Let’s not bother with aggressive probing next week when the United States Men’s National Basketball Team, No. 1 in the world, returns with its worst-ever finish in major international competition. There is no mystery beyond two reasons that don’t require investigation.
First, this group, despite having the best talent, was not the best team in this FIBA World Cup. After being bounced from the medal round by France on Wednesday, Team USA's response was a loss to Serbia on Thursday, ensuring no better than a seventh-place finish.
This roster of Americans, coached by Gregg Popovich, with Steve Kerr as his top assistant, entered as a gold-medal favorite largely out of respect and tradition. The reality is it would be no better than a first-round out in the NBA playoffs.
The second and more significant reason for the disappointing performance is that most of Team USA’s opponents no longer genuflect at the sight of Americans dribbling onto the floor.
The fear factor is gone. That was Team USA’s biggest advantage of all, providing a psychological edge that matched its prodigious talent. It did not exist with this roster, no matter the coaches. It didn’t not exist in this tournament, at this time.
Probably not ever again.
Comments made last month by Serbia’s coach, Sasha Djordevich, revealed not only an absence of fear toward the Team USA but also an astonishing degree of confidence that at the time sounded like runaway hubris.
"Let’s let them play their basketball and we will play ours,” he said in a TV interview. “And if we meet, may God help them.”
Yeah, we’re past the days when Team USA members went swaggering through entire tournaments, beer in one hand, scepter of superiority in the other. Those fat times are relegated to the past, along with starry-eyed opponents that would take a 40-point beating and then pose, wearing enchanted smiles, for photos with Team USA stars.
There are too many quality teams, from too many countries yearning for the national pride that comes with besting the Americans. They relish the challenge because they believe they can win.
Led by Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic and Sacramento Kings swingman Bogdan Bogdanovich – two highly skilled NBA players – the Serbians glanced over at Team USA before tipoff, narrowed their eyes and came fast and hard, taking a 25-point lead in the first quarter before a puzzled crowd in Dongguan, China.
When the consolation game was over, with Serbia hanging a 94-89 loss on the Americans, Team USA members had to cope with the truth, that this version was a C team and that the rest of the world is catching up and only going to get better.
France owned Team USA in the quarterfinals because its four NBA players, notably Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert and New York Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina, played with more verve and cohesion. The French are accustomed to playing as a unit; most of the key players were a part of the 2016 Olympic team that took a three-point loss to a Team USA squad that had, you may recall, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Paul George, Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins.
And, again, beat France by three. In the Olympics, which carry much more cachet than the World Cup.
While Team USA players tried to conceal their dismay – “No regrets,” Kings forward Harrison Barnes told reporters in China – at the latest setback, there was simmering displeasure at the top. Team USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo laced his postgame comments with bitterness directed toward stars that bowed out for a variety of reasons, from physical fatigue to other commitments to general apathy.
"I can only say you can't help but notice and remember who you thought you were going to war with and who didn't show up," Colangelo told reporters in China "I'm a firm believer that you deal with the cards you're dealt. All we could have done, and we did it, is get the commitments from a lot of players. So, with that kind of a hand you feel reasonably confident that you're going to be able to put a very good representative team on the court.
"No one would have anticipated the pullouts that we had."
Colangelo knows that anytime Team USA rides with five or six MVP candidates, it will have the goods to crush all in its path. A squad with the likes of – in alphabetical order – Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard would and should be a gold-medal favorite on any international stage.
But even that squad could not presume success. Not when so much of the world is at the heels of Team USA, believing it can win and sometimes proving it can sprint right on by.