exhibition schedule, but before the United States even worries about them, it will likely have to deal with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Greece in the second round. In the quarterfinals Team USA will likely play Australia, Lithuania or France, all formidable opponents. None of these teams are as long, as fast or as switchable as Team USA, but you don't need me to explain to you how a team like Spain will try to make up for that with timely passing and cutting. Against the best teams, the United States will be challenged to play well together, rather than just relying on its superior talent.
7. What else should I know about the World Cup?
Lots of things, but I'll stick to a list of five:
- I love Nigeria's roster, which features Josh Okogie, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ekpe Udoh and a few other familiar faces. You need Ike Diogu and Ben Uzoh in your life again, admit it.
- Have you missed Andray Blatche? He has been playing for the Philippines since he became a naturalized citizen in 2014, and he will once again be the star of the show for Gilas Pilipinas.
- Leandro Barbosa, Anderson Varejao and Marcelo Huertas, a trio of 36-year-old legends, will once again represent Brazil. I hope they're still doing this in their 40s.
- Another ex-NBAer still at it: Luis Scola, who at 39 just led Argentina to a gold medal at the Pan American Games in Peru, scoring 28 points in the title game.
- This isn't exactly about the World Cup, but you should know that fans in Sydney chanted Lopez's name during Team USA's exhibition game against Canada, which confused Lopez, his teammates and his opponents. After the game, a reporter congratulated the center on being the new Prime Minister of Australia. "The people have spoken," Lopez said.