Gregg Popovich assured us before the opening game of the Tokyo Olympics he had scouted the France national team for two years, that he had thought about it “every day.” It didn’t look like it, did it? It appeared, at times, like he’d hadn’t watched his own team.
USA Basketball fell to France 83-76 on the first day of Olympics Group A competition, the Americans scoring only a single basket in the final 3:41. They were outscored 16-2 down the stretch. They missed three consecutive jumpshots in the final 31 seconds, one that would have tied it (by Zach LaVine) and two would have grabbed the lead (by Kevin Durant, Jrue Holiday).
Blazers guard Damian Lillard finished this game 3-of-10 from the field with four turnovers, but he finished the game — in more ways than one. It was his turnover that led to an Evan Fournier jumper that gave France the lead for good. It was his slip that surrendered the ball to France when the U.S. still had a chance, down four points with 17 seconds left, and his subsequent foul that was ruled unsportsmanlike, thus clinching France’s victory.
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The U.S. led 74-67 when France had a baseline out of bounds play near the end of its shot clock. The French ran a rub screen at the center of the lane, and Nicholas Batum drifted to the left corner. Not a single American defender noticed, and his 3-pointer closed the gap to four points. It might have been a blip, had not the French wound up with another inbounds play under its own basket, run the exact same play and gotten nearly the same result, this time Fournier nailing a 2-pointer to make it 74-72.
Popovich’s assertion that scouting France was a long-term year project was based, in part, on the establishment of the Olympic schedule that signaled the French would be the opponent for the opening game. It also traces back to the 2019 World Cup, when they beat the U.S. in the quarterfinals.
The U.S. had a terrible time in that game defending Fournier and star center Rudy Gobert; they combined for 43 points in a 10-point France victory. In that game, Popovich chose to play a small lineup and used bigs Myles Turner and Brook Lopez a combined 15 minutes.
Even aware of the challenge Gobert presented, the U.S. brought only a single plus-sized center to this tournament, JaVale McGee. And he was included only after Kevin Love withdrew. McGee played just 2 minutes as Gobert shot 5 of 6 from the field and put three personal fouls on Durant, the Nets superstar who played only 21 minutes because of foul trouble and scored 10 points.
Holiday, freshly minted NBA champion and newly arrived to Tokyo, rescued the U.S. from potential embarrassment with 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
All this should seem shocking, given the U.S. had won 24 consecutive games in Olympic competition, but it’s not. Because this has been the direction USA Basketball has followed since again deciding the position of senior men’s coach is a lifetime achievement award for accomplished NBA coaches rather than a job to be done by the person with the time and energy to do it effectively.
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One could attempt to reinforce that argument by pointing out the U.S. defeat vs. France was the third in the past five games for this group, because the team played four exhibitions in advance of this competition and dropped two. But three of the team’s 12 members were occupied competing in the NBA Finals during those “friendlies,” so that might not totally be fair.
We could say the U.S. defeat against France was its third in the past four games in major competitions, including these Olympics and the 2019 FIBA World Cup. That would not be without justification, because the coach of that team was Popovich — but it’s also fair to mitigate the disappointment of that performance by pointing out the 2019 USA roster was substandard, for a variety of reasons.
What’s inarguable, though, is that this is the fourth time in the past two decades a sitting NBA head coach has been in charge of the U.S. senior men’s team for a major international competition. In the prior three, the U.S. placed sixth (2002 World Championship), third (2004 Olympics) and seventh (2019 World Cup). The U.S. record in these three events plus the current Olympics is 17-9: a .653 winning percentage.
When the U.S. “redeemed” its senior men’s program by installing Duke Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski as head coach, the U.S. compiled a 50-1 record in six major championships, a .980 winning percentage.
How can anyone pretend this is a coincidence?
“I think that’s a little bit of hubris, if you think the Americans are supposed to just roll out the ball and win,” Popovich told reporters after the game. “I mean, we’ve got to work for it just like everybody else.”
Actually, the American public expected Popovich to coach the team, but maybe there’s a hint of arrogance in that, as well.
The NBA coaches in charge of the three prior disappointments — and the one that’s surely headed in that direction — are some of the greatest basketball coaches of all time. George Karl, who had the assignment at the 2002 World Championship, won 1,175 games as an NBA head coach and recorded 12 seasons of 50 victories or better. Larry Brown, who ran the 2004 Olympic team, is the only coach ever to win both the NBA Finals and the NCAA Tournament. And Popovich has won five NBA championships and 1,310 games.
This is not about who knows the most about basketball. This is about the absurd workload of an NBA head coach and how fantastic it is to expect someone in that position to have a sufficient amount of time to prepare for games such as Sunday’s and tournaments such as the one that will develop over the next two weeks.
Popovich has coached 509 NBA games since he was announced as the coach who would succeed Krzyzewski following the 2016 Olympics. Compare that to Krzyzewski, who from the time he took the USA Basketball assignment in October 2005 until he led the U.S. to a third consecutive gold medal in 2016 — that’s 11 years, mind you — coached in only 397 NCAA basketball games. And more than a handful were against the likes of Elon and Presbyterian.
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Krzyzewski is a titan of the game, and was able to balance the Duke/USA workload to stuff five major world titles and two NCAA championships into those 11 seasons. It took an extraordinary amount of dedication and sacrifice for him to do this, but it was doable.
Two decades of history tells us for an active NBA coach, it is not. Had Popovich chosen to retire from the Spurs when the 2019 World Cup approached, he’d have been a smashing choice to run the U.S. squad. He did not. He still is in charge in San Antonio.
Meanwhile, there is Jeff Van Gundy, who has coached teams of leftover players to a 15-2 record in the silly World Cup qualification system imposed by FIBA, which transpires during the NBA season and thus prevents the U.S. from fielding its actual team. He has a job as television analyst for ESPN, and he does it absurdly well, but he’d have far more available time to run the U.S. senior men’s team than Coach K did — if he wants it. Jay Wright, two-time NCAA champion and an assistant on this Olympic team, could take the Krzyzewski approach if placed in charge.
There still is time for Popovich to reverse this trend and win a gold medal in Tokyo. Nothing we’ve seen, save for some dazzling names on the roster and Holiday’s singular will, suggests this will occur.