The U.S. Olympic basketball team made headlines recently by losing two games in pre-Olympic exhibition play.
The Americans lost to Nigeria 90-87 in their first game.
And to Argentina in the second game, 91-83.
Both games were played on a home court, in Las Vegas.
The U.S. team managed to win its third game, 108-80 against Argentina. Maybe now, serial grump Gregg Popovich, the U.S. coach, can be civil again.
Heading into this year, the Americans had won 54 of 56 exhibition games since professionals started playing in 1992.
All this notwithstanding, no one should be surprised when the U.S. team loses a game (or two or three) in international competition. The wonder is that it hasn’t happened more frequently.
It’s no secret that the rest of the world has been gaining ground on the NBA for years, and you don’t have to look any further than the NBA itself to see it happening.
• The best young player in the NBA — and maybe the best player, period — is the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic, a 22-year-old from Slovenia.
• The NBA’s 2021 Most Valuable Player was Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, a 26-year-old from Serbia.
• The runner-up in the MVP voting was Joel Embiid, a 27-year-old from Cameroon who plays for the Philadelphia 76ers.
• The 2020 and 2019 MVP was Giannis Antetokounmpo, a 26-year-old from Greece who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks. That’s three-straight years in which a European player has been named the league’s MVP.
• Three of the five players named to the All-NBA first team for 2021 are from Europe — Antetokoumpo, Doncic and Jokic. Another European was voted to the second team. And another to the third team.
• Two of the five players named to the 2020 All-NBA first team were from Europe, and two more Europeans were selected to the second team and one more to the third team.
• The last four winners of the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award are all international players — Frenchman Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz (three times) and Antetokounmpo.
• Some 43 foreign players have been chosen in the last three NBA drafts (until 1983, only two foreign players had ever been drafted). In the last 10 years, 29 foreign players have been taken in the top 10 of the draft.
• Opening-day rosters for the 2020-21 NBA season included 107 international players from 41 countries. That’s seven consecutive years of 100 or more foreign players on NBA teams.
• Ten of the 12 teams that qualified for the Olympic tournament have NBA players on their rosters, including the two teams that defeated the U.S. recently — Nigeria has eight and Australia six. NBA players are also on Olympic rosters for Argentina, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Slovenia and Spain.
The U.S. has participated in 18 Olympic basketball tournaments and won 15 of them, including six of the last seven. They have had their way for the most part. But the time is coming when things will change and that time might be sooner than you expect.
When a reporter asked U.S. player Damian Lillard what it was like watching the U.S. teams from the past blow opponents off the court and now struggle to post wins, Popovich butted in. When he isn’t delivering surly, condescending political lectures, Popovich is delivering surly, condescending basketball lectures, which is what he gave the poor reporter.
“You asked the same sort of question ... last time (after the loss to Nigeria), where you assume things that are not true, when you just mention blowing these teams out. That’s never happened. So I don’t know where you get that.”
When the reporter tried to respond, telling the coach, “That’s not true,” Popovich cut him off — “Can I finish? Can I finish? Can I finish my statement? Can I finish my statement? Are you going to let me finish my statement or not? So, you’ll be quiet now while I talk, then I’ll listen to you.”
Well, the coach is dead wrong, and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise. The U.S. team has made a habit of blowing out opponents over the years, as the rest of us remember. Nine years ago they beat Nigeria by 83 points in the London Games and five years ago they beat Nigeria by 43 points in an exhibition game. In Olympic competition, the average point differential has been:
1992 Barcelona: 43.8
1996 Atlanta: 32.3
2000 Sydney: 21.6
2004 Athens: 4.6
2008 Beijing: 27.9
2012 London: 32.1
2016 Rio: 22.5
“These other countries continue to improve,” Lillard said before Popovich inserted himself into the conversation. “These players get better, and they get more confident, and they want to beat us badly. It’s definitely noticeable when you’re on the floor.”