US a victim of own doing
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - September 18, 2019 - 12:00am

A lot of experts are now writing off the US as a world basketball power after coach Gregg Popovich’s Stars and Stripes squad fell to seventh place at the recent FIBA World Cup in China. It was the Americans’ worst finish in the World Cup’s 69-year history.

The previous worst placing was sixth at the 2002 World Cup in Indianapolis with coach George Karl at the helm. Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett were among the crack NBA players who turned down the invitation to play that year. Two other NBA stars Ray Allen and Jason Kidd backed out due to injuries, leaving Karl with a downgraded cast that included Paul Pierce, Antonio Davis, Michael Finley, Reggie Miller, Shawn Marion, Ben Wallace and Andre Miller. The US lost thrice in the tournament to Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain. Lack of chemistry and familiarity with the international game was evident in the US’ poor showing.

This year, the US took it on the chin from France in the quarterfinals after sweeping five games in the first and second rounds. France upset the Americans, 89-79. Then, the US dropped a 94-89 decision to Serbia before salvaging seventh place in defeating Poland, 87-74. The US averaged 86.5 points, its lowest clip in the World Cup since the start of the millennium. And its 45 percent field goal shooting was its lowest since 1994. Against Turkey, the US shot a lowly 35 percent from the floor and escaped with a 93-92 overtime victory.

Some fans were quick to hail Europe’s rise and the US’ fall in the World Cup as a sign of the times. Popovich took over from Mike Krzyzewski as the US coach in a horrid case of poor timing. Krzyzewski piloted the US to three consecutive gold medals in the Olympics and two straight championships in the World Cup then handed the reins over to Popovich, a celebrated NBA coach with five titles under his belt. Pop’s history in the World Cup hasn’t been particularly exciting. He was on Karl’s coaching staff when the US fell to sixth in 2002.

Popovich tried to recruit several marquee players from the NBA for the World Cup but Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kevin Love, Kyle Lowry, C. J. McCollum, J. J. Redick and Paul Millsap were unavailable for a variety of reasons, including injuries, family commitments and just plain disinterest. Of course, there were more NBA stars who could’ve joined but after serving on the national team in the past, some probably felt they’d done their share. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Davis and Steph Curry, for instance, could’ve dramatically transformed the US team’s image from beatable to invulnerable.

Popovich isn’t blaming the players who didn’t show up for the dismal finish. He said it was immature and arrogant for so-called experts to insist that the US would’ve won the gold medal with the stars who didn’t play. “Whoever thinks that doesn’t respect all the other teams in the world and doesn’t respect that these guys (in the World Cup) did the best they could,” said Popovich.

It’s a fact that no less than top-level players must be in the lineup if the US intends to continue dominating world basketball.  At the Pan-American Games in Lima this year, the US lost to Puerto Rico, 87-84 and Argentina, 114-75 then defeated the Dominican Republic, 92-83, for the bronze. Argentina’s team was made up of the same players who saw action in the World Cup while the US team was composed mainly of Big East Conference collegians like Collin Gillespie of Villanova, Myles Powell of Seton Hall and David Duke and Alpha Diallo of Providence. A pro exception was Tyler Wideman of Butler, an import in the Israeli league. Sending a low-tier American cast to play against experienced teams from Argentina and Puerto Rico was like leading sheep to the lion’s den.

Before the World Cup, Popovich brought the US team to Melbourne for two tune-ups and the Americans lost one, an indication of a crack in the wall. Popovich’s squad listed NBA players but none with the star quality as those left behind.

Someone said FIBA shouldn’t have tampered with the quadrennial schedule of the World Cup because now, it will mean NBA players sacrificing two consecutive summers if they’re enlisted for the World Cup and Olympics. In the past, there was a one-year gap between the World Cup and the Olympics but FIBA didn’t like the idea of staging its World Cup on the same year as the football version. So FIBA put its World Cup schedule a year after the football edition. To reflect the change, FIBA delayed the staging of this year’s World Cup from 2018 to 2019 or five years after the previous World Cup in 2014. For anyone to suggest the return to the old schedule to accommodate NBA players not willing to sacrifice two straight summers is ridiculous. FIBA doesn’t exist to cater to stars. It exists to do what is best to promote basketball throughout the world.

As FIBA technical advisor Nelson Isley said, the key to performing creditably in the World Cup is preparation. The teams that finished in the upper standings showed chemistry because they’ve been together for years, training, preparing and improving. Perhaps, the US is the only team that won’t need to prepare as much as the others but it will mean enlisting the best players in the NBA. Unfortunately, some of the best players couldn’t care less about wearing the US colors in the World Cup.

In basketball, every team wants to make the extra pass. Every team wants to play defense as a unit. Every team wants to create open looks for easy baskets. Those things aren’t exclusive to European or African or American or Asian or Oceania teams. Basketball is teamwork whether it’s Euro ball or US ball or whatever. Teams resort to excessive dribbling, isolations and hero ball because they lack preparation. That’s the bottom line. Some teams like the Philippines will need more preparation time than others because players are used to just going up against each other in the PBA with little exposure to the advances of international basketball. It’s a reality that even the US, with no star players, must face if it hopes to return to the podium in the World Cup.

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