The 2019 FIBA World Cup begins in China on Saturday, with 32 countries battling for global basketball supremacy over the next two-plus weeks. This summer raised numerous questions about USA Basketball’s ability to continue its domination since last losing the tournament in 2006. We are here to answer those for the uninitiated.
Who is on Team USA?
Following an ankle injury to Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma this past weekend, USA Basketball officially finalized the 12-man roster this past weekend.
Ball-handlers: Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs
Wings: Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks; Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics; Harrison Barnes, Sacramento Kings; Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics; Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets
Bigs: Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers; Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks; Mason Plumlee, Denver Nuggets
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich assumed head coaching duties after serving as an assistant under Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewksi, whose decade-long run at the helm featured gold medals at the last three Olympics and two world championships. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce and Villanova coach Jay Wright will serve as Popovich’s assistants.
Who are the starters?
Popovich started a different lineup in each of Team USA’s four exhibitions. That may continue when the games begin in earnest, but there are some trends worth noting.
Walker is the lone All-NBA talent on the roster and started all but one of the exhibition games — a loss to Australia in which he finished as the team’s leading scorer off the bench. He will likely start at point guard when Team USA debuts against the Czech Republic on Sunday. Same goes for Mitchell, seemingly an All-NBA talent in waiting who started at shooting guard in all four exhibition games.
Middleton and Barnes are probably the favorites to start at the forwards spots. Middleton joins Walker as the only other current All-Star on the roster and started a pair of exhibition games. Barnes started the last three contests and is the lone holdover from Team USA’s gold medal-winning team at the 2016 Rio Olympics. But keep an eye on Celtics teammates Tatum and Brown. The former started the final exhibition game and played on the closing unit in Team USA’s only two close finishes. The latter has been the team’s third-leading scorer and its most efficient.
Plumlee is the only center with men’s national team experience, playing sparingly for the Team USA’s gold medal-winning 2014 FIBA World Cup team. He started the first exhibition game this summer, but Turner earned the start at center in each of the last three contests and is more likely to get the nod in China. He is probably the team’s most versatile center, although veteran Brook Lopez is the best floor-spacing option at the position and earned playing time down the stretch of a close win against Spain. Popovich has also turned to smaller lineups without any of the team’s traditional bigs on the floor, so look for the center position to remain in flux.
Where are all the superstars?
For various reasons, almost every major star in the NBA withdrew from Team USA consideration well before the start of the team’s Las Vegas training camp in July.
LeBron James reportedly scheduled “Space Jam 2” production with the knowledge that he would not play in the World Cup, although he has not ruled out participating in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He is also nearing his 35th birthday and coming off the most serious injury of a 16-year career that saw him reach eight straight Finals until last season. It would be unwise for him to unnecessarily tax his body in China.
Likewise, after five straight trips to the Finals, Stephen Curry is taking the summer off from competitive basketball. None of his Golden State Warriors teammates from this past season is participating, either. Both Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson are nursing major injuries, and Draymond Green just agreed to a $100 million extension.
Kawhi Leonard is turning his attention to the Los Angeles Clippers after leading the Toronto Raptors to the NBA title on a left leg that cost him almost all of the 2017-18 season, another 22 games this past regular season and nearly derailed his playoffs.
Five years after Paul George broke his leg in a USA Basketball scrimmage, he and several other high-profile former national team members are prioritizing their full-time jobs over the glory of representing their country again. Those names include James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving. It did not help Team USA that all of them are hoping to compete for an NBA title this season under new star partnerships and therefore are focusing on developing chemistry at home.
Didn’t a bunch of other guys bail on the team?
So many, in fact, that Team USA invited more players and called up several from its select team after announcing a group of 20 invitees in early June. And even some of them withdrew from consideration, similarly prioritizing their NBA preparation over a six-week commitment that would include stops in Australia and China.
Once Harden withdrew to focus on his partnership with Westbrook, their Houston Rockets teammates Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker did the same. Similarly, Portland Trail Blazers teammates Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum declined to participate. Even New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson, the No. 1 overall pick this past June, withdrew to focus on what he hopes to be a playoff run in his first season.
McCollum probably had the best explanation for why so many stars bailed:
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 6, 2019
McCollum listed the workload so close to the season and “potentially [being] the face of what could be a losing roster” as primary reasons some other players may have withdrawn. It is unclear which category Kevin Love and Andre Drummond — a pair of veteran former All-Stars with Team USA experience — might have fallen into.
Others withdrew for more specific reasons. Kyle Lowry was not cleared to play by the start of Team USA camp after undergoing thumb surgery following his title campaign, and Bradley Beal is awaiting the birth of his second child this summer.
The withdrawal of Kings guard De’Aaron Fox may have come as the biggest surprise. A standout on the select team, he appeared headed for a roster spot, but bowed out after playing only six minutes in USA’s exhibition opener against Spain.
Is Team USA still the favorite to win?
Yes! The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook currently features Team USA as slight favorites (4-to-7) over Serbia (2-to-1), which features Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic as the centerpiece of a roster featuring considerable NBA talent. Greece, with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo atop of the roster, is next (10-to-1), followed by Spain (20-to-1), France (25-to-1), Australia (30-to-1) and Lithuania (60-to-1).
Didn’t Team USA already lose?
The Americans lost the second of back-to-back exhibition games against Australia in Melbourne, where Spurs guard Patty Mills scored 30 points, including the final 10, in a 98-94 victory. The loss marked the first of any kind for the U.S. since the Americans lost 101-95 to Greece in the 2006 FIBA World Championship semifinals.
“The loss means that we need to play better,” Popovich told reporters afterward. “It's a measure of who you are. Nobody wins forever. This is a group of guys that's worked very hard, like I said, to get to know each other and get to know a system. And whatever comes, we can handle. Our job is to try to get better every day. We learned some things tonight. We're actually a better team now than at the start of the game, because of the knowledge from the game. So, now we move on.”
Regardless of Popovich’s poise, Team USA’s loss to Australia reaffirmed real concerns critics have that this superstar-less roster can capture the gold in China.
What is Team USA’s World Cup schedule?
Team USA drew Group E, featuring the Czech Republic, Turkey and Japan. Each team plays each other once. The U.S. schedule is as follows (all times Eastern):
Sunday: USA vs. Czech Republic, 8:30 a.m.
Tuesday: USA vs. Turkey, 8:30 a.m.
Thursday: USA vs. Japan, 8:30 a.m.
The top two teams from Group E advance to the second round, where they would play a pair of games against the top two teams from Group F (Greece, New Zealand, Brazil, Montenegro). The second round will be played from Sept. 6-9. Results from the first two rounds are combined to determine the top two teams in this new group. Those two teams then advance to the tournament’s final phase.
Assuming the U.S. emerges from that group, the Americans would then play a Sept. 10 quarterfinal in a bracket that will most likely feature France, Australia, Lithuania or Canada. A loss in the quarterfinals would spell the end of the tournament.
The Sept. 13 semifinal and Sept. 15 championship game open the door for matchups against fellow favorites Serbia and Spain. A loss in the semifinals would still allow the U.S. to compete for a bronze medal on Sept. 15, as they did in 2006.
What international NBA players are competing?
There are 44 international NBA players spread across 16 countries in the 32-team tournament, led by France with six. Five countries feature at least four NBA players.
In addition to the four Celtics playing for Team USA, Boston big men Daniel Theis and Vincent Poirier are competing for Germany and France, respectively, giving the C’s a league-high number of players competing at the World Cup. More than two-thirds of the NBA’s teams are represented either on Team USA or internationally.
The full list of foreign-born NBA players scheduled to compete in China:
Australia: Aron Baynes, Phoenix Suns; Matthew Dellavedova, Cleveland Cavaliers; Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz; Patty Mills, San Antonio Spurs
Brazil: Bruno Caboclo, Memphis Grizzlies; Cristiano Felicio, Chicago Bulls
Canada: Khem Birch, Orlando Magic; Cory Joseph, Sacramento Kings
Czech Republic: Tomas Satoransky, Chicago Bulls
France: Nicolas Batum, Charlotte Hornets; Evan Fournier, Orlando Magic; Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz; Frank Ntilikina, New York Knicks; Elie Okobo, Phoenix Suns; Vincent Poirier, Boston Celtics
Germany: Isaac Bonga, Washington Wizards; Maxi Kleber, Dallas Mavericks; Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City Thunder; Daniel Theis, Boston Celtics
Greece: Giannis and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Italy: Marco Belinelli, San Antonio Spurs; Danilo Gallinari, Oklahoma City Thunder
Japan: Rui Hachimura, Washington Wizards; Yuta Watanabe, Memphis Grizzlies
Lithuania: Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers; Jonas Valanciunas, Memphis Grizzlies
Montenegro: Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
Nigeria: Al-Farouq Aminu, Orlando Magic; Chimezie Metu, San Antonio Spurs; Josh Okogie, Minnesota Timberwolves
Puerto Rico: Isaiah Pineiro, Sacramento Kings
Serbia: Nemanja Bjelica and Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings; Marko Guduric, Memphis Grizzlies; Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets; Boban Marjanovic, Dallas Mavericks
Spain: Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors; Juancho Hernangomez, Denver Nuggets; Willy Hernangomez, Charlotte Hornets; Ricky Rubio, Phoenix Suns
Turkey: Ersan Ilyasova, Milwaukee Bucks; Furkan Korkmaz, Philadelphia 76ers; Cedi Osman, Cleveland Cavaliers
The U.S. was not the only roster impacted by the NBA exodus. Notable absences elsewhere include Australia’s Ben Simmons and a slew of Canadian-born players, including Jamal Murray, Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson and R.J. Barrett.
Where can I watch this?
All games will be streamed live on ESPN+.
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