The USA is currently playing in a major international basketball tournament. The Pan Am games are underway in Toronto, and the United States is one of eight teams competing for gold on the men’s side. Americans are used to having the most talented team, by far, in any international tournament. Anomalies such as the 2004 Olympics aside, they are also accustomed to winning.
USA Basketball has taken a different approach to the Pan Am games, routinely fielding inferior teams and failing to take home the gold medal that should be the birthright of the greatest basketball nation on the planet. The USA took home the bronze at the last Pan Am games in 2011, and finished fifth in 2007. In fact, it’s been 32 years since the USA took home the gold at the Pan Ams.
When we look at this year’s roster, we begin to develop an understanding of the reason for these disappointing finishes. This years’ team is made up mostly of college upperclassmen like Ronald Baker of Wichita State and Malcolm Brogdon of the University of Virginia, alongside a handful of NBA Journeymen such as Ryan Hollins and a couple of international players in Bobby Brown and Keith Langford.
The USA could be forgiven for not fielding an Olympic-calibre Dream Team for the Pan Am games. While a major tournament, it is not the Olympics or the World Cup. It is not even the biggest international tournament of the summer, with the Olympic-qualifier Tournament of the Americas set to tip-off on August 31st.
This does not mean that USA is justified in mailing this one in in the way that they are. First of all, America has a reputation to uphold. The 2004 Olympics were a major blow to the nation’s basketball identity. Failing to win gold in three consecutive Pan Am games should not be viewed as any less of a failing. While Steph Curry and Anthony Davis are unlikely to show up for a lower level tournament like the Pan Ams, the USA could certainly have fielded a better team than the one currently in Toronto, and should have done so for reasons of pride alone.
Secondly, the USA is missing out on a great opportunity to bring young players into the USA Basketball fold and gain valuable international basketball experience. None of the players on the Pan Am roster will ever play in the Olympics or World Cup – the two marquee international basketball events and the clear priorities for USA Basketball. The challenge faced by the USA in these tournaments is not a lack of talent – the USA could field five teams with enough talent to place 1-5 in any of those events.
The challenge faced by the USA in any international tournament is bringing together a group of superstars and getting them to play with sufficient cohesion to let their talent carry them through to a gold medal. As seen in 2004, this is not always an easy task. Moreover, the rest of the world is quickly catching up to the USA. Spain has fielded teams with multiple NBA all-stars for years. Canada now has the potential to produce a roster comprised entirely of NBA players. Other nations have routinely competed with much more talented American teams because of experience playing together and familiarity with the systems run by the national program.
By ignoring tournaments like the Pan Am games, the USA is foregoing the opportunity to build this kind of cohesion and familiarity. Instead of fielding a team of players that will likely never again don a USA uniform, the American team should be comprised of future potential dream teamers, players that would not make the 2016 Olympic team, but who might have a shot at the 2020 or 2024 Olympics. This is what teams such as Canada are doing, playing Kentucky-bound point guard Jamal Murray significant minutes at the age of 18. While Murray is unlikely to be a factor in the Olympics, he should be a fixture with the team over the next 10-15 years. By giving him an important role now, Murray builds international experience, becomes familiar with Team Canada’s systems, and maybe most importantly, builds a relationship with and loyalty to the Canadian National Team.
The 2004 Olympic Team was headlined by Allen Iverson, Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwayne Wade, and was captained by Tim Duncan. The Argentinian squad that beat the Americans was talented, but with the possible exception of Manu Ginobili, had no one that would have come close to making the American Team. If that American team had played together in the 2003 Pan Am games, or in Olympic Qualifying or in the 2002 World Cup, the 2004 Olympics might have turned out much differently.