One of the smartest moves legendary basketball coach Gregg Popovich can make over the next couple days is to darken an auditorium in China and show some 13-year-old video.
Let the current United States men’s basketball team -- in the final hours before the 2019 FIBA World Cup begins -- feast its eyes on the last Team USA to fail.
That team, in the 2006 FIBA World Cup, was unable to successfully defend pick-and-roll offense and ended up trudging off the floor, tipping caps to Greece and then scratching their own heads after a 101-95 loss in the semifinal round.
They returned home with bronze medals and fractured pride.
Coached by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, that group featured plenty of heavyweight talent, including the entire Banana Boat crew: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. So deep was Coach K’s squad that Chris Bosh, between his third and fourth NBA seasons, came off the bench in all nine games.
Taken to school by a Greek team without a single NBA player, Coach K’s group was superior in every way to the group Coach Pop has now.
The 2019 version of Team USA is without even one superstar. When it takes the floor Sunday in Shanghai against the Czech Republic, it will be led by three-time All-Star guard Kemba Walker and one-time All-Star forward Khris Middleton. Their 10 teammates have zero All-Star games among them. The lone championship ring among the 12 players on the roster belongs to Harrison Barnes, won with the Warriors in 2015. Barnes also is the only member of the team with Olympic games experience, and that was a total of 31 minutes in the Rio Games.
This is a group of good players with limited international experience and merely a dream of demolishing all comers. Coach Pop and his staff, which includes Warriors coach Steve Kerr, presides over the most vulnerable group of American men in major international competition since NBA players began participating in 1992.
These guys need to see the video from ’06.
That’s when the Greeks used the pick-and-roll to practical perfection, leading to a succession of open looks. They shot 62.5 percent from the field, and 44.4 percent beyond the arc. The better team triumphed over vastly better players.
“Their offense beat our offense, and I take responsibility for that,” Krzyzewski told reporters.
“To lose any game is a shock to us,” Anthony said.
Well, a similar Team USA experience is conceivable at some point during the tournament that runs through Sept. 15. Kemba & Co. need to apply all the passion and commitment they can summon, in every game, to avoid such ignominy.
They have to know that, right?
Team USA won three consecutive exhibitions before taking a 98-94 loss on Monday to an Australian team with five NBA players, none of whom has been an All-Star. Never mind that the Americans bounced back two days later, in their final tune-up, for an 84-68 win over a Canadian team without a single NBA player. The personal lessons for Coach Pop’s bunch were in the loss to Australia.
“The Aussies gave us a great lesson as far as where we have to be and how we have to play in this kind of competition,” Popovich told reporters in Melbourne.
That loss snapped Team USA’s 78-game win streak in major international games and exhibitions. It also was the first loss by a USA team composed of NBA players since ’06.
Losing that game may be the best thing that could have happened to Coach Pop and Team USA, the final buzzer a siren informing them that they were on the brink of a competitive emergency.
Some quality teams await in China. Greece has reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the best player in the tournament. Serbia, with Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic, has the second-best player in the tournament. Spain is too formidable to be dismissed as is, not to mention France with its four NBA players.
When the ’06 team sheepishly accepted the bronze medal, it insisted such a stunning loss in international competition would not happen again. It hasn’t. Team USA routinely crushes opponents, often grinning their way through routs. They are the international gold standard, winning with Globetrotter-like consistency.
This is why, as Melo said 13 years ago, losing to Greece was such a shock.
Show this group the video from ‘06, Pop, and give it to ‘em straight. Right after everybody gets one more look at the video from their loss to Australia.