What USA Basketball can learn from FIBA World Cup 2019 loss to France for 2020 Olympics and beyond

Honestly, France was better. Outside of a brief stretch in the third quarter when they overreacted to Team USA's smallball by force-feeding Rudy Gobert in the post, they created open looks more easily in the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup on Wednesday in Dongguan, China. On defense, Gobert owned the paint and Frank Ntilikina was a pest on the perimeter. Donovan Mitchell caught fire in the third quarter, but as valiant as his effort was, it may have had a costly side effect: Team USA's offense stagnated in the fourth. In the final minute, down by four, Mitchell isolated against Gobert and attacked him off the bounce, as he has seen so many opposing guards do during Utah Jazz games. There is nothing wrong, exactly, with this strategy, but when Gobert rejected his NBA teammate, it felt symbolic. 

Your mileage may vary on whether the 89-79 loss qualifies as embarrassing for USA Basketball. With the roster that went to China, it was absolutely not a massive upset, and framing it that way would be an insult to France. It's not unreasonable, though, to argue that the program itself failed by assembling a team that was vulnerable. It is a given that, by virtue of the fluidity of the team from one major event to another, Team USA will not be as cohesive as some of its competitors. Typically, though, they have been able to make up for that with their defense and superior talent. This time, we warned you that, with Mitchell, Walker and Jayson Tatum (who sat out for the fourth straight game with a sprained ankle) as their bucket-getters instead of, say, Kevin Durant, their margin for error would not be great. They miraculously escaped defeat last week when Turkey missed four straight clutch free throws, and, as if it were some kind of karmic retribution, they went 4 for 11 from the line in the fourth quarter against France. 

Now that their 58-game winning streak in FIBA and Olympic tournaments with NBA players is over, Team USA will have to go home (after Thursday's fifth-place game against Serbia and another classification game) without a medal for the first time since they won bronze at the 2006 World Championships. What can USA Basketball learn from this? Mostly, it is that top players from elsewhere tend to care about the World Cup more than American stars do. This isn't new, but the consequences are more severe because of FIBA's schedule changes. Only a year before the Tokyo Olympics and significantly closer to NBA training camp, there was a widespread reluctance to participate. (As a Canadian, I must point out that Canada had the same problem, but its shallower talent pool made it a much more dire situation.) USA Basketball should not simply hope that that the cultural cache of the Olympics is enough to get the A-team together next summer; it must actively try to convince players that international competition is worth it despite the inconvenient timing and the sacrifices it requires. In 2020, I bet they will have more than two All-Stars, with players eager to help Team USA bounce back. I'm more fascinated by who will represent the United States in 2023, when the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia will host the next World Cup. 

If the best of the best continue to decline to play, USA Basketball will still have advantages in the form of versatility and depth. It had the right idea this time: Team USA was terrific on defense, and it looked its best when it was disrupting opponents' rhythm and getting out in transition. In general, Gregg Popovich's squad tried to play an unselfish, classically Spurs-y style on offense, even if it lacked the poise it needed at the end of Wednesday's game. The inclusion of Joe Harris and Brook Lopez showed they valued floor spacing, even if they sometimes struggled against zone defense. It is a bit alarming, though, that -- with the obvious sample-size caveat -- they made only 33 percent of their 3s, which is almost exactly the same as the Phoenix Suns' NBA-worst mark last season. Perhaps they needed guards who were less streaky from long range. Perhaps they just got a random string of poor-shooting performances from Lopez. Perhaps they needed players who make offenses sing, like Joe Ingles does for Australia. Of their forwards, Khris Middleton is the best passer, and I wouldn't call him a point forward. When this team struggled, more than anything else, I wanted to see a brilliant passer who could get everybody going. 

It would be reductive, though, to say that USA Basketball focused too much on 3-and-D guys and switchability at the expense of passing and playmaking. I can't say definitively that this team wouldn't have won gold if it had managed to avoid France (or happened to shoot a bit better against them). I don't want to argue that they would have had an easy time if they had an Al Horford type instead of Myles Turner or Andre Iguodala instead of Harrison Barnes or Lonzo Ball instead of Derrick White, nor do I want to suggest that they should have put Justise Winslow or Kyle Anderson on the team and told them to watch Ingles' tape. I don't think the roster was constructed hubristically, and I don't think the players who showed up were insufficiently humble. What's different about this team, and what ultimately resulted in this loss, is that Team USA couldn't have it all. In the absence of superstars, the program and the coaching staff will continue to have to balance playmaking with shooting, size with speed, offense with defense -- the normal, difficult choices that the rest of the world has to make. 

CBS Sports Writer

James Herbert is somewhat fond of basketball, feature writing and understatements. A former season-ticket holder for the expansion Toronto Raptors, Herbert does not think the NBA was better back in the... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories