MANILA, Philippines — This is the third World Cup I’ve covered and the third time Team USA has failed to win the gold. Those previous squads have faced learning curves along with issues in focus, preparation, and experience.
That was not the case at this World Cup. The American team that lost to Germany 113-111 in Friday’s semifinal generally had good focus. The players had outstanding camaraderie. They had strong coaching. Most of them excelled within their roles, were willing to accept smaller ones than with their respective NBA teams, or changed on the fly.
This team didn’t have a character flaw, it had a physical one — it just wasn’t big enough.
Much could be said and written about the underlying reasons. In short, though, America has stopped producing as many great centers. Many of the very good American big men prefer to play less physical roles like power forward or on the perimeter.
By the way, that’s how Victor Wembanyama, who represents France, wants to play too. It’s a modern evolution of the game; it’s not a sin.
But in these international tournaments, the big men who want to play in the trenches thrive against the Americans. And most of them are from Europe. The U.S. played four European teams in a row and were outsized by three of them: Montenegro, Lithuania and Germany. They gave up 53 offensive rebounds in those three games and, prepare yourself for this stat, 64 second-chance points.
By the way, one of Germany’s best big men, Maxi Kleber, isn’t playing following Dennis Schroder’s comments over Kleber’s absence at Eurobasket 2022 (for which Schroder has since apologized), but that’s another story. If Kleber was an American, he’d have been a candidate to play for Team USA.
Had the U.S. played Serbia on Sunday for the gold medal, they’d have been in trouble in that game, too. They start 7-foot center Nikola Milutinov, who was a first-round draft pick by the San Antonio Spurs in 2015, plus a host of other players with size. And the Serbians are without the best center in the world, Nikola Jokic.
This issue is the biggest challenge to American basketball supremacy since the Dream Team. It isn’t a new problem, but it’s a real one. And unless the U.S. brings its premium and older perimeter talent — Stephen Curry hasn’t played for Team USA since 2010, LeBron James hasn’t since 2012, Kevin Durant has skipped the past two World Cups — the burden to overcome this challenge is getting higher.
Stephen A.: USA’s lack of depth exposed in FIBA
Stephen A. Smith and Ryan Clark break down Team USA’s elimination by Germany in the FIBA World Cup semis.
More takeaways from Team USA’s loss to Germany
• There is a lot made of the chemistry disadvantage Team USA has against European teams who play together each summer for years on end. In general, this is true.
Team USA coach Steve Kerr was asked what could be done to mitigate it.
“I’m not sure how you would do that,” Kerr said. “If you want to ask the same 10 guys to play every summer, I think that’s very unrealistic. I love being part of USA basketball. I think our players really enjoy it as well. And part of the deal is you pass the baton.”
It is worth pointing that in the case of Germany, they are basically a year ahead of the Americans. Six of the players played at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 under a different coach and finished eighth. The core of this team played at Eurobasket 2022 last summer and played well, winning the bronze.
They came to this tournament and had a carryover effect. They have all committed to playing next year at the Olympics in Paris and they will be serious contenders with that three-year plan.
It’s not a decade, it’s three years. The Canadians are doing the same thing and they’re progressing. This is what Jerry Colangelo used to demand when he took over USA Basketball nearly 20 years ago, but it has been retired because it’s so hard to get players to make such a commitment. Food for thought.
• In 2006, Team USA suffered a miserable defeat to Greece at the World Cup and was devastated. Two days later the players picked themselves up and played Argentina, the reigning Olympic champion at the time.
In a brilliant performance, Team USA played perhaps its best game of that summer and won the bronze. Two years later that squad weas the basis of the Redeem Team that won the gold in Beijing. Then USA Basketball didn’t lose for more than a decade.
Therefore, the bronze-medal game against Canada on Sunday (ESPN+, 4:30 a.m. ET) won’t be meaningless.