FOX Sports NBA Analyst
A quick look at the current USA FIBA World Cup roster might inspire a second, longer look. Followed by confusion. Twelve players and a total of four NBA All-Star appearances. Where are the NBA elite? The surefire Hall of Famers? What about all the NBA roleplayers off the bench?
Surely, you think, this had to be a necessity and not a plan.
“A little bit of both, but more of the latter,” Grant Hill, chief executive officer of the men’s national team, told FOX Sports. “We placed a lot of value on that when putting together a squad and a team. Just using the best players sounds good. You just have to be careful. We tried to find players whose skills really translated to the FIBA game.”
That might come as a shock to some, but the talent disparity between the rest of the world and the US has steadily narrowed since the Dream Team crushed everyone in sight in 1992. Sean Ford, part of the national program since 1995 and director of the men’s national team since 2001, was one of the pioneers in finding ways to compensate and keep the USA in the lead.
“Other countries are improving faster than we are,” Ford told FOX Sports. “If we want to get better we have to move the goal line because everyone is coming at us. What we want to achieve is to win a game at any level, where talent is a luxury and not a requirement to win. Because we may not always be the most talented team. We see that in qualifying. We see that at U19 level. It’s not automatic that when we show up we’re the most talented team. We have to be able to win a FIBA game when talent is a luxury and not a necessity.”
[The long road winding down at the World Cup, where semifinals await Team USA]
That means winning with chemistry and execution. “hoosiers”–style, if you will. Those are typically in short supply for U.S. rosters, which bring together players who are used to handling the ball on their respective NBA teams, at least compared to the familiarity of both international play and each other that the enjoy the national teams of other countries.
For anyone who assumes that global dominance is a birthright of American basketball, this may be a sobering bit of reality: if the national team brings together the best in the NBA, winning gold should be a foregone conclusion. That was the approach taken by Hill’s predecessor, Jerry Colangelo, in 2005, the last time US basketball had lost its luster and failed to win gold at three consecutive World Championships and the 2004 Olympics. And it worked. Colangelo convinced Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony to commit to the program for three years, culminating with the 2008 Olympic gold medal-winning Redeem team. Steph Curry, Derrick Rose, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant were among the stars who came on over the next decade and produced a string of five Olympic/World Championship titles.
But even with America’s best NBA talent, victory has been far from a guarantee in recent years. The 2020 Olympic team lost their first two appearances against Nigeria and Australia, and then against France in the group stage, before returning the favor in the gold medal game to an 87-82 victory with the victor uncertain until the final seconds.
(The games were actually played in 2021 due to COVID.)
“Even with our roster in 2021, it was a close game,” Hill said. “Even at some of the recent World Cups, it was a close game with just under a minute to go. Durant, Kobe, LeBron, Wade – these guys did an incredible job. But it’s no longer 1992 or 1996 when we could just roll the ball out there.
The main reason could be the growing difference between the way NBA and FIBA games are played. The reduction in physicality, changing the rules and office to benefit the offense and encouraging stars to dominate the ball more than ever has resulted in a generation or two of American stars possessing skills suited to the tougher, team-oriented international play are conducive.
“At FIBA, when in doubt, the defense decides; In the NBA, offense is the king,” said Ford. “Because of the physicality of defense, some things get a little harder and you’re forced to make more decisions faster.”
After countless hours of watching Team USA and international competitions on tape, Hill came to the conclusion that he needed to make his selections based on player skill rather than personal accolades. The New York Knicks’ Jalen Brunson and the Indiana Pacers’ Tyrese Haliburton recognized that the lack of an illegal defense or the defensive three-second rule in FIBA placed a high value on pass-first-point guards who played with their vision and IQ were openings for the first two players he contacted about his membership on the team.
“First of all, both have previously played in the national program and found success at the junior level,” Hill said. “Jalen is a tank. He’s so strong and the physical condition of the international game has given us problems at times. A guy like Jrue Holiday was so good and important in 1921 because he’s so strong and can be physical. And then Tyrese isn’t a big guy, but he’s tall, 6-5, and has great energy and a spirit about him that’s contagious.”
But perhaps the greatest expression of Hill’s philosophy is the presence of power forward Bobby Portis, a longtime roleplaying player who came on as a substitute for the Milwaukee Bucks for the past three seasons.
“One of the first people I called sixth or seventh was Bobby Portis,” Hill said. “I just felt like we needed a guy who could come off the bench, bounce and defend, take a couple of shots, play with energy and toughness. He’s been doing that in Milwaukee for quite some time. And that has its value. This is just a small example of how we put this team together.”
This philosophy fits the approach of head coach Steve Kerr and assistants Erik Spoelstra and Tyronn Lue. As NBA head coaches, all three have been determined to shape lineups and rotations that are in the team’s best interest, even if it means ignoring star status. That was shown with this World Cup roster, when New Orleans Pelicans star Brandon Ingram was benched two games into the tournament and replaced by swingman Josh Hart, who came on as a substitute in 29 of his 36 games for the Knicks last season became.
Kerr’s assuming the post of head coach after his last two tenures as an assistant showed him that the margin for victory is too small to cater to egos. His predecessors, Mike Krzyzewski and Gregg Popovich, had long periods of involvement with the program between their stints as assistants and as head coach.
“Steve’s experience is a bit more recent,” said Ford. “That’s an advantage. He knew what it took and there were certain people he wanted. It’s like drafting: do you take the best that’s available, or do you take someone you can develop? You have to think about starters, rotation and where.” They fit in now. We have some people doing for us what they do for their NBA teams and that’s good. They’re not necessarily starters on their NBA teams and that’s helpful to us. They don’t require them to do anything else. That alone helps in adapting to the international game.”
To speed up this adjustment for the entire team, they eliminated test matches and competitions against US-based selection teams and instead selected the roster and then played a series of competitions against other national teams.
“These countries that we’re playing against have been playing together for decades,” Hill said. “Ever since they were kids. So there’s a level of familiarity and continuity. We’re working at a real disadvantage because every year is different, every team is different. Ultimately, as we look ahead, you have to win and put the team together gives you the best chance to do that. But you also need people who have the opportunity to do what their predecessors did, which was to participate in multiple cycles.”
The relative youth of the current squad – Paolo Banchero is the youngest at 20 and Hart is the old man at 29 – could take that into account. Their relative lack of star power — four All-Stars, none with more than one appearance — has also led to greater camaraderie. For those tired of watching the predictability and relative lack of imagination inspired by the NBA isolation game, this World Championship has given potential future stars the chance to land big roles on a global stage in unprecedented combinations play: the Lakers’ Austin Reaves hits at Orlando’s Banchero, Haliburton throws no-look cents at Portis, and Brunson finds New York rival Mikal Bridges for easy breakaway throws.
“It was refreshing,” Hill said. “One of the things that was fun is how they came together and were really a team from day one. When we first got together and invited players, coaches and support staff to dinner, all the players sat together and felt connected. That doesn’t always happen.”
But for all these happy talks, neither Ford nor Hill are ready to embark on the new team-first building concept until they see what it yields over the next few days, starting with Friday’s semi-final game against Germany. While trials may no longer be part of the program, the current squad is bidding to compete in next summer’s Olympics.
“There are some old players who have expressed an interest in next year,” Hill said, declining to name them. “Some are in their prime, others are past their prime but still very productive. And then there are people on this team who are on the up and so I have to make some difficult decisions. You want to win, but you want to win with people who get it right. And this group absolutely nailed it 100 percent. You have exceeded my expectations in this regard. They supported each other, they played for each other. You were there There are many locker rooms, good and bad. You can feel it and you can see it. That wasn’t a good locker room, it was a great locker room. This is important.”
Just not as much as what’s happening on the floor this weekend. For the US, gold is still the standard no matter who competes.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has authored two books: Rebound, about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with Parkinson’s disease at a young age, and Yao: A Life In Two Worlds”. He also has a daily podcast called On The Ball with Ric Bucher. Follow him on Twitter @Ric Bucher.
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