During group play, the Americans almost tasted defeat as Turkey had several opportunities to defeat the U.S. team but ultimately failed. The U.S. would survive in overtime 93-92 after Khris Middleton hit the game-winning free throws with two seconds remaining. The U.S. would escape group play undefeated, 3-0, and advance to the next round of play.
It was during the second round that the U.S. started to look like the squad picked to win the FIBA World Cup. The Americans would defeat, both, Greece and Brazil by 16 points apiece and looked dominant during those two wins.
With a 5-0 mark, the U.S. advanced to the knockout stage where they would meet France in the quarterfinals. That’s where the American’s biggest fear arrived. The French outplayed Team USA for most of the game especially in the fourth quarter as they outscored the U.S. 26-13. The Americans could no longer medal as they were defeated soundly 89-79.
To make things worse the Americans would go on to lose their next game as well 94-89 to Serbia which meant that they would finish no better than seventh at the FIBA World Cup which is the worst finish ever by an American team. The U.S. would go on to defeat Poland 87-74 to clinch seventh place.
Now the question becomes what went wrong to cause such a poor showing from the U.S.?
It would be easy to just say that Team USA did what it could with the players they had but the truth is this roster could’ve been better. It was mentioned by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that both, Trae Young and De’Aaron Fox withdrew from Team USA partly due to Head Coach Gregg Popovich preferring Derrick White over both of them. Given how bad Team USA needed scoring during the tournament both Fox and Young would’ve been upgrades over White and could’ve taken some of the burdens off of Kemba Walker and Donovan Mitchell. Another player who likely could’ve helped was Thaddeus Young. After watching Mason Plumlee and Brook Lopez struggle in their limited playtime maybe Young should have been selected over one of them. Team USA struggled with bigger and stronger teams something that Thaddeus Young could’ve helped with.
Three-point shooting played a key part in Team USA’s offensive struggles in China. Only one player (Joe Harris 50%) shot better than 41 percent from three during the tournament and as a team, they shot 34.9 percent on an average of 29.8 attempts per game. The U.S. ranked 13th in three-point field goal percentage but attempted the third-most three-point field goals per game. The Americans had six players average at least one three-point field goal per game and shoot 30 percent or less from three. The U.S. coaching staff needed to put more of an emphasis on shooters and the lack of shooting was a big part of the team’s struggles.
You could certainly play the what-if game when it comes to injuries for Team USA. It started in training camp when the Americans lost Kyle Kuzma, Kyle Lowry, and PJ Tucker due to injuries. Then during World Cup play the U.S. would lose Jayson Tatum to an ankle injury. Tatum was fourth on the team in points per game but was only able to play in the first two games and was unable to return from his injury. Had he been available then maybe the loss to France or Serbia might not have happened.
FIBA did the U.S. no favors when it decided to move the tournament to September which meant it would end right before the NBA starts up training camp. Several NBA players mentioned that they did not want to play for Team USA because they were going to be focusing on the upcoming NBA season. Had the tournament took place in late July or early August then the U.S. may have seen some of the bigger names that withdrew decide to play instead. Also, most NBA players as well as basketball fans, view the Olympics as the premier international basketball tournament and not the FIBA World Cup.
The Olympics has always taken center stage and historically the teams the U.S. has sent to the Olympics have always been much more star-laden. The United States has a 138-5 record at the Olympics along with 15 gold medals. The U.S. has always medaled at the Olympics with the exception of 1980 when the U.S. withdrew from the competition. As for the FIBA World Cup, the U.S. has a 129-29 record and has won the championship five times. The U.S. has finished outside the top three six times at the FIBA World Cup.
The United States basketball team didn’t meet expectations this summer at the FIBA World Cup but the hope is that they will have a team filled with superstars for the 2020 Summer Olympics. As long as the U.S. dominates that tournament then there should be no worries about the embarrassment of this year’s FIBA World Cup.