On Sunday, the United States men’s basketball team cruised to a 96-66 victory against Serbia — whose roster featured only one current NBA player — to win its third consecutive gold medal. It’s not often that a team that goes undefeated in the Olympics will be the subject of criticism, but that’s exactly what happened in the past few weeks.
In Rio, Team USA was favored by double digits in every single game it played, making ‘heavy favorite’ an understatement when describing the expectations that rested upon the team. Imagine the angst of those NBA fans who preached about the lack of parity resulting from Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Warriors and multiply that by five — that’s how non-American fans of international basketball feel when the Olympics roll around and their team is somehow supposed to contend against the 12-headed monster that is Team USA. Team USA boasts bench units more talented than every other country’s starting lineup, creating a massive advantage in roster quality that makes them practically impossible to beat.
But somehow, they looked mortal for several games.
In the group stage, Team USA received its first scare when it only beat Australia by 10 points, in a game that was closely contested until the final minutes. That game looked like an anomaly, until two days later the U.S. barely held on for a three-point victory against Serbia. Two days after that, they narrowly beat France by three points. Given the talent pool that it has access to, it was clear that Team USA was underachieving.
So, who’s to blame? Is it Stephen Curry and LeBron James for not fulfilling their duties to their country and gracing Team USA with their otherworldly talents? They shouldn’t be blamed for valuing their NBA careers and embracing the opportunity for rest after deep playoff runs, in anticipation of yet another deep playoff run.
Do we blame the players who did represent the U.S. for underperforming? Almost every player on the roster played as well as they could considering they were thrust into the unfamiliar role of not being the first or second option on offense.
Through the process of elimination, I firmly believe that the person who deserves blame is Mike Krzyzewski, Team USA’s head coach. I recognize that there’s a tendency in professional sports to scapegoat the head coach when a team doesn’t live up to its expectations, but — if you ignore my lack of fondness for Duke — there’s clearly no reason why I would be biased against Krzyzewski, a man who’s coached Duke to five NCAA championships since 1980.
There are two concrete reasons why I think Krzyzewski is at fault. The first is that Krzyzewski plays an important role in determining the composition of the roster, and he failed to select a pass-first point guard to complement the ball-dominant talents of most other players on the roster. In 2008 and 2012, Team USA had the likes of Chris Paul and Jason Kidd to facilitate the offense. Kyrie Irving is incredibly talented, but he wasn’t suited for the role of point guard on a team with so many skilled offensive players because he has the tendency to dribble out possessions rather than actively involve his teammates. It’s Krzyzewski that should be blamed for putting Irving in a role that his talents weren’t fit for.
Krzyzewski also failed to inspire his stars to play attentive defense consistently. Team USA has the size and athleticism to disrupt the offense of every team competing, but they didn’t always show it during these Olympics. The discipline required to put in a high level of effort on defense should be instilled within the players by the coach, but Krzyzewski didn’t seem to deliver on that this year. The players are definitely responsible for some of the blame on this front as well, but I doubt this will happen under a coach like Gregg Popovich in the upcoming 2020 Olympics.
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