olympics 2021

U.S. Men’s Basketball Had a Rocky Tokyo Olympics Start. I’m Still Excited.

Kevin Durant of the USA men’s national team smiles during the game against the Spain men’s national team on July 18 in Las Vegas. Photo: Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

For basketball fans, the fact that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are happening despite, uh, everything is excellent news, since the NBA Finals just wrapped up and now we have something to fill the void until the new season begins in October. The Team USA roster is stacked with some of the best players in the league, including two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant, six-time All-Star Damian Lillard, 2021 NBA champions Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, two-time All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker, and 2017 Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green.

And yet Team USA taking home the gold is not a sure thing by any means. The team lost its first two exhibition games to Nigeria and Australia. Losses in these friendly games don’t have any bearing on the Olympics, but it’s perhaps a bad omen considering the roster and the fact that Team USA is ranked first in the world, while Australia is No. 3 and Nigeria is No. 22. After those surprising losses, Lillard noted that Team USA has a sort of inherent disadvantage. “These teams are experienced, and they’ve spent a lot of time together,” he said. “We are still working at becoming a team.”

Durant echoed that sentiment. “We’re a team that’s still coming together and trying to find our identity. We have so many great players that you can play so many different ways, and we are indecisive at times on defense and offense,” he said. “In the midst of us figuring it out, these teams are established and they’re running their sets. We’re working on our sets. The stars were kind of aligned for us to lose early on.”

The 2020–21 NBA season saw its best players sidelined by injuries and COVID-19 health and safety protocols, and the national team is no different. Nets superstar James Harden bowed out before training camp even began due to a hamstring injury that arguably cost his team a chance at making it to the Finals. Bradley Beal, a Washington Wizards shooting guard who scored the second-most points in the NBA this past season, had to withdraw after he tested positive for the coronavirus. 2016 NBA champion and six-time All-Star Kevin Love dropped out owing to a right-calf strain. They were replaced with lesser-known NBA players, JaVale McGee of the Denver Nuggets and Keldon Johnson of the San Antonio Spurs, a somewhat confusing choice considering their so-so stats and how many of the league’s top players weren’t selected for the team, like Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans and Atlanta Hawks superstar Trae Young. In response to his conspicuous omission, Young tweeted a clip of Isiah Thomas talking about his Dream Team snub in The Last Dance: “I don’t know what went into that process. I met the criteria to be selected, but I wasn’t.”

Nevertheless, I like Team USA’s chances. It won its last two exhibition games, beating Argentina (ranked fourth internationally) by 28 points and Spain (ranked second) by seven points. Plus, after Durant’s devastating loss in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference semifinals, he’s almost certainly ready to remind the world that he is, in fact, a winner. Ditto for Lillard, one of the league’s best players, who has never participated in the Olympics nor an NBA championship. And the team has now gained three more top-notch players: Holiday and Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks and Booker of the Phoenix Suns, who weren’t able to attend training camp or the exhibition games because they were playing in the NBA championship. The addition of Holiday is especially auspicious because while the team is stacked with great offensive players, it is a little lacking on defense, and he fills that gap.

The United States has won almost every gold medal in men’s basketball since it became an Olympic sport — 15 to be exact — while Argentina has won once (2004), the Soviet Union twice (1988, 1972), and Yugoslavia once (1980). The numbers say the team should be able to overcome its rocky start.

Why I’m Still Excited for U.S. Men’s Olympic Basketball