The FIBA World Cup is fast approaching, and it, along with the Olympics, is one of the two most prestigious international basketball tournaments in the world. U.S.A. Basketball features the deepest and most talented collection of players on the planet, but with that comes some unenviable expectations: finish first or be considered a failure.
Those expectations of world dominance make perfect sense if the full stable of available talent is at U.S.A. Basketball’s disposal. After all, who could beat a starting five of Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard? Add in a bench with Anthony Davis, Kevin Love, James Harden, Blake Griffin, and John Wall and the team would be completely unstoppable, able to play any style or match up to any opponent big or small.
Unfortunately, the team making the trip to Spain won’t be quite so strong.
Howard and James have done this all before, and as they reach the later parts of their prime they value the offseason’s relaxation over participating in a tournament that Americans view as second to the Olympics. Love has pulled out due to his desire to leave Minnesota via trade as soon as possible, and Griffin and Portland big LaMarcus Aldridge have also removed themselves from the squad.
That leaves the team thin up front, a potentially fatal flaw given that the main challengers in the tournament, the hosting Spanish team, feature a fearsome frontcourt trio of Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, and Serge Ibaka. Spain won’t be able to compete with Durant or the array of American guards, but a dominating interior performance and some cold shooting by the U.S. could swing the tournament.
In the long run, that may be a good thing.
An unexpected loss would do wonders for American interest in international play, both among players and fans. The country has fallen into a tired cycle with the international game. Most tournaments end with the U.S. atop the gold medal stand, usually after a string of 40-point blowouts of teams featuring one or two NBA players at best. A team with an NBA star and two or three other decent players may make a final or semi-final game close, but the contest will never really be in doubt.
Over time this dominance is taken for granted. Increasingly apathetic players skip tournaments until a depleted squad or two fails to bring home gold. Suddenly interest spikes. Basketball is a sport dominated by Americans; the best players in the world play in the NBA, and the quality and depth of talent available to U.S.A. Basketball is unrivaled, so why won’t the best of the best come out to play?
Suddenly, with the spotlight re-lit and the very fabric of American basketball in question, the top players sign up. They say they’re here to stay. They say they’re part of the program, here to show everyone that the U.S. still has a stranglehold on the rest of the world when it comes to putting a ball through a hoop. Then the cycle starts anew.
This happened with the Dream Team in 1992, who came together after a collection of college players failed to win gold in the ‘88 Olympics. Then subsequent teams kept winning. With NBA players in the games of course the U.S. would win, or so the thinking went. But over time fewer and fewer big names joined up. Instead of established vets, unproven young stars and troublesome older players got the call, and no thought was put into fit or style of play.
Then the early 2000s teams, featuring a mix of redundant veterans and unproven young players (with little shooting in the mix) fell apart in a few tournaments, losing to more cohesive teams from Greece and Argentina. These teams had played together for years, had been built from complementary players, and featured the top talent from their countries.
So in 2008 the Redeem Team was born. Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant were on board as the elder statesmen, an array of flexible and (now) in their prime players, including LeBron and Carmelo Anthony, teamed up to bring back the gold. American basketball was saved.
Yet here comes another tournament with flagging attendance and a possible kryptonite for opponents to exploit.
The U.S. teams have created this cycle due to their dominance. Blowing every opponent out of the gym doesn’t make for a compelling narrative or particularly interesting viewing. The best American teams have no equal, especially if they are made up of the same players for a few tournaments in a row. That inevitably leads to boredom from fans and players, and that’s how a potentially interesting tournament is now missing so many of its top attractions – there’s no reason to show up if no one is watching anyway.
Americans care about international basketball only when their dominance is threatened. Once the threat is gone, everything can go back to normal. That’s why the only way for U.S.A. basketball to recruit the absolute best players is to play up the revenge/redemption factor. If you never lose, there’s no revenge to be had.
Basketball is a popular sport internationally, and more talented players are coming from outside the U.S. every year. If the risk of losing major tournaments ever becomes a sustained threat, international play will become a priority for Americans. Until then, players’ and fans’ interest in the proceedings will inevitably rise and fall opposite the team’s results.