It’s usually pretty smooth sailing over at USA Basketball. When not choosing teams from the most talented pool of players in the world, you kick back and count all of your gold medals.
If you're particularly bored, you can always pop in an old tape of the 1992 Dream Team. Or plow through the record book of the women’s team — which hasn’t lost even a game at the Olympics in nearly 30 years.
Then came this week, or USA Basketball’s Terrible, Horrible, (almost) No Good, Very Bad Week, which for the Americans' sake, hopefully doesn’t lead to an even more Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Olympics.
A quick reminder: This roster still has Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Khris Middleton, Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum and a ton of other talent, so “terrible,” “horrible” and “very bad” are all relative terms. The rest of the world can only hope to be described as such.
However, in the annals of USA Basketball’s generally gilded existence (not since 2004 has there been much of a crisis), the still-choppy, semi-out-of-shape and still-limited roster dropped two exhibition games — losses to Nigeria and Australia. They did rebound to defeat Argentina, of course, which is the lone bright spot.
Then COVID-19 protocols began rearing its ugly head. First Washington’s Bradley Beal was placed in health and safety protocols in accordance with IOC rules on Wednesday. Detroit’s Jerami Grant followed on Thursday.
Before long, Beal was ruled out for the Olympics and an exhibition game against Australia set to be held in Las Vegas was canceled as a precaution. (There is a belief Grant will be able to stick with the team.)
“I’m dying for [Beal],” head coach Gregg Popovich said. “We all are. Since he was a little kid, this has been a dream of his, and he was playing great.”
Also Friday, reserve big Kevin Love withdrew from the team citing a calf injury.
So that’s two players down. They were quickly replaced by Keldon Johnson (San Antonio) and JaVale McGee (Denver) who will scramble to join the club before everyone heads to Japan on Monday. They will have little to no time to mesh with the other players (just a Sunday exhibition game against Spain).
The Americans' Olympic schedule begins a week from Sunday against France.
“We don’t have time once we get there,” Popovich said. “[We’ll just have] a couple of practices.”
A lack of continuity was an issue in the exhibition losses. Due to COVID, the 2020-21 NBA season started late, which limited time for the team to be together and led to a number of high-profile opt-outs citing the need for rest after a season that came after the late summer “bubble” in Orlando.
Team USA is also down three players who are still competing in the NBA Finals — Milwaukee’s Middleton and Jrue Holiday and Phoenix’s Booker.
The problem? That series is now knotted at two games, meaning the soonest it can end is Tuesday and may go all the way to a Game 7 on Thursday — which is Friday morning in Tokyo. Or two days and half a world away from the Olympic opener.
That would leave the Americans with just nine players (and that’s with Tatum nursing a knee injury). Only seven will have gone through the entire pre-Olympics buildup.
Exactly what the motivation level is for players who are coming directly after winning or losing a NBA Finals remains to be seen. Middleton, Holiday and Booker are all big-time professionals who, like everyone on the team, spent their life dreaming of the opportunity to represent their county. That’s a tough turnaround, though — physically, emotionally and geographically.
They’ll get there, but still … not ideal.
Then there is the recurring issue of COVID. The Olympics are testing and tracing and testing and tracing — which puts availability at risk even if the players are vaccinated and at almost no actual risk of having health issues.
The better move for competitive reasons would be to not test at all, but that is not how the IOC is going to do it. So the fate of Beal, and even Grant, could extend to anyone.
The U.S. should still be considered the favorite to win gold. If nothing else, it has Durant. As long as KD is there, they can win any and every game. Plus, by the time games get tight in the knockout rounds, the three NBA finalists should be integrated into the system. Perhaps.
This is all happening on the fly, though — limited to even zero prep time, roster moves on the eve of the Games and the fear of Olympic COVID protocols upsetting everything.
This was a tough week for a team that rarely sees them. Will it last?
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