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Saturday, September 14, 2019

We're Number Seven! Gregg Popovich is Defiantly Proud of Team USA's Worst Finish Ever

Team USA defeated Poland 87-74 to clinch seventh place in the FIBA World Cup. This is Team USA's worst result ever in a major FIBA competition, "surpassing" Team USA's train wreck sixth place finish in the 2002 FIBA World Championship.

If you think that this is a cause for concern or disappointment, Team USA Coach Gregg Popovich is quick to scold you: "If you don't win, some people will play the blame game. There's no blame to be placed anywhere. They play the shame game, like we should be ashamed because we didn't win a gold medal? That's a ridiculous attitude. It's immature. It's arrogant. And it shows that whoever thinks that doesn't respect all the other teams in the world and doesn't respect that these guys did the best they could."

This is not about "blame" or "shame." Popovich is throwing out red herrings and straw man arguments to distract from the real issue, which is very simple to articulate: Is a seventh place finish a reasonable result in the FIBA World Cup for a team of 12 NBA players being coached by one of the greatest NBA coaches of all-time?

If the answer to that question is "Yes," then we can move along and there is nothing to see or talk about here.

I believe, and I suspect that many other informed observers believe, that the answer is "No."

I have great respect for the other FIBA teams, and that is why more than a decade ago I advocated that Team USA take a more serious approach to FIBA events, particularly on defense. It took two disasters for Team USA to learn the lesson, but from 2006 until now things had improved. The 2019 FIBA World Cup was a setback for Team USA, and it does not help matters that the coach is in denial about that.

There is a difference between "blame"/"shame" and analysis. Frank Isola of Sirius XM Radio made the same point that I have recently made about Popovich's coaching: Popovich has demonstrated a pattern--in the NBA Finals and in the FIBA World Cup--of favoring small lineups and this preference has resulted in devastating losses (for his Spurs to the Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals, and for Team USA versus France in the 2019 FIBA World Cup). Brian Scalabrine, Isola's co-host, retorted that we do not know that the outcome would have changed if Popovich had done something different in those situations, but Isola won the argument with simple logic: if what you are doing is not working (France's Rudy Gobert dominated all game long, finishing with 21 points and 16 rebounds) then you need to try something else. I would add that I reject the notion that the big man is or should be extinct and that small ball is the wave of the future. There is a role for the big man in basketball, and smart coaches will develop their big men so that they can be productive.

Anyone who has watched FIBA basketball understands the inherent challenges that Team USA will face in every competition:

1) We will never have a roster that has played together as long and is as cohesive as the rosters for the other top national teams. Team USA's roster is usually thrown together at the last minute and so Team USA does not get much practice time together before heading to an event.

2) FIBA rules and style of play differ from the rules and style of play to which American NBA players are accustomed.

Nevertheless, even Team USA's second, third or fourth string rosters will have more overall talent and depth than any other team in any FIBA event. While this is probably the first time that Team USA did not have the best or second best player in a major FIBA event, Team USA still had 12 NBA players.

The issues relate to organization, preparation and motivation.


For decades, Team USA could send almost any roster--even a roster filled with college players--to major FIBA events and expect to win a gold medal, usually in dominant fashion. That has not been the case for quite some time.

Therefore, more thought and analysis needs to go into the roster construction process, and the scouting process--both self-scouting, and scouting the opposing teams.

For example, it should have been obvious before the FIBA World Championship that in order to win the gold medal--which, contrary to what Popovich suggests, should always be Team USA's goal and expectation--Team USA would need to have an answer for big men such as Serbia's Nikola Jokic and France's Rudy Gobert. Team USA either needed to have big men on the roster who could at least slow those guys down, or Team USA needed to have an entire roster devoted to the proposition that Team USA would be a small, up tempo team. The first option makes much more sense to me, but perhaps the second option would work if the roster were actually constructed that way, and if the team prepared to play that way. What makes no sense is to devote three of 12 roster spots to big men (Myles Turner, Brook Lopez, Miles Plumlee) and then relegate two of them to the bench while limiting the minutes of the starting big man (Turner).

The bottom line is that, from day one, the roster must be constructed with a clear understanding of how Team USA expects to play, and how Team USA matches up with the medal-contending teams.


Media members who covered Team USA in person this year noted with some bafflement that Popovich had a very light practice schedule. Practice was critically important this year even more so than in other years because Team USA consisted of our third or fourth string players. This team needed on-court time together to develop chemistry and to understand the game plans that would need to be executed against top FIBA teams. Defense is all about repetition, focus and execution.

Team USA did not look well-prepared during this event, and that resulted in panicky possessions at both ends of the court.


This may be the most challenging factor for Team USA. Players from other teams take enormous pride in representing their countries and in competing for a FIBA World Cup title. Team USA does not seem to have that pride or that focus. After the debacles in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and the 2004 Olympics, Jerry Colangelo did a great job of instilling/reviving that pride in Team USA from the top of the organization down. As players and leaders, Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd exemplified this pride, and set an example that they demanded be followed by the other players.

If Team USA's organization, preparation and motivation do not improve before the 2020 Olympics, look for more losses, and for more excuses from a defiant, baffled coach.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:59 PM



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