The FIBA Fix: One Man's Take

Team USA just got 7th in an international competition. I have a solution.

Team USA got seventh in the FIBA World Cup. That finish—which included their first international loss in 58 games—immediately came under intense criticism, takes so hot that Team USA head coach Greg Popovich felt compelled to clear the air. They lost the game after that. None of this was good. Team USA’s dropout-ridden training camp was an optics disaster, something that USA Basketball will definitely avoid by the next big international competition.

The next competition is the Olympics. I anticipate that the stars will line up for Team USA, just as they have in the recent past. It’s the Olympics. It’s a much more fun atmosphere, even with the “🥇or bust” expectations. But is waiting around and hoping the stars align the most sustainable solution for Team USA? Or would a better system yield more consistent results?

There’s two impediments to continued USA dominance, in my mind. One is the NBA player pool. The player participation situation isn’t going to get better anytime sooner, especially as the NBA expands its profile globally, with rising salaries and franchise values to match that sort of scale. Team owners patently do not want their superstars playing in FIBA, a more physical game with a few rules quirks that go counter to NBA players’ instincts. (I’m honestly surprised they didn’t tear it all down after Paul George’s injury in 2014). Going forward, I can’t imagine NBA superstars having a heightened incentive to participate, outside of patriotism or whatever. They could spend the offseason making bank on off-the-court stuff and hanging out—or they could play internationally for country, where anything besides gold will make everyone at home super pissed.

The second thing—the U.S. just simply can’t be expected to dominate like they did in the ‘90s, and a drastic lowering of the bar is overdue. Foreign born players now make up 24% of the NBA. It’s no mistake that the two teams that ripped through FIBA—Spain and Argentina—have rosters that have played together for years. The latter didn’t even have a current NBA player on their squad, and their best player all tourney was a 39-year-old. Solid and balanced team play in FIBA is a must, an equalizer for teams that are lacking in NBA-caliber talent.

And with that, I’m ready to unveil my idea for a solution:

The current NCAA champion should compete for Team USA in non-Olympic year international competitions.

There’s a few things I need to address, before I go any further, re: rules. Not everyone in the NCAA is a U.S.-born player, but the majority are. When KU competed in Korea in 2015, they filled a few open spots on their roster with domestic players who were around the program at the time. As for roster composition, the NCAA title winners in recent years—Villanova, UNC, Virginia—weren’t the top-heavy teams that dominated the national discussion. They were great teams who could play a few different ways, giving them a big advantage in a long and hard to win NCAA tournament.

While this Team USA had plenty of great players, it wasn’t a bespoke roster assembled years in advance. The timing sucked—the previous offseason was the craziest NBA offseason possibly ever, and the game’s best U.S.-born players decided to concentrate on the forthcoming season. But a team like Virginia has the recent reps and years of chemistry built up. They’ll likely have NBA players in the fold. While I could see the argument that new lottery picks (De’Andre Hunter, for one) would likely chafe at the notion of participating in an international competition before their first season in the NBA, rookies are already asked to participate in Summer League. They’re playing summer hoops anyway! Might as well do it for Team USA, eh?

Above all else, reinstalling college players back into the Team USA pool will lower expectations back to a more reasonable level. The NBA season is a grind, much moreso than the NCAA season; going forward, I think it’ll be ridiculous to expect Team USA’s biggest players to compete in an 82-game regular season, playoffs plus international pool play. If I was a diehard Clippers fan, I wouldn’t want Kawhi touching this.

The NBA is a global product now, so there’s less of a Team USA marketing angle than ever. Compared to a potentially depleted talent pool by the time FIBA rolls back around, the current men’s national champion will have more incentive, more buy-in, and deep knowledge of how to make the team as successful as possible. I’m not saying Kansas would beat Serbia in a knockout situation. But I think it’d be a game!

Am I crazy? I’d love to argue this point further in the comments. I’ve also considered the concept of sending the U21 team overseas instead, but that comes with its own set of caveats. Let’s discuss.