The 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in China proved to be a disappointment for Team USA, as the team bowed out in the quarterfinals after a shocking 89-79 defeat at the hands of France at the Dongguan Basketball Center. The loss snapped a 58-game undefeated streak for the U.S. With a chance to claim a berth in the fifth place game, the U.S. then fell to a Serbian team led by Nikola Jokic and Boban Bogdanovic, 94-89. The Americans were outclassed by not one, but two objectively inferior teams, each seemingly more motivated than Team USA.
The FIBA basketball tournament felt insignificant, as evidenced by the lack of enthusiasm from top NBA players. NBA players seem to view the FIBA World Cup as an unneeded distraction during their offseason conditioning programs, and it’s little wonder as to why. When it comes to international tournaments, Team USA seems complacent. The fans and media seem indifferent. Where we might expect to see collective embarrassment from Team USA and their supporters over an early exit–at the hands of the French, no less–it seems like no one really cares.
There are a number of factors to consider when exploring why elite NBA players such as LeBron James, Anthony Davis, James Harden and Kyrie Irving opted against participating in FIBA Basketball World Cup. The tournament, which begins on Aug. 30, comes at an inopportune time. Having the tournament start so late in the summer complicates things because players will have an abbreviated rest period before they start their preseason routines. Furthermore, FIBA has decided to hold the World Cup on an odd-numbered schedule, meaning the FIBA World Cup and the Olympics are played in consecutive years. Committing to playing two rigorous international tournaments in consecutive years becomes an actual health hazard as it increases the likelihood of suffering an injury from overuse.
Additionally, while players like Donovan Mitchell, Kemba Walker and Myles Turner played for Team USA during the FIBA World Cup, many view those players (perhaps with the exception of Walker) as secondary and tertiary stars, incapable of elevating their respective NBA teams to championship heights. Nevertheless, it is a fair assessment to say a team led by Walker and Mitchell is objectively better than a team spearheaded by Evan Fournier and Rudy Gobert.
As mentioned before, there is a sense of complacency that permeates amongst the media and fans whenever the United States competes in international competition. That complacent mentality stems from the idea that the United States has the best basketball players in the world. Theoretically, they should dominate every tournament they compete in. With the growing talent pool that the United States has at its disposal, it is a safe bet that the United States will steamroll past their opposition. But the safe bets are rarely fun to watch.
After Team USA was eliminated, coach Gregg Popovich lamented the attitude that the media adopts whenever Team USA participates in global tournaments. “Like we should be ashamed because we didn’t win the gold medal?” Popovich said. “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.”
That attitude prevents the media and fans from placing importance on the FIBA World Cup. It explains why there is relative indifference after getting eliminated in the quarterfinals. Countries such as Spain, Argentina, Australia and Serbia understand the importance of a strong showing at international tournaments, regardless of whether it is the Olympics or not. Their countries’ pride is on the line and that is reflected by the sense of urgency these teams play with.
The FIBA World Cup, despite being the second most important international basketball tournament, holds significance to nations who feel they have something to prove on the international level. The “it isn’t the Olympics” line of thought will continue unless a greater emphasis is placed upon the shortcomings and inconsistencies of Team USA in tournaments such as the FIBA World Cup.