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Why Team USA's World Cup failure was good for basketball

The US men’s national basketball team crashed out of the World Cup - but it’s a sign that other countries are closing the talent gap

Why Team USA's World Cup failure was good for basketball
Team USA have dominated in international competition but were upset on Wednesday by France. Photograph: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

This was a failure by the US men’s national basketball team, no question about it. Team USA don’t suffer too many defeats, so each one tends to feel like a disaster. To be more specific, Wednesday’s 89-78 loss to France in the quarter-finals of the Fiba World Cup was the program’s first since 2006. While it came earlier in the tournament than many had predicted, nobody can claim it was completely unexpected. History, however, tells us that the Americans will be back and stronger than ever. In the meantime, let this result be another example of the health of the sport around the world.

It was obvious heading into China that this particular edition of Team USA was going to have a challenge on its hands. Star after star dropped out on the way towards the main event, leaving the Boston Celtics point guard Kemba Walker as the sole reigning all-NBA player on the roster. The US memorably lost to Australia in a warm-up game and they probably would have dropped their game against Turkey in the tournament’s first round were in not for a series of increasingly absurd free-throw misses by their opponents late in the contest.

The 2019 squad wasn’t a Dream Team, it wasn’t even an All-Star Team. As great as the likes of Khris Middleton and Donovan Mitchell can be, it will be a long time before anybody mistakes them for the likes of LeBron James or Kevin Durant. It didn’t help that they were a hastily thrown together collection of near-stars and solid players who didn’t really get much time to get to know each other. Let’s also admit that Gregg Popovich, who was coaching the national team for the first time in his glittering career, was playing under a different set of rules from those you find in the NBA. Popovich may go down as the best coach in NBA history, but there’s still something of a learning curve to be expected here. This was a vulnerable group.

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While the 2019 squad has no choice but to soldier on, national attention will shift to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. While they may be heading home empty-handed, the players on this World Cup squad did at least manage to clinch a spot at next year’s Games. Typically, when the US embarrasses itself on the world stage, it redoubles its recruiting efforts in order to get its revenge. When Team USA merely won bronze medals in both the 2004 Summer Olympics and the 2006 Fiba World Championship, it put together the LeBron James-led Redeem Team to ensure that they would win gold in 2008. It wouldn’t be shocking if stars who couldn’t find time for the World Cup will suddenly rediscover their national pride next summer.

That’s the open secret about the Fiba World Cup: it simply doesn’t matter as much to the US as it does to other countries. There’s a glory of playing in front of gigantic global audiences at the Olympics that just doesn’t compare to playing 8.30am EST games that have been relegated to ESPN+. If there’s one lesson to be learned from the US’s flameout, it’s that the other countries had more invested this time around.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world produced some really good teams for the tournament. France’s victory over the US was technically an upset, but you wouldn’t know that from watching a game where they dominated for the majority of the second half. Led by the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, they showed that the US’s earlier struggles against Turkey weren’t just the result of an off night.

It wasn’t just that the US brought an uninspiring roster to China, it was that other countries are getting that much better at basketball. Look at who the Americans will be facing in the consolation bracket: mighty Serbia. Many had tabbed Serbia as the best team in the field, the top favorites to unseat the US in the World Cup, but instead they lost to Argentina in the quarter-finals. Now the two countries will be playing just for positioning in the final rankings.

Following their surprising victories, France and Argentina join Spain and Australia in the semi-finals. If you had filled out brackets for the Fiba World Cup, undoubtedly they are now busted and that’s probably a good thing. For basketball to fully grow on the international stage there must be some amount of global parity and there are signs that this might be on the horizon. There is no greater indicator for the health of the sport than the fact that the favorites are out of the running and the gold medal is officially up for grabs.

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