TOKYO — The indisputable reality of the U.S. men’s basketball team is that it arrives at every Olympics with the best roster regardless of which stars decide to show up. Along with that has come the burden of only one acceptable outcome, a sometimes joyless enterprise in which the only genuine source of intrigue comes in the illusion of vulnerability and distress.
But at the Tokyo Olympics, the danger and the drama are very real for USA Basketball. Should the Americans fail to win a gold medal for the first time since 2004 — a real possibility given the unique circumstances of these Games — this effort is doomed to be the subject of ridicule and recrimination. Should they win, there will be a genuine sense of accomplishment that may not be fully appreciated back home.
Either way, it’s important to understand this as the Americans prepare for their first game of group play Sunday against France: This time, coming back with a gold medal isn’t guaranteed. And if it happens, the evidence suggests this time it won’t be easy.
"If this was a normal Olympic year and the NBA season was already over and whoever the coach was had the benefit of two really good weeks of practice and then some exhibition games and then off to Tokyo, the USA would still be an overwhelming favorite," said international basketball expert Fran Fraschilla, who will work the Games as an analyst for NBC. "We are still the favorites in this tournament, but in a one-and-done March Madness situation we’re vulnerable because we haven’t had the continuity to put together our best team. It’s not an excuse, it’s just how it is."
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Of course, this has been anything but a normal year or a roster that is representative of the U.S.’s strength on the world stage. The NBA just finished a sprint of a season that was littered with injuries by the end, leaving numerous All-Star caliber players either injured or needing to maximize their recovery time with another regular season beginning in fewer than three months.
That meant no LeBron James, no Anthony Davis, no Steph Curry, no Kawhi Leonard, no Chris Paul, no Kyle Lowry, no Paul George, no Jimmy Butler. In fact, only two players who helped Team USA win the gold medal in 2016 — Kevin Durant and Draymond Green — carried over to this team. It’s also a new coaching staff, with Gregg Popovich taking over after Mike Krzyzewski led the U.S. team to three gold medals.
Compared to teams like France, Australia and Spain — whose core players have been together for multiple Olympics, World Cups and European championships — the U.S. was practically starting from zero when its training camp convened in Las Vegas a couple weeks ago.
"That’s one of the interesting things about international basketball is our team changes every year and the teams we play against stay the same, and that’s the big challenge," said Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who is an assistant on this team.
It showed in the U.S. team’s early exhibition games in Las Vegas, starting off with shocking and borderline embarrassing losses to Nigeria and Australia. Though Team USA rebounded to beat Argentina and Spain before flying to Tokyo, it has been anything but a smooth ride.
Bradley Beal, who projected as a starter for this team, tested positive for COVID-19 and was replaced by Keldon Johnson, a second-year player for the Spurs who had been practicing against the Olympic squad. Then Kevin Love, who had been a questionable selection from the beginning, bowed out last week, leaving USA Basketball scrambling to replace him. That they settled on JaVale McGee — who played a minor role this season for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Denver Nuggets — underscores the shallow pool of big men they could choose from in this particular year.
Meanwhile, both Jerami Grant and Zach LaVine went into the COVID-19 protocols last week and are only now available again to play. And when the lights flip on Sunday, USA Basketball will finally have the services of the Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker, who were tied up with the NBA Finals and will arrive in Tokyo Sunday with huge question marks surrounding their energy level and ability to assimilate into a team they haven’t practiced with at all.
"It’s definitely a little tough but I think that’s what we do," Grant said. "We’re professionals and very highly skilled, very intelligent, so whatever time we get to come together we’ve got to come together and make it work. That’s why they brought us here and I think we’ll be fine."
But what if they’re not?
If there was ever a year to give Team USA some grace for failure, it’s this one. And yet, they won’t get it if they fall short of a gold medal this time because anything short of perfection is unacceptable.
Sure, the rest of the world has gotten pretty good at basketball. That’s not news or particularly insightful. It also doesn’t mean Team USA should be losing to teams like Australia or Nigeria, neither of which have a player who would even be considered for the team if they were American.
So if this turns out to be as much of a struggle as the exhibition games portended, the blame will go to Popovich for being a bad fit in this environment, it will go to managing director Jerry Colangelo for the way he constructed the roster and it will go to the players who chose to spend their summer doing something else. That’s just the way it is. For better or worse, that’s what the guys who made it to Tokyo have signed up for.
"These circumstances are so unique," Kerr said.
The expectations, however, are not. Whether Team USA can actually meet them this time around isn’t about creating fake drama along the way to an inevitable conclusion. Starting with a tough game against France on Sunday, the uncertainty is very real.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US men's basketball faces real chance of losing gold at Tokyo Olympics