Fretting about margin of victory is a distinctly American problem – but also a real one
What’s wrong with Team USA?
The Americans aren’t losing. They’re 5-0 in the Rio Olympics and have won 22 straight Olympic games.
They’re not just winning close, either. The United States’ average margin of victory in Rio, 23.4, is by far the best in the 2016 Games.
The problem is twofold:
1. Expectations for Team USA are exceptionally high.
2. The Americans aren’t dominating the right teams.
Let’s start with the first issue. The U.S. has outscored opponents in Rio by 23.4 points per game. Second-best Australia (+15.2) is closer to fifth than first. Most countries would love to be the United States’ position – 5-0 with the best margin of victory.
But the United States isn’t most countries.
The Americans have posted 15 of the 17 best average margins of victories in Olympic men’s basketball history. No nation that still exists has topped 2016 Team USA’s +23.4, but that still ranks just 13th in U.S. history.
The best scoring margins in Olympic history:
The 2016 U.S. team could even see its number fall as the level of competition presumably rises in the knockout stage (more on that later), but the Americans’ biggest problem is a lack of cohesiveness. They could improve significantly as they develop chemistry, even as they face better foes.
Want to take the field over Team USA in an eight-team single-elimination tournament? That’s fine.
It’s much harder to favor any single other team.
But it’s not impossible, which leads to the second issue.
The Americans built their formidable margin of victory by beating up on China (by 57 points) and Venezuela (44). China and Venezuela are now eliminated.
The U.S. fared much worse against teams that advanced to the knockout stage – beating Australia by 10, Serbia by three and France by three. Though there’s not necessarily equity between Group A and Group B, that’s a better representation of Team USA’s level of competition from here.
Narrowing the sample to games between teams that reached the knockout stage, margin of victory is far less less encouraging:
Spain, which finished second in Group B, has the opposite issue of the U.S., which won Group A. Against teams that also advanced, Spain beat Lithuania by 50 and Argentina by 19 and lost to Croatia by just two. But the Spaniards also lost to Brazil and barely beat Nigeria, two teams already eliminated.
This is the ninth Olympiad where eight men’s basketball teams advance from group play to the knockout stage. In six of the previous eight, the team with the best scoring margin during group play against teams that advanced to the knockout stage also won the gold medal. The two exceptions – 1988 and 2004 – were the only years the U.S. didn’t win gold.
In 1988, the Soviet Union (+7.0 in group games against advancing teams) upset Team USA (+21.7) in the semifinals. In 2004, Argentina (+4.3) passed Spain (+14.7).
Neither instance featured as wide a gap between the United States (+5.3) and Spain (+22.3) this year.
Simply, when push has come to shove against the world’s top national teams so far, the U.S. has not been convincing. Those will be the only opponents the Americans see the rest of these Games.
If it beats Argentina tomorrow, the U.S. will face either Spain (which has dominated its best competition) or France (which played Team USA tight without Tony Parker). Neither matchup looks easy.
The Americans are strongly favored to win gold for good reason, but given their sky high expectations, the concerns are equally valid.