LeBron James, the greatest basketball player alive, isn't on the US Olympic team. But after watching the Americans struggle, he says he wishes he were playing.
But he's not. And neither are Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, and a handful of other elite players.
As much as we want complex reasons for Team USA's struggles, the explanation might be far simpler: This team isn't as talented as the dominant squads of yore — and data backs this up.
Players like James and Curry are okay sitting out, and that hurts the talent level, but it also means a bunch of new players are thrown onto the squad and asked to figure out how to play together in a short amount of time. While Team USA still has a talent advantage, this puts a dent in its armor.
But first, a reality check: Team USA is two wins away from a gold medal. The team has won all six games in Rio and is on a 51-game winning streak.
Fans are freaking out because Team USA's success is measured on a different yardstick. It started in 1992, when the International Basketball Federation first allowed NBA players into the Olympics. So the US sent its best players — Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, etc. — and won every game by an average of 44 points. Ever since, Team USA can't just win every game. They have to win by 20, 30, 40 points.
But in these Olympics, the team looks fallible, much like it did in 2000 and 2004. And we’re back to throwing out theories, like how international basketball has gotten better or how this team lacks a veteran playmaker.
Let’s look at some charts:
1) The data confirms it. This is still one of Team USA's worst Olympic showings thus far.
So first things first: Team USA is still the best team in the tournament.
But these Olympic Games have been bad for the Americans, at least relative to past teams.
The average margin of victory has been about 24 points this tournament — and much of that margin was built against weak teams such as China and Venezuela. But if we extrapolate out these five games to the entire tournament, Team USA will have outscored its opponents by about 190 points. Compare that with 1992, when the US outscored opponents by a cumulative 350 points — or last year, when America was up 257 points on the competition.
In fact, this team looks a lot like the 2000 team, which also won the gold medal but got a few scares from Lithuania and France. But basketball fans know what happened in the next Olympics, in 2004.
A team full of NBA talent lost three games and only came away with the bronze medal. It was considered so disastrous for USA basketball that they had to entirely revamped the system. And it worked — you can see it on the chart.
2) The quality of their competition has not gotten better. If anything, it’s gotten worse.
LA Clippers point guard Chris Paul, who played on the 2008 and 2012 teams, says international competition has gotten better.
From the early 1990s to the 2000s, that was certainly true. As the NBA made an active push into the global market, we started to see more international talent than we’d ever seen before. There was already some strong talent overseas, like Arvydas Sabonis and Toni Kukoc. But as overseas talent grew, we started to see more of them drafted by NBA teams.
Then the number of international players being drafted leveled off.
This doesn’t mean that good international players don’t exist anymore. After all, Australia’s Ben Simmons was the top pick in the most recent NBA draft. But it does mean that other countries, like Spain and Argentina, can no longer build entire lineups out of NBA players. There just isn’t that same depth of talent that we saw in the early 2000s from European and South American teams.
In other word, the amount of talent on the second-best team, behind the US, has not been going up in the past decade.
However, one reason we might think international basketball has gotten better is because there are no longer really, really bad teams. In the 1990s, it was common to watch some international teams and wonder if a decent college basketball squad could blow them out. But now most teams have a player or two who have sniffed the NBA.
3) We're actually in a lull of elite international talent
Another argument is that while other teams aren’t as deep, there are more elite international players.
This was certainly true in the past decade. The list of truly great international players in the past 10 to 15 years is something to behold: Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili, Yao Ming, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Tony Parker — and there are a handful others. But most of them have aged out of their prime, and a few are even retired.
And they weren’t replaced:
So this year, you could argue that the worse player on Team USA — probably Harrison Barnes — is almost always better than the best player on the other team, with maybe the exception of Spain and Pau Gasol.
But in 2020, the US may face elite international talent again. Australia will likely have both Ben Simmons and Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum, and Greece will probably feature 6-foot-11 point forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
For now, though, we’re actually in a lull of international competition.
4. So why the struggle? Team USA really isn't as talented as before. This causes a host of problems.
If the other teams aren’t as talented as before, then why is Team USA struggling?
Well, unlike many other sports, basketball players don’t always see the Olympics as important. Since the Dream Team, several NBA players have voluntarily sat out the Olympics.
In 2008, after the third-place finish in 2004, USA Basketball was able to convince more NBA stars to participate in the Olympics. Coach Mike Krzyzewski worked to build a pipeline of players who would participate in USA Basketball from high school to the pros. But after long NBA seasons, and given the risk of injury, that’s still a tough sell. This year, the absentee list includes James, Curry, Paul, Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and James Harden.
All that is to say, talent has varied on Team USA. And when the team isn’t as talented, the team struggles.
In the three tournaments where Team USA has struggled the most — 2000, 2004, and this year — the teams were weaker. That, in itself, is a problem. But it causes perhaps an even larger one.
It makes it hard for the team to build chemistry.
When a handful of elite players sit out the Games, it forces USA Basketball to build a squad of player who have never played together before. These are usually players who are the stars on their team. But you can't have 12 stars, so they have to figure out what role they will play on Team USA — and they don't get much time to do it. Coach Krzyzewski has generally done a good job of patching together relatively cohesive lineups, but it’s nothing compared to teams like Argentina, Spain, and even Serbia, where players have spent dozens of years learning each other’s playing styles, starting as early as their teenage years.
But Team USA still has the most talent. What’s going on?
Even with the talent gap, Team USA hasn’t dominated every game, and that makes us wonder what’s wrong. But I’d argue that nothing is wrong. They're just not as good as before, and close games, or even losses, are inevitable.
It's important to remember that the Olympics are a small sample size. Even if they make it to the gold medal game, they’re playing just eight games. A loss, or even a nail-biter, can seem devastating. But if this team played a full, 82-game NBA season, they’d probably win an NBA championship. This tournament isn’t the best way to test who the best team is, but when the US sends its best players, it makes it all the more certain that a poor showing won't derail their gold medal hopes. That said, it's this variability that makes it fun.
There are some other factors, like how NBA players have a tough time adjusting to international basketball rules, or how these teams are often built around big names, which means the squad has a dearth of role players. But if we're actually wondering why the score isn't proportionate to the talent disparity, the main issue is clear: The best players aren’t staying on the squad, and this means it’s hard for Team USA to send a consistent core group of players who have built up chemistry with each other.
All that said, Team USA will probably still defeat Spain on Friday night, and whoever they face in the finals on Sunday.
What’s more concerning, though, is the next four years.
A perfect storm is brewing, where overseas rosters are set to improve, Coach Krzyzewski is stepping down, and these Olympics are reminiscent of the 2000 Games, when Team USA won every game, but a few were too close for comfort. It's a perfect storm we've seen before — in 2004. Back then, the US continued to believe they could send their B-team and still win gold. Instead, what happened was the most embarassing tournament in USA basketball history, and it's recent enough that they're going to be sure not to repeat those mistakes.