“THERE’S A LOT TO LIKE ABOUT THIS GROUP!” Over on Twitter, USA Basketball damned their World Cup squad with faint praise when they posted a picture of the roster. It’s a motley collection of second-tier NBA talent, playing in the place of the LeBron Jameses, James Hardens, Damian Lillards, and CJ McCollums of the world. The NBA’s aces are sitting out the World Cup as a rest and recovery measure, all preferring to “concentrate on the upcoming season” instead of competing for their country and networking with their fellow stars in China for a month or so, right before the season starts.
The team is so devoid of star power that USA Basketball’s promotional apparatus has taken to facing coach Gregg Popovich, famously of the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, front and center: There’s his smiling face, right there at the top of their Twitter page, the most famous person on the squad, a 70-year-old man with a 76–129 record in NCAA Division III (among other accomplishments, I suppose).
This state of being has created a lot of media hand-wringing about the state of international ball, superstars’ commitment to the international game, anything anyone can get their hands on, in the wake of the various withdrawals that have trickled out over the last month or so — USA Basketball sent out 50 invitations before they arrived at their current 15-man roster. I am here to tell you: All that hand-wringing “sucks,” because, baby, this is the United States Men’s Basketball Team that I, and ALL THINKING, LOVING people have been craving for all these years.
In the ocean of ink spilled in service to romancing the Dream Team, there is one fact about them that remains buried: They suck! OK, they don’t suck — they’re probably one of the best squads ever assembled. But watching them, eugh boy, that sucks. They run roughshod over everyone, points galore, blood on the court, the other team doesn’t stand a chance. The only way you could find yourself taking pleasure from that spectacle is if you’re some kind of jingoistic monster, because, as basketball, it’s just absolutely terrible. The United States Basketball talent pool is just so much larger, their coaching infrastructure just so much more refined, that no other country stands a chance.
And when they don’t make it happen by default, oh, my God, the yelling, the whining, the screeching. Even an upset, normally the most joyful thing you can see in sports, becomes a big ol’ pile of garbage when every hack columnist takes the opportunity to toss a racially tinged “WHAT’S WRONG WITH AMERICAN BASKETBALL … IS IT THE FREEWHEELING CULTURE OF AAU?” column in the trash can that comprises their column inches. The whole enterprise is joyless, no matter what happens — either the American team plays a series of slaughter feats that validate our world superiority, or their failure becomes a conduit for the worst sports thinking possible.
This version of the team, a collection of random, young dudes, second-tier talents is MUCH better. Donovan Mitchell, a young man with just, like, way too much to prove. Kyle Kuzma, trying to stake out a claim to fame that doesn’t involve LeBron breastfeeding him like a Game of Thrones giantess. Is that Kris Middleton!? Oh man, now THAT’S a guy I wanna see take a stab at dunking on some second division French stiff. Marcus Smart, the Celtics’ mean defensive cult hero point guard, has managed to end up on the squad!
The diminished expectations of playing without a superstar makes any defeat they might face softer, nicer, more acceptable. They will have to, like, actually play basketball, instead of just kind of existing as an unstoppable force, kicking down their bathroom-stall-strength opponents.
Team USA as we think of them, a collection of veterans who leave the country and bring as much hell as they possibly can to their sad-sack Angolan opponents, is America as it really exists, the Lockheed Martin Squad that dominates the world through pure, uncorked force, manufacturing the ultimate killing machine and selling it to whatever client state they feel can move their interests forward in the world. Sure, you win, but it’s also just an objectively bummer way to orient the world, one where American imperial hegemony makes what it wants to happen happen, just because they feel like it’s their birthright.
But this team, a roster filled out with the role players who would never even sniff the senior roster during Olympic time, is much better, more lovable, more compelling. It’s what the “America the Beautiful” lie tells us about: a ragtag group of different-seeming people, uniting together for a common cause. “This is like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a lot of us,” Celtics guard Kemba Walker, one of the squad’s senior players, told reporters at practice. “I think a lot of us are happy those guys pulled out because this is our chance. It’s our chance to get on the big stage and showcase our talent. A chance for us to do something new. It’ll be a new-look team. Everybody is kind of doubting us, but I think we’re hungry.”
Walker might sound like he’s indulging in some athlete-speak, but, I mean, he’s right: This team really is made up of dudes who wouldn’t normally get the kind of chances that a “USA BASKETBALL STAR” typically would. According to John Schuhmann at NBA.com, none of the players playing for this team was one of the 15 American players who averaged more than three isolation possessions a game.
Popovich is operating under a tactical mindset that complements this fact, practicing with an emphasis on ball movement, instead of the traditional knock-the-door-down isolation style more distinguished teams have operated with in the past. Harrison Barnes, speaking with Schuhmann, talked about this change in approach: “In the past,” Barnes explained, “the one-on-one talent itself has been so potent — Kobe, LeBron, Durant, Carmelo — guys can go out there and get a basket. This year, with the experience that other teams are going to have over us, how hard we play is going to have to carry the day.”
The only thing they’re missing? Carmelo Anthony. USA Basketball declined to send Melo, currently living on the outskirts of NBA interest, to the team — he wasn’t even invited. General manager Jerry Colangelo said he would be “a distraction,” which seems just colossally unfair, considering his long career as an Olympics legend. He could’ve crawled out of the muck of NBA irrelevance to mount the stallion of the world and get one last moment in the sun, for the country. Can you believe they didn’t even invite him? He would have been the perfect leader for this group of beautiful losers, the gunslinger, taking one last job with a group of young, unproven guns, all looking to prove they have what it takes. It’s such a beautiful American story, the kind of thing that 10-year-olds would watch at a matinee in some dusty suburban town in the 1960s. Truly, the team was one move away from narrative perfection, the America I was told existed when I was a child and denied when age and time made my eyes grow cynical calluses. It makes me weep to even think about it.