How USA men’s basketball can still win gold in the 2020 Olympics

tom ziller.0 - How USA men’s basketball can still win gold in the 2020 OlympicsJames Harden and Anthony Davis are past Team USA stars that need to be on the 2020 Olympic team. | Getty Images/SB Nation illustration

Getting James Harden to play is Step 1.

Sure, Team USA men’s basketball lost in a tournament game using NBA players for the first time since 2006 on Wednesday. Sure, Team USA will not win a medal — or even finish in the top six — at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, let alone win the tournament. Sure, 12 NBA players, plus a vaunted NBA and NCAA coaching staff, gave up their summer for an experience that will largely be remembered by the viewing public as a failure.

But it’s not all bad news for Team USA. The Americans got further in the tournament than all but one other Western Hemisphere team, which means that the United States has secured a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics men’s basketball tournament. Team USA will be back next summer.

The question now becomes: in what form will Team USA return?

We know Gregg Popovich and assistant coaches Steve Kerr, Lloyd Pierce, and Jay Wright will be back. We presume most of the players available this summer will be interested in coming back. We presume, based on past experience, that some of the players who declined participation this summer will be more interested in Olympic service.

But how do you build a roster that can win the tournament?

I have some ideas.

James Harden

Harden was the would-be Team USA star who declined to participate this summer that could have singlehandedly changed the squad’s fate. He just checks so many boxes that Team USA left unmarked. Donovan Mitchell was really good in the United States’ loss to France, but even when hitting shots, he doesn’t have anywhere near the gravity that Harden does. Kemba Walker doesn’t have that gravity either. Against physical opponents free to zone up, you need an unstable isotope shredding the system. That’s Harden.

Of course, saying that Team USA can win the Olympic tournament by adding one of the five best players in the world to the roster is an obvious claim. But it needs to be said. Team USA didn’t have a top-10 player in the world on this roster. It probably needs one to ensure victory at the world stage. Harden would be an instant best fit, and is the most gettable star of the best players (including Stephen Curry, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant among the Americans).

World Cup: Myles Turner, Brook Lopez, and Mason Plumlee. Lopez and Plumlee didn’t play much. Turner had a mixed tournament. Popovich relied on lots of smallball, but none of it worked against Rudy Gobert and France.

Nikola Jokic and Spain’s Marc Gasol. One of the more underrated players of Team USA’s last cycle was DeMarcus Cousins, who played a key role in keeping pressure on opposing centers and at least providing size on defense.

Anthony Davis would be a huge win for Team USA next summer, as he would be the de facto center in all line-ups. Otherwise, this is the toughest spot to fill. So many of the best NBA centers are international (including Karl-Anthony Towns, who would play for the Dominican Republic), and the position has been de-emphasized in the NBA.

If there’s a breakout American center in the NBA this season, USA Basketball needs to pounce in case Davis declines.

Step 3: Don’t get too cute

ESPN’s Jonathan Givony suggested that Team USA should devote two or three roster spots to high-level Americans who play professionally in Europe to help the squad adjust to the style played on the continent. Cory Higgins was mentioned as a candidate under this rationale.

This idea is flatly absurd.

Team USA’s core issue is not that they have too much talent. Devoting precious roster space to less talented players isn’t going to solve the problem of Rudy Gobert, or an opponent who gets hot from three. Suggesting that Team USA could have beat France if only Brook Lopez and Derrick White were replaced by Higgins and Will Clyburn is an insult to the very talented players of the French national team, the best of which thrive in the NBA, not Euroleague.

However, a Dream Team of American-born Euroleague players would be an excellent replacement for the USA Select team that works out with and scrimmages against Team USA during the pre-Olympic training period. Pay a few of those players whatever it takes to spend two weeks playing European-style basketball against Team USA in Las Vegas before every tournament. Just don’t then take them to the tournament instead of high-end NBA talent.

This “don’t get too cute” rule also applies to selecting certain NBA players. I suppose we’ll never really know if De’Aaron Fox legitimately pulled out or if he was given an opportunity to exit in lieu of being cut. If it’s the latter, that’s an enormous mistake on the part of Jerry Colangelo and Popovich to take a third center or White over Fox, who could have been a difference-maker against France and in the close call against Turkey. But given that we don’t really know what happened there, it’s impossible to hold it against Team USA.

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