The United States' men's basketball team has not quite lived up to expectations at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. While Team USA won all five of their games in group play, they did not dominate. Their close call against Australia was supposed to be a wake-up call, and so was their close call against Serbia. After beating France by only three points on Saturday, it became fair to wonder whether Americans should lower their expectations for this squad. Kevin Durant and Paul George even said that blowouts shouldn't be expected anymore.
Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul, who decided to rest this summer rather than playing in his third Olympics, does not fault Team USA for how things are going. Speaking at a Boys & Girls Club in Los Angeles on Monday, Paul said that it's all about their opponents.
"The game of basketball used to be 'America's' game," Paul said, via ESPN's Jovan Buha. "Now it's the world's game. ... It's not the game that it used to be. It's not that there's anything wrong with Team USA, it's just that everyone [else] is getting better."
This sounds like the sort of thing people said back in 2002, 2004 and 2006 when the United States' national program was struggling. The globalization of basketball was a major story then, and as more international players became NBA stars, national teams that had continuity and chemistry were said to have an advantage over Team USA.
Is that what's happening here, though? Is the rest of the world really catching up? It's a nice and tidy explanation for Team USA's relative struggles, but it doesn't necessarily hold up to scrutiny. Three thoughts:
- The United States' competition at these Olympics is good, but not great. Spain has the best roster of all of the challengers, but they had a better team four years ago. Argentina's "golden generation" is past its prime. France challenged Team USA with Tony Parker sitting on the bench. Serbia did so with Miroslav Raduljica, who was a bench player in the NBA a couple of years ago, dominating on the inside.
- Ironically, Paul would fix a lot of Team USA's problems. They don't have a natural pass-first point guard on the team this time and, more importantly, they need his defense. Unlike Kyrie Irving, Paul would not have let Australia's Patty Mills and France's Thomas Heurtal get into the paint whenever they wanted.
- It'll be interesting to see how the conversation about this evolves in the medal round, depending on how Team USA does. Right now, some critics are saying that the team is flawed because it needs more passers or shooters. Others are saying that coach Mike Krzyzewski isn't playing the right lineups for them to succeed defensively. Others, like Paul, are essentially saying to relax. The good news (for Americans, at least): Regardless of what anyone says, Team USA has much more talent than any other team in the tournament. If they play with more focus in the medal round, they can make all of this moot.