In an overtime thriller, Team USA lost to Canada 127-118 in the third-place game at the FIBA Basketball World Cup. Unfortunately, it wasn’t their only loss; Team USA also fell to Germany in a heartbreaking 113-111 defeat and even lost to the small nation of Lithuania 110-104.
Similar to the FIFA World Cup, the FIBA Basketball World Cup is held every four years, featuring 32 nations divided into eight groups of four. In the initial group stage, each country faces every other country once. Then, the top two teams from each of the eight groups are placed into another group to play two additional contests. The top eight squads remaining are re-seeded and then play in a single-elimination format to determine the champion.
Despite myriad NBA superstars like Lebron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant electing not to compete for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup, the U.S. remained a clear favorite going into the tournament. Led by four-time NBA champion coach Steve Kerr and numerous NBA All-Stars such as Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Jalen Brunson, the team had no shortage of talent but lacked experience on the international stage.
Team USA started off strong, stringing together three consecutive victories against New Zealand, Greece, and Jordan. While they dominated these matchups, the team faced little NBA-level talent.
Despite its initial victories, the U.S. struggled in the second group stage. Team USA barely fended off Montenegro, a country of only 600,000 inhabitants and one NBA player. Then, Team USA dropped its first game to Lithuania. Although it displayed arguably less talent, Lithuania dominated the glass, winning the rebound battle 43-27 with a staggering 18 offensive boards.
With a 4-1 record, Team USA earned a spot in the single-elimination tournament. After dominating Italy by 37 points, it appeared that the team of stars had found its rhythm. In the semi-final matchup against Germany, Team USA’s defense struggled to contain the interior presence of NBA journeyman Daniel Theis and the offense of Franz Wagner. In vying for third place, the U.S. encountered similar problems against Canada. The talent of the Canadian NBA trio of Dillon Brooks, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and RJ Barrett combined for 93 points. USA’s guards subsequently struggled to keep up in transition and allowed Canada open threes.
What led to Team USA’s poor showing? One might point to the difference in rules between FIBA and the NBA. In the NBA, officials are stricter against defenders; attempts to contest shots or swipe at the ball with minor contact are commonly called fouls. In FIBA, officials are more lenient, allowing players to jostle for rebounds and be more aggressive. The difference in play style likely benefited international players accustomed to these rules, giving them a defensive edge over the Americans. Furthermore, the team lacked size and a true center to compete with other skilled and physical bigs.
Is the domination of American basketball coming to an end? It’s unlikely. Superstars like Lebron James have already hinted at playing for the U.S. at the Paris Olympics in 2024, so the team should be loaded with more talent than they had at FIBA. Team USA’s failures, though unfortunate, do not necessarily indicate future failure; the team has lost many times in the past while still winning gold at the following year’s Olympics.
Nevertheless, basketball is becoming more globalized. The last three winners of the NBA MVP award – Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Giannis Antetokoumpo – are all international players. Some of the world’s best players hail from other associations like the EuroLeague and Spain’s Liga. Team USA faces a tough road ahead at the 2024 Olympics against a multitude of contenders including France, Spain, Germany, Canada, and Serbia.