The Long Two: Team USA struggling and NBA Draft inflection points

Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images
Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images /

What’s behind the United States’ early struggles in the Olympics? Plus, two key inflection points that could determine the course of Thursday’s NBA Draft.

Depending on one’s viewpoint, the early returns on the 2021 U.S. Men’s Basketball Team fall somewhere between puzzling and discouraging. Two summers after a seventh-place finish in the World Cup, Gregg Popovich’s second summer at the helm of the USA Basketball program has done little to quell any potential concerns over the team’s standing on the world stage.

Losses to Australia and Nigeria in exhibition play earlier this month were compounded when the U.S. fell again to France in the summer’s first official Olympic action. They responded with a lopsided win over Iran later this week, but given the improvement of other international teams and the lack of superstar talent on its own roster, USA Basketball may only be at the front end of a steady decline. Not only is a gold medal no longer guaranteed, the United States will have to work harder than ever to finish this summer’s Games standing on the podium.

Why is Team USA struggling so much in Olympic competition?

The leveling of the international basketball playing field (or court, in this case) has several primary causes, not the least of which is the rise in talent outside of the United States, much of which has ascended to a world-class level of play. More non-American players currently make up NBA rotations than ever before, and thus a higher percentage of international rosters feature NBA players; the reigning NBA MVP and Finals MVP are from Serbia and Greece, respectively; the best player in these Olympics may, in fact, belong to Slovenia. While this has all been great for the state of the NBA and the sport itself, it necessarily makes the U.S. more vulnerable in international competition.

Not only are more opponents stocked with NBA players, those opponents have far more experience playing together than the American roster, which insulates them from some of the disjointed play that has often plagued the U.S. over the last few summers. Most international basketball powers have featured largely the same core players for nearly every recent major competition. (This may be a result of other countries having fewer NBA-caliber players, and thus clearer roster-building choices and more continuity from tournament to tournament.)

The United States, by contrast, assembles unique rosters for each competition, and players have less time and familiarity with one another. In prior Olympics, the U.S. had enough superstar talent to either establish continuity on the fly or simply render the concept moot. In this tournament, a lack of cohesion has led to defensive breakdowns and offensive stagnation. Absent multiple top-five players and a bench full of All-Stars, the international talent disparity has narrowed to a point of American vulnerability. Only two of the 10 American players — Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal — on this season’s All-NBA teams are on the Olympic roster (though that group doesn’t include Kevin Durant, who certainly would have made the cut had he been healthy), and the supporting cast around them is hardly an ideal fit.

At times, the U.S. has scored almost at will this summer (though playing two non-shooting bigs against France allowed Rudy Gobert to stay in the paint and barricade the rim); the larger issue has been on defense, where they struggled to contain the ball against France or track Australia’s off-ball action. The imbalanced roster has more shot creators than it needs and too few point-of-attack defenders, plenty of front-line versatility but relatively little rim protection.

An ace scorer like Zach LaVine becomes redundant on a team that already features Lillard, Durant, Beal, Devin Booker and Jayson Tatum, while a stalwart on-ball defender like Jrue Holiday is made alarmingly central to a team without any other perimeter stoppers. Popovich has a handful of smart, versatile five-man lineups at his disposal, but not the personnel to keep those units on the floor for an entire game.

These are the kind of problems reserved for a nation with the deepest basketball talent pool in the world, but it does feel like a missed opportunity to craft a more balanced and symbiotic roster around two All-World scorers. Finding more minutes for Tatum and Khris Middleton might help bring more two-way balance, and integrating Holiday more fully should provide more defensive stability around the team’s many offensive focal points. Popovich may also consider switching less often with his bigs on the floor in order to keep Draymond Green and Bam Adebayo closer to the basket.

At full strength, the United States still has significantly more talent than any of its opponents, and as the team continues to build chemistry that advantage may be enough to overwhelm the rest of the world. But at this moment, their edge looks smaller than ever — perhaps enough for an opportunistic rival to set its sights on a gold medal.

Where will the NBA Draft go after the top three picks?

As of Thursday morning, the first three players selected in the 2021 NBA Draft appear all but finalized, even if the exact order in which Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley and Jalen Green hear their names called remains murky. Cunningham has long been the class’s presumptive and worthy top pick, and most recent reporting indicates that neither Mobley nor Green will slip past the Cavaliers’ grasp at third overall. The stylistic and positional contrasts between Green and Mobley will make for a fascinating decision for the Rockets, who own the second pick, but the first real turning point of Thursday’s proceedings will likely come after both players come off the board and the Raptors go on the clock.

Toronto is at something of a crossroads of their own this offseason, with Kyle Lowry entering unrestricted free agency and the team coming off a disappointing and turbulent year. Gonzaga point guard Jalen Suggs would fit in nicely as both a potential Lowry replacement and long-term organizational building block to pair with the team’s younger players; Toronto could also take a swing on a riskier player with higher upside and trust its historically successful player development track record.

The more interesting scenario, however, doesn’t involve the Raptors making the fourth pick, but trading it, either for a star, future draft capital or some other form of immediate help. There appears to be a clear line of separation between the top four prospects in this draft — Cunningham, Green, Mobley and Suggs — and the rest of the lottery, and Toronto will likely hear plenty of offers from teams trying to move into that top four. The Sixers are reportedly actively shopping Ben Simmons, while both Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal have been speculated as trade targets for contending teams around the NBA. While all three seem unlikely to be traded Thursday night, draft night serves as a kind of pseudo-deadline for sellers — the last point before draft picks convey into actual players.

A draft-night trade of Beal or Lillard would also be a key clarifying point ahead of free agency, when several teams will be aggressively pursuing point and combo guards. A Lillard trade, in particular, would be good news for Lowry, whose market in free agency would only intensify with the only available elite point guard off the market and some teams still desperate to upgrade at the position. Beal would likely cost less than Lillard and may have fewer suitors, but could still be a highly valuable addition for the rare team on the precipice of title contention that also has enough assets to acquire him.

That leads to the second potential inflection point of the draft: the seventh pick. The Warriors are currently slated to draft seventh and 14th, but with a star trio all in their 30s (one of whom is recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon), Golden State stands as the most logical lottery team to try and package its picks for a useful veteran — if not an All-Star — this offseason in an attempt to keep its championship window open. If the Warriors keep their picks, they’ll likely target older draftees who could plausibly step into an NBA rotation and contribute next season. But depending on the trajectory of the team making the pick, the list of options at seven and 14 may look vastly different.

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