When Ben Simmons (eventually) confirmed he would not be playing for the Boomers at the FIBA World Cup, many figured Australia’s medal hopes had sustained a heavy blow.
Instead, the powerhouse Team USA recorded their worst ever World Cup result, and the Boomers emerged as one of the tournament favourites.
So what went wrong for Team USA, so traditionally dominant in international basketball?
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And how did Australia, despite their semi-final loss to Spain, emerge undefeated from the group stage and still in contention for a medal?
Arguably, everything that went wrong for Team USA, went right for the Australians. Let’s have a look at exactly what that means.
Team USA - built to fail?
Right from the beginning, the unprecedented number of NBA stars withdrawing from Team USA put the Americans on the back foot.
With so many marquee players preferring to concentrate on their preparation for the NBA season, head coach Gregg Popovich had noticeably less talent to work with compared to his predecessor, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Even so, a squad anchored by Boston Celtics star Kemba Walker and some of the NBA’s budding stars in Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, Celtics wing Jayson Tatum and Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner, was still the favourite leading in to the tournament.
But things never really came together for the Americans, and the warning signs were there in the exhibition games they played against the Boomers in Melbourne.
Defensively, Team USA were a little too easy to pick apart at times during the World Cup.
Turner was the only big Team USA could keep on the floor for extended minutes - neither Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez or Denver’s Mason Plumlee proved they deserved more time to spin.
An injury to Tatum robbed them of secondary scoring punch, while the likes of Mitchell and Boston’s Jaylen Brown were unable to consistently hit the scoreboard, despite some impressive individual outings.
Chemistry is crucial
The core of the Boomers had played together countless times prior to the World Cup - the same couldn’t be said of Team USA.
Where in the past, sheer individual talent has been enough for the US to get it down, the golden age of international basketball has all but eliminated the gap. All of the frontrunning international teams (save for semi-finalists Argentina) boast at least one NBA player, if not several.
For the likes of Australia, Spain, Argentina and France especially, their NBA representatives have enjoyed multiple international campaigns as a national team.
They’re familiar with their teammates, their coach and their playing system. It’s why Australia averaged nearly 25 assists per game, good for second in the tournament.
Team USA, for comparison, averaged just 19 assists per game, ranked 12th for that statistic.
Basketball truly isn’t just about talent.— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) September 12, 2019
USA was the most talented team in the FIBA World Cup, also the most athletic.
They won’t place higher than 7th.
The game is won with skill, chemistry, and roles.
I hope these AAU “coaches” played close attention to details in Team USA’s loss today! What we need here in the states is more understanding of the game IQ wise! Athleticism only gets you so far when going against high IQ and Team Chemistry! #MESSAGE— Jason Robinson (@ctown206) September 11, 2019
Where the Australian offence became a hub of off-ball cutting and spot-up shooting around the likes of Andrew Bogut and Joe Ingles, Team USA were never really able to establish an identity as a team.
This chemistry affects everything - communication, execution, and confidence in shot selection. Every trip down the floor, for the most part, the Boomers had a well-defined plan. They got a lot of shots they would have been looking for - either layups or open threes.
As a result, the Boomers shot 48.7 per cent from the floor across seven games. Team USA, in comparison, shot just 44.2 per cent in their seven matches, despite boasting much better individual shot creators and shot makers.
Knowing your role
Australia’s biggest strength throughout the tournament has been each player’s understanding of their roles, and their own limitations.
Matthew Dellavedova knows what he’s on the team for. Defence, some shooting some playmaking. He is not there to be an isolation scorer.
The same goes for Aron Baynes - he’s there to set screens, roll to the rim, and rebound the ball.
Andrew Bogut provides defence and high-post passing - Patty Mills is the Boomers’ go-to isolation scorer.
For Team USA, those roles weren’t as clearly defined, particularly based on the personnel. While Popovic had a number of ‘genuine’ role players to choose from (think Joe Harris or Marcus Smart), the tug-of-war between Walker, Mitchell, Tatum, Brown and others too frequently stalled their offence.
There are similar trends between the top European teams and the Boomers.
Take France for example - everything they do revolves around NBA defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert.
Wing scorer Evan Fournier can create his own shot and run the pick and roll. Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina has been a suffocating defensive presence and Nicholas Batum, while not the scorer he once was, has still played well. Throw in former San Antonio Spur Nando de Colo coming off the bench and France have a nice, well-balance blend of offence and defence.
It’s a similar story with Spain, although their depth at center and power forward, thanks to NBA champion Marc Gasol and young guns Juancho and Willy Hernangomez, has been the basis of their run through the tournament, as has point guard Ricky Rubio’s impressive play.
Will Team USA falter at the Olympics?
Make no mistake, this World Cup will be an aberration for Team USA.
Not only do the Olympics hold significantly more cachet for the NBA’s elite players, the embarrassing result at this World Cup should prompt fewer players to turn down their Team USA invitations.
The likes of LeBron James, James Harden, Damien Lillard and others are much more likely to show up in Tokyo. The immediate injection of talent alone should be enough to help Team USA erase the memory of their campaign in China.
Things have gone wrong for Team USA...very wrong. So how does it get fixed? Is the calvary really coming for the 2020 Olympics? Or are so many of the world’s best young players from other countries now that we need to re-think our expectations for USA basketball? pic.twitter.com/NFos4o6jug— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) September 12, 2019
While there is plenty more talent on offer in the US, the World Cup has shown their weakness in international play.
The gap between Team USA and the Boomers has never been so slim - whether it stays that way at the 2020 Olympics remains to be seen.