To say that USA Basketball had a rocky training camp heading into the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo would be an understatement. The senior men’s national team lost its first two exhibition games in Las Vegas, had three players enter the health and safety COVID protocols, and two players dropped out.
Even head coach Gregg Popovich got off on the wrong foot with the media as he was involved in a testy exchange with a reporter after Team USA fell to Australia 91-83.
Popovich and his staff, which includes Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and former Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce, have a gigantic task ahead of them. The 2021 squad has only been together for two weeks and have played just four exhibition games, going 2-2. It has already undergone multiple roster changes after Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal and Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love both left camp.
Beal’s exit was COVID-related, while Love was due to an injury. San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson and Denver Nuggets center JaVale McGee were added to the 12-man roster. In addition to those moves, the team will need to absorb Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker and Milwaukee Bucks teammates Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton as all three just finished playing in the NBA Finals. So, we won’t be able to see all 12 players together on the court until the team’s opening game on July 25 against France.
Then there’s the large shadow of Mike Krzyzewski. The legendary college basketball coach had a remarkable 10-year run as head coach of USA Basketball, winning three Olympic gold medals and two FIBA World Cup titles and finishing with an astounding 60-1 record. That’s quite a tough act to follow for Popovich, who has already lost five games since taking over USAB’s senior men’s squad in 2017.
Under Popovich, Team USA hasn’t won a significant international tournament and had a disappointing outing in the 2019 FIBA World Cup, failing to medal and finishing seventh.
Coach Pop has two holdovers from Krzyzewski’s 2016 gold medal team in Rio: Kevin Durant (Brooklyn Nets) and Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors).
He’ll lean on the former Warriors teammates to be the leaders of an inexperienced unit that has yet to forge an identity. Durant led Team USA in scoring (19.4) in Rio 2016, so he’ll be asked again to carry the load offensively and be the No. 1 option. Green is the ideal big man at the FIBA level. His versatility will be a huge asset, as well as his defensive acumen. Green and Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat) will rotate at the center position, and could even see time together at certain points.
“We do have all the best players in the league, but these national teams have NBA players, too, who are now No. 1 options and they’re used to playing that role internationally,” Durant told Yahoo Sports.
Despite all its issues, the U.S. remains the favorite in Tokyo. But winning gold is no longer a foregone conclusion. The rest of the world has closed the gap and many international teams are not intimidated by the Stars and Stripes.
“There are more great players all over the world. That’s pretty obvious,” Popovich said. “There are more and more foreign players in the NBA. Every year they go back and play for their home countries as they should. It makes the competition even greater. Makes it more challenging for everybody, including us. But that’s a wonderful thing. Obviously the international has grown, and people love it.”
Team USA point guard Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers) is well aware of the talent outside the U.S. He recently faced one of them in the 2021 NBA playoffs in Facundo Campazzo. The Argentine guard played a huge role in helping the Nuggets eliminate the Blazers in the NBA playoffs.
“These teams are experienced. They’ve spent a lot of time together,” Lillard said. “We are working at becoming a team, still getting our legs under us, getting in shape. We’re not just gonna come out, roll the ball out, and beat these teams. We gotta play the right way … compete. We gotta play to win and give ourselves our best chance. If we don’t, we can get beat.”
Here are six teams that could beat Team USA in Tokyo.
NBA veteran Joe Ingles wasn’t surprised when his Aussies defeated the U.S. in an exhibition game in Las Vegas. In fact, Ingles said Australia expected to win the game. The Aussies have every right to be confident because they have one of the most talented rosters in the Summer Games. Head coach Brian Goorjian has seven players with NBA experience, including Ingles (Utah Jazz), Patty Mills (San Antonio Spurs), Matisse Thybulle (Philadelphia 76ers), and Aron Baynes (Toronto Raptors). NBA fans know Mills as a role player with the Spurs, but whenever he puts on the Australian national colors he turns into Allen Iverson. Thybulle is a lockdown defender who can “shut off water” in a hurry. Most basketball fans are not familiar with Jock Landale, but they’ll know who he is after Tokyo. Landale, 25, is a well-rounded center armed with a 3-point shot. Landale, who currently plays for Melbourne United in the NBL, would like nothing more than prove to the basketball world that he deserves a shot at the NBA. After finishing fourth in the last two major international competitions, this might be the year the Aussies (ranked No. 3 in FIBA) finally take home a medal.
Reigning FIBA World Cup champions and No. 2 ranked team Spain possesses the best group of centers and pure point guards in the Olympics. Brothers Marc and Pau Gasol anchor a big Spanish frontcourt that could present plenty of problems for teams in Tokyo. Pau, 41, is playing in his fifth Olympics and would love to finish his decorated career on the national team with a gold medal around his neck. Marc, 36, will be participating in his third Olympics. He won silver in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Pau and Marc are not the only pair of brothers playing for Spain. Juancho Hernangomez (Minnesota Timberwolves) and Willy Hernangomez (New Orleans Pelicans) give Spain four quality big men who could wear teams down. Spain also has good depth at point guard with Ricky Rubio (Minnesota Timberwolves), Sergio Rodriguez, and Sergio Llull. All three are capable of running the show. It seems like Rubio has been around the international stage for decades, but he’s only 30 and still in the prime of his basketball life. Llull is one of the top players in the Euroleague and could easily run an NBA offense. At 36 years old, Rudy Fernandez no longer has the legs to attack the rim but he is still an excellent 3-point shooter.
Charles Barkley often refers to ordinary players as JAGs, which stands for Just A Guy. Luka Doncic might the only active player in the world, other than LeBron James, who could take a bunch of JAGs and win a major tournament. Doncic pulled off a stunner during the Olympic qualifying round when he put an entire nation on his back and carried it to its first trip to the Olympic Games. The 22-year-old Dallas Mavericks superstar dropped a triple-double (31 points, 11 rebounds, 13 assists) in the win over Lithuania, sending his home country of Slovenia to Tokyo. “I don’t care about the MVP,” Doncic said. “We won here. We’re going to the Olympics, the first time in our country. It’s amazing. I think every kid dreams about being in the Olympics. I did too. So, here we are. We fought really, really hard, and I think we deserve to be here.” Slovenia may not be a medal favorite, but anything is possible as long as Luka is on the court.
Les Bleus returns seven players from its bronze-medal team in the 2019 FIBA World Cup. One of those returning players is three-time NBA defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert. The 7-1 center powered the Utah Jazz to the best record in the NBA and a second-round appearance in the playoffs. Gobert anchors a French squad sprinkled with NBA talent: Nicolas Batum (Los Angeles Clippers), Evan Fournier (Boston Celtics), Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot (Brooklyn Nets), Frank Ntilikina (New York Knicks). With Gobert protecting the paint and Batum and Ntilikina smothering perimeter players, France will have one of the best defenses in the Olympics. The problem will come on the offensive end. Scoring could be an issue, especially if Fournier struggles from the field.
Luis Scola is the last remaining member of the golden age of Argentina basketball. Scola won a gold medal with Argentina — a squad spearheaded by San Antonio Spurs superstar Manu Ginobili — in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Those glory days a long gone for both Argentina and Scola, but the 41-year-old power forward remains one of the craftiest low-post scorers in FIBA despite having logged thousands of minutes in his basketball career. Scola is surrounded by a talented group of Argentines, including feisty point guard Facundo Campazzo (Denver Nuggets) and 20-year-old sensation Leandro Bolmaro. Bolmaro starred on FC Barcelona in the Euroleague and his draft rights are owned by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Nigeria stunned the basketball world when it defeated the U.S. 90-87 in an exhibition game in Las Vegas. Then, the Nigerians dominated Argentina in the same Vegas tuneup event. The blowout against Argentina proved that the win over Team USA wasn’t a fluke. The Nigerians are for real and poised to make noise in Tokyo. Head coach Mike Brown — currently an assistant with the Golden State Warriors — is building a formidable program, utilizing the same principles that made the Warriors successful. They share the ball and have some 3-point snipers to space the floor. Three Miami Heat players are on the Nigerian roster: Precious Achiuwa, Chikezie “KZ” Okpala, Nnamdi Vincent. Guard Caleb Agada, who plays in the Israeli league, made a name for himself in Vegas as he lit up Team USA for 17 points. Agada will be on the Denver Nuggets summer league squad.