Even though the U.S. basketball team was widely criticized for squeaking by in group play and being tested for stretches by Spain in the semis, the Americans finished 8-0 and won Olympic gold in Rio. While that was the goal, many expected a much more dominating performance.
That performance could shape the 2020 Toyko Games roster. USA Basketball is nowhere near the shambles we saw in 2004, when Larry Brown coached the team to bronze in Athens. Every player in Rio from the top man to Harrison Barnes cared deeply about representing his country. In fact, Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan may have cared enough for everybody. But a lack of cohesion on defense made observers wonder if we could have had a huge upset.
After the nail-biters in group play, which would not have mattered beyond Mike Krzyzewski's final record as coach, the Americans were not threatened. Had Team USA not closed it on such a high note (or at all), would that have influenced top players who must decide between rest and proper training in the summer vs. keeping USA Basketball program as dominant as desired?
This year's team featured plenty of star power, yet was considered a B Team -- even with Kevin Durant, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony on the roster. The firepower at home included LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard, Blake Griffin, John Wall, Andre Drummond, Damian Lillard, Andre Iguodala, Gordon Hayward and LaMarcus Aldridge. Pick any 12 of those 14 and they'd not only return with gold but likely would take down the 2016 USA roster, too.
So what will the team look like in four years? Anthony is done. James is undecided but will be 35 (and who knows how many more NBA Finals appearances; it can't go forever, can it?). Chris Paul also will be 35, which could remove him from the equation. But the NBA's young talent, plus players now in their prime, figure to be heavily involved.
Here are players (with their ages in 2020) who look like locks for Tokyo:
Guards: Stephen Curry (32), Russell Westbrook (31), James Harden (30)
Forwards: Kevin Durant (31), Paul George (30), Kawhi Leonard (29)
Bigs: Anthony Davis (27), DeMarcus Cousins (30)
Those eight leave room for four. If Gregg Popovich, who is taking over as coach, wants a third big man, Jordan (32 in 2020) likely did enough with his effort and passion in Rio to warrant another nod -- similar to Iguodala the past few years. Of course, the presence and improvement of Drummond (27 in 2020) could hurt Jordan's selection.
That leaves three spots for guys like Lillard, Wall, Griffin, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Jimmy Butler. They may not need a third point guard since Harden can handle the ball as a lead guard, but Irving certainly earned enough credit with USA Basketball to warrant a spot. He'll be 28 in 2020. While Jazz forward Hayward declined playing this summer (he welcomed his second child), his teammate Derrick Favors was frustrated by not making the roster. He'll be 29 in 2020, Hayward will be 30.
We haven't even addressed players on the USA Select Team, including Devin Booker, Aaron Gordon, Rodney Hood, Brandon Ingram, Zach LaVine, C.J. McCollum, Jahlil Okafor, Jabari Parker, D'Angelo Russell and Myles Turner. Wizards shooter Bradley Beal also will be in the mix if he stays healthy.
There's also the curious case of Karl-Anthony Towns, who played for the Dominican Republic in 2012 but was only 16. While he has said in the past he would continue to play for the Dominican, he could choose to play for Team USA because he was born in New Jersey.
These younger guys are likely to get a chance to cut their teeth internationally in the FIBA World Cup in 2018 and then move up to the Olympic roster in 2020 -- if guys drop out -- or more realistically in 2024 when they're deep in their primes. But that's where the embarrassment of riches facing USA Basketball becomes complicated. Should guys in their early 30s get one last shot at the Olympics in 2020, or do you start sprinkling in a lot of the young talent?
Decisions made by some of the older players could make life easier for Jerry Colangelo and Gregg Popovich, leaving this group as my best guess for the 2020 roster:
Guards: Curry, Westbrook, Harden, Irving, Thompson
Forwards: James, Durant, George, Leonard
Bigs: Davis, Cousins, Drummond
I doubt James, even if he needs the rest, will pass up another shot at gold. The guard position will be crowded, which makes another snub of Wall and Lillard frustrating yet understandable. Durant, George and Leonard will be locks if they want to play, and the bigs will be powerful enough to help USA dominate another Olympics.
The mission remains gold, but Tokyo figures to be won in more dominant fashion as they take on challengers like Australia, Croatia, Serbia, and Canada -- all hoping to be the program to upset the next Team USA.