The World Hasn’t Caught Up – USA Basketball Has Gone Backwards

2023 FIBA World Cup - USA Senior Men's National Team v Greece
NBAE via Getty Images

Whispers have been circulating since 2004 when the US was humiliated in the Olympics. Those whispers were heightened when they followed that up with another bronze medal in the 2006 FIBA World Championship. People were talking about whether the rest of the world had caught up to the US in basketball. The answer is the same today as it was then, a resounding “NO!”. The world has improved dramatically, there is no denying that but “caught up” would suggest that the playing field is even. If that were the case, then it wouldn’t be a surprise every time a team is remotely competitive with the US or actually beats them. But with that being said, there is a reason why this topic has legs in the first place. It has nothing to do with the world’s improvement and everything to do with the US’s regression.

I get it. Everyone wants to see an empire fall. And the US has certainly given cause for debate. Then when Noah Lyles threw his hissy fit this past summer and Team USA responded by not even reaching the podium at FIBA, everyone flew off the deep end. But let’s be real here, the illusion of the world being on equal ground is a byproduct of the US simply not caring about international basketball competition. And that in and of itself is reflective of a few things that plague hoops in this country. We’ll get into a few of them but first, we have to address the issue of you people thinking players in other countries are as good as the homegrown talent. The foreign boys have a few guys representing at the top of the league. Sure you have the Giannis, Lukas, Jokics and Embiids of the world but to act like that level of talent is widespread throughout the international ranks is disingenuous at best. As a single entity, USA basketball is still far and away better than any other country. To make it remotely fair, you would have to combine the rest of the world and line them up against us. The NBA is the highest concentrated group of basketball talent in the world by the distance of Mars to Pluto and I really need y’all to stop being willfully ignorant to that fact. I guess technically the gap is closing but it’s the equivalent of filling the Grand Canyon with a single cement truck.

And I know what some of you are thinking, “If the US is still so much better then why don’t they dominate like they used to?”. I’m glad you asked. It’s a combination of good old-fashioned American arrogance and a dismissive attitude toward international hoops. The Stars and Stripes can return to dishing out Dream Team-style ass-whoopings whenever they’re ready but it’s going to take a shift in mindset. Just think about the difference in how we approach the game. The first thing to point out is our best players don’t even play. There used to be some pride attached to destroying the rest of the world. Apparently, it no longer exists. And you would think after foreign players come over here and talk about how easy the NBA is compared to overseas the local guys would make it a point to shut them up. But I guess they have more important things to do. While representing your country in international competition is the ultimate honor abroad, it has become an afterthought in the States. We need to get over ourselves because the aura of invincibility USA basketball used to have is gone. The intimidation factor was worth 15 points alone. We have to reestablish that dominance.

1992 Dream Team

Then let’s look at the preparation. Since the Hardwood Avengers formed in 1992 and committed the basketball equivalent of foreign war crimes in Barcelona, teams have been fixated on beating us. For 30 years, they’ve been shipping off their middle school-aged boys to basketball internment camps to play against grown men and develop a style specifically engineered to blow up the NBA. All of this to get a crack at us every four years. And while the US never quite went to those extremes, there used to be a greater sense of urgency and dedication toward the process. People forget that Team USA is a program. It’s more than the “Let’s slap a bunch of guys together and hope for the best” fiasco it has become in recent years. Sure the Dream Team is the greatest group of basketball talent ever assembled, but there was still intentionality in their mission. They were locked in and determined to prove that no other country was in their stratosphere. Needless to say, mission accomplished. Fast forward three decades, and we’re now sending the C Squad. The passion simply isn’t there and guys aren’t adapting to the international rules. But yet and still, even with other countries going to great lengths to compete and with all the deficiencies that are now present within USA Basketball, it’s still a national holiday in Slovenia if they happen to get a victory over us. It’s really a shame that the US has allowed their dominance to be questioned willingly but I guess the good part is they can reverse their fortunes at any time. I suppose it’s like an addict. You have to hit your bottom before you decide to take charge and work towards recovery. But what is the bottom now? It used to be an insult to play a closely contested international game. The standards have been lowered and it’s resulted in sending a shabby product to represent this country on the world stage.

Toni Kukoc, Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac

Before we continue I need people to understand that “The world is getting better” and “The world has caught up” are two completely different statements. Because yes, the world is improving. The globalization of the game and yeah, sending your kids off to train like Ivan Drago before they can start shaving will do that. But from top to bottom, there is no comparison between the talent here and abroad. For every Luka Doncic, there are ten guys who are treated like gods in their countries and the most time they’ve spent in an NBA uniform was on media day. Playing and succeeding in the league is still the goal for most players. Our old players go across the water when they can no longer achieve optimal performance here. And guess what, they still kill. So no, the world has not caught up. And people speak as if there has not always been exceptional talent worldwide. I’d line Arvydas Sabonis, Drazen Petrovic, Oscar Schmidt, Toni Kukoc, Sarunas Marciulionis, and Hakeem Olajuwon up against any international players out there today. Reducing the US’s dominance in previous years to “Oh the competition just wasn’t as good.” is lazy and frankly not truthful. Sure, the game has grown across the globe. But we can’t use that as an excuse instead of holding American players accountable for not maintaining the standard that was set by their predecessors.

And one last thing before I get out of here. If the world has indeed caught up, we have to let go of this “so much more evolved and skilled” trope that’s been peddled for the last few years. There is no way American players could have evolved so much in the past 30 years to the point where ’90s guys are considered plumbers in comparison while simultaneously getting lapped by international talent that makes the 50 pt shalackings the Dream Team doled out a simple case of “The guys they were playing against were trash.” Is it “Oochie Wally Wally” or is it “One Mic”? Because either way, at one point we were (and really still are) leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the world regarding matters of roundball. And now since the competitive fire has died down, the physicality of the international game hinders NBA players, and our best players choose to spend their summers galavanting with their celebrity friends people want to say American players are no longer the best in the world instead of simply holding up a mirror in front of our guys and demanding excellence. A fully committed and focused Team USA with our best talent mops up every other country. But that’s up to Team USA to provide. How we got to the point where putting our best foot forward was optional is beyond me. But alas, here we are.

This topic should not be a topic but it’s the American players’ and the NBA’s fault that it is. By removing the physical aspect of the game and making defense an afterthought, American-born players are ill-equipped for international play. When you have some of the best scorers in the NBA saying it’s harder to score in FIBA competition, then we have a problem. But this can all be solved. Whether or not the US rules the international hoops landscape with an iron fist is totally up to the US. The moment they decide that we’re going back to 70-point massacres and opponents just being happy to share the court with them, it will be so. What needs to happen for that decision to be made remains to be seen. How do we get back to the point where nothing is more important than establishing ultimate supremacy over every other country? I guess it’s pretty hard to change course when our C students keep beating their valedictorians.

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