At 9 p.m. tonight, the USA men’s basketball team tipped off against Spain in the final game of its pre-Olympics exhibition schedule in Tokyo. If you’re reading this on Sunday, there’s a good chance it’s going on right now. You can watch it on the NBC Sports Network. (UPDATE: they won.)
Buzz for this year’s Olympic squad has been tempered for various reasons, not least of which because fans were forced to consider an uncomfortable question for much of last week: are we… bad this year?
It’s not a baseless question either, considering the men’s national team — which previously held a 54-2 record in Olympic exhibition games since they started allowing pros to play in 1992 — dropped its first two contests last weekend to Nigeria and Australia. The former was particularly embarrassing, as the U.S. had defeated Nigeria by more than 80 points just nine years earlier. They got back on the wagon with a 28-point win vs. Argentina on Wednesday, but received more bad news on Friday with the announcement that Bradley Beal was leaving the team for COVID-related reasons. As weeks go, it certainly was one.
However, I’m here to make the bold and audacious position that this team of NBA All-Stars and an MVP is not bad, but in fact could still be very good. What’s more, even if they don’t bring home the gold, I think they’ll still be pretty fun to watch. You can roast away in the comments, but please, just hear me out first.
Here are three reasons why I’m excited to see USA basketball take the court in Tokyo next weekend, and maybe you should be too.
1. ‘Cats Representing
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way. This year’s men’s national team is now set to feature three former UK players, with new addition Keldon Johnson joining Bam Adebayo and Devin Booker, who is expected to join the team at the conclusion of the NBA Finals. That’s the most ‘Cats on an Olympic basketball roster since 1948, when Adolph Rupp’s players (and Rupp himself, as a coach) formed most of the roster because they won the national title, and that’s just how it worked back then. There have been a TOTAL of three UK players (Tayshaun Prince, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins) on Olympic rosters since the ’60s. This is the first time in the professional era that any college has put three “alums” on the national team at one time. That’s pretty neat!
It’s honestly kind of wild that there hasn’t been more BBN representation in the past, especially with this being the third Olympics of the Calipari era. But the conditions lined up perfectly this year, with Booker and Adebayo’s rise to star status timed with a year in which many of the league’s brightest stars declined to participate due to the pandemic conditions, pushed-back timing of the playoffs and other factors.
It’s especially cool for Johnson, who would never have even been considered for the roster had the Olympics taken place last year as originally planned. At 21 years old, he’s the youngest player on the team and the youngest to make any U.S. Olympic roster since Davis in 2012.
We’ll see what kind of minutes he ends up getting, but Keldon’s energy could prove to be an invaluable commodity for a team sorely lacking in good vibes right now. I can’t wait to watch him show what he’s got at the highest level of international competition.
2. Underdog Vibes
I know, I know, it’s preposterous to say that a team made up of stars from the greatest basketball league in the world, having won six of the last seven gold medals, could be considered an underdog — but that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying, they have underdog vibes. And no, I don’t mean they’re flying dogs with capes.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this team, as it seems from afar, is a lack of cohesion among superstar competitors (and also Draymond Green). But that’s just the thing: these guys got where they are by being some of the toughest competitors in the world, and no matter how coddled they may be in their superstar lifestyles, that’s gotta be in there somewhere. And losing back-to-back games to worse teams with worse players, then hearing about it from the entire country for two whole weeks, could potentially inspire an us-against-the-world mentality. That would come in handy when you are, in fact, against the world.
At the very least, I figure a dip in overall talent should make for more competitive games this year, which could bolster their drive to win. Plus, there’s this:
From the G League to Team USA ?
Keldon Johnson and Khris Middleton are the only two former G League players to represent Team USA at the Olympics. pic.twitter.com/39D0X0cA8s
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 17, 2021
The G League is a grind, and it takes a dog to rise out of it. Middleton and Johnson are those dudes. As the first ex-G-Leaguers to represent Team USA, I expect them to bring that energy from day one.
3. Finals weirdness
There’s a lot about this year’s Olympics that pundits like us can pull up and say “hey, this is very unusual!” You’ll probably get used to that in the coming weeks, if you aren’t already. But one particular unusual thing that I find hilarious about the timing of this year’s games is that they *literally* start the same week that the NBA Finals end.
Most of Team USA probably doesn’t care, but three members — Booker, Middleton and Jrue Holiday — are transitioning directly from the Finals to Tokyo. That means that in a span of days, those guys are going to go from competing tooth-and-nail for 6+ games on the most important stage of their entire lives to becoming buddy-buddy teammates that have to work together to bring home a gold medal to a nation of fans that expects nothing less than perfection. It’s madness!
I know that NBA rivalries aren’t what they used to be at the personal level, but I refuse to believe that whoever loses that Suns-Bucks series is going to feel good about walking into that locker room on Saturday, dapping up a leading player from the team that just dragged their asses, and saying no hard feelings.
It’s probably happened before, and I may be reading too much into the situation. But it seems to me like the makings of a very entertaining dynamic — and I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out.
That’s my take. What say you, BBN? Will you be watching the not-so-dreamy dream team this year?