After Luka Doncic scored 48 points in his Olympic debut, leading Slovenia to its first-ever win at the Summer Games, Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez was unequivocal in his praise of the 22-year-old Dallas Mavericks superstar: "He is the best player in the world, including the NBA," he said of Doncic, who now owns the second-highest single-game scoring output in Olympic history. "If there was any doubt in my mind, there is no doubt any more. He is the best player in the world."
On any given night, there are, at the very least, five players you can honestly say this about: LeBron James. Kevin Durant. Stephen Curry. Giannis Antetokounmpo. Doncic's name surely belongs on this list. He's won his way to being one of the greatest players to ever lace up a pair of shoes, and I do not say that lightly.
But Luka's performance against Argentina went beyond his singular skill set and highlighted an important element that is, at present, missing in Team USA's attack: a clear offensive hierarchy. While there is absolutely no doubt who is going to control the offense and take the bulk of shots for Slovenia, the U.S. is trying to balance a star-studded attack to potentially diminishing returns.
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Durant, Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum, Zach LaVine, Devin Booker, Khris Middleton, any one of these guys can get 40-plus points, but with equal or even superior scorers all around you, the assertiveness required to pursue such an output becomes tricky. When Lillard is playing with the Portland Trail Blazers, even if he's cold, he's going to keep shooting and attacking without an ounce of hesitation, because he's so clearly the best player. But it's harder to operate with that kind of leeway, and the level of comfort that affords, when Kevin Durant is standing next to you.
That goes the other way, too. Durant is almost irrefutably the best scorer in the world. He might be the best to ever play. But the gap between Durant and Lillard or Tatum, or even a guy like Booker, who once scored 70 points in an NBA game yet only made one shot against France in Sunday's 83-76 loss, is significantly smaller than the gap between Doncic and Slovenia's second-best option.
For Doncic to defer in any sort of meaningful way to a teammate would be ridiculous. He would be taking active steps toward his team's demise. He knows he's going to go out gunning before the game even starts. That's how he ends up outscoring the entire U.S. starting lineup on his own (48-41) by himself. It's about his incredible ability, yes. But it's also about opportunity.
An even better example of this is France's Evan Fournier, who put 28 on the Americans. His 22 shots were nine more than any player on the U.S. attempted. Fournier is a good NBA player, but he's no Doncic. He's not even an All-Star. But it can be easy to lose track of just how great all NBA players are. Not just the stars. All of them. You give a guy like Fournier the opportunity to be the clear No. 1 option, and he's going to be tough to stop.
"Who we see each night in the NBA, they are completely different when they play for their countries," Lillard said after Team USA's loss to France. "They got more freedom, and the comfort level is obvious."
Lillard did not play well in the loss to France. He shot 3 of 10 from the field for 11 points. He had more turnovers than assists. Nine of his 10 shots were from 3, and that right there tells you how differently he's playing. With Portland, Lillard prioritizes turning the corner and getting to the rim, particularly when his shot isn't falling, but with Team USA, with nearly equal scorers surrounding him, he's less inclined to force the issue on an off night.
"I had a shot I passed up, that I should have shot. I swung it -- it got stolen," Lillard said of his crucial turnover in the loss to France.
That's what happens when you're not quite sure whether you're the guy and you're not having a good game. If Lillard was hot against France, he would've taken that shot. But he would've taken it with the Blazers regardless. An offensive hierarchy is clearest in times of struggle. Even a third or fourth option will fire with confidence when he's hit three or four in a row. But No. 1 options are who they are because they are expected to plow through the hard times. That's their job.
And that's the potential issue with a roster full of No. 1 guys. Suddenly, none of them fully understand their job. Now they're passing when they should be shooting. Now everyone is waiting for someone else to attack rather than taking the reins as a matter of habit. Suddenly they're thinking about things that have been second nature their entire careers. Now the whole offense bogs down and someone eventually just has to shoot.
There's no such confusion for Fournier or Doncic. They're shooting. They're attacking. They're their teams' only chance, and there's a clarity that comes with that understanding that makes for a simpler task. The idea for Team USA is that with so many weapons, at least one or two of them is going to have it going most games, and that will decide the hierarchy for that game. But in the rare case when nobody has it going, that's when a muddled pecking order becomes problematic. That's when somebody has to accept the responsibility that comes with being the best player, even if it's unclear who that actually is on a particular night.
Durant is usually going to be the man for the job. He can get his shot off against anyone, and he's been fantastic throughout his international career. He got in foul trouble against France and it stunted his early rhythm. For the Americans' sake, hopefully that won't happen again. But if it does, Lillard is the next guy up. With Portland, Lillard has turned many a poor shooting nights into a Dame Time takeover. He can't hesitate because the uniform is different.
From there I would say Tatum, LaVine, Booker and Middleton would all be worthy No. 3 options depending on who has it going. Figuring all this out on the fly, in the middle of an Olympic game that is going south with all the pressure of screwing up what is expected to be a runaway gold medal, is not easy. But as Lillard said after the France loss: ... "our job as professionals and this team, representing our country in these Olympics, we got to do what's necessary."
Team USA plays Iran at 12:40 a.m. ET on Wednesday and the Czech Republic at 8 a.m. ET on Saturday. If it wins those two games, which there would be no excuse for not doing, the Americans will almost certainly be safely out of pool play and into the quarterfinals. They know what they have to do. Now it's time to do it.