USA Basketball Olympic prep didn’t quite go to plan as the US lost two out of its three tune-up exhibition games this week in Las Vegas. First, the US lost to Nigeria 90-87 on July 10th and then lost to Australia 91-83 on July 12th. After that, they righted the ship a bit, beating Argentina 108-80 on July 13th.
While beating Argentina by 28 points is ending on a high note, losing two in a row is unacceptable. Olympic Basketball is normally an afterthought for most casual Olympic fans as the US has won gold comfortably in the last three Olympic games. However, the losses against Nigeria and Australia could be a worrying sign of what is to come.
In recent time dominating at the world stage has been the expectation of USA basketball fans, but that wasn’t always the case. A stretch from 2001-2007 was especially concerning as the USA struggled despite having the world's best players. During the 2002 FIBA World Cup, an event the US hosted, the USA finished an embarrassing 6th at the tournament. This was followed up by an arguably more embarrassing bronze medal at the 2004 Athens games. At the 2006 FIBA World Cup, the USA again finished with a bronze.
The losing ways all seemed to change when legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was hired to coach USA Basketball. Krzyzewski brought his serious winning mentality from Duke and built a winning culture within USA Basketballs camps. Coach K won three straight Olympic gold medals and back-to-back FIBA World Cups. Coach K was wildly successful, and upon stepping down, he was the most decorated coach in USA Basketball history.
Coach K stepping down seems to be the problem. Following the announcement that he wanted to focus on Duke basketball full time, USA basketball replaced him with legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich. Now on paper, hiring Popovich seems like a home run, but it's not. Popovich may have the accolades in the NBA, but it isn’t working at the international level.
It seemed from the off that the team and Popovich weren’t getting along. USA Basketball finished a woeful 7th at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Since that World Cup, the team has looked poor in exhibition games. This isn’t some slouch lineup either; Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, and Bradley Beal all feature on the roster. This isn’t a roster that should be losing to Australia.
While I’ll never try to take away from Popovich’s accomplishments in the NBA, there is a case to be made that he isn’t right for USA Basketball. Maybe USA Basketball should have hired Steve Kerr to be the head coach instead of being an assistant. Or maybe they should have gone the college route again. Now, of course, this article will be pointless if the US goes out and breezes its way to a gold medal, but if they don’t, the writing was on the wall. With just a few weeks left until Olympic play begins, the team needs to get its act together, or the US could be in for an embarrassing display in Tokyo.