The plane carrying Team USA back from its disappointing fourth-place finish in the 2023 FIBA World Cup was somewhere above the Bering Strait when the report broke: a slew of older NBA stars recruited by, and including, LeBron James, “were prepared to commit” to playing in the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
Translation: Redeem Team 2.0 to the rescue!
If only it were that simple. Or 20 years ago.
The current team didn’t learn of the report until after they landed in Los Angeles Monday afternoon because their plane did not have WiFi service. But it didn’t come as a surprise to managing director Grant Hill. He told FOX Sports last week that he’d already heard from a number of “legacy players who have expressed interest in next year.”
He also indicated that he’s not in a rush to act on their interest. Since succeeding former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo two years ago, Hill has been watching film of both Team USA and the other top international teams and has come to the conclusion that simply gathering the best NBA talent available in a given year can no longer guarantee success.
“As we look ahead, ultimately you have to win and put together the team that gives you the best chance to do that,” he said. “But you also need to have guys that have the opportunity to do what their predecessors did, which is to participate in multiple cycles.”
That’s what Colangelo did when he took over in 2005, convincing a core of emerging stars — James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul — to make a three-year commitment to the program. Following a stretch of three World Cups and one Olympics where it failed to finish higher than third, that nucleus helped kick-start a run of six gold medals, four Olympic and two World Cups.
“They kept them together,” Hill said. “They were part of a core that participated in multiple cycles and helped get us back to a level of respectability. So there’s something to be said about having continuity and consistency.”
The squad that James is reportedly recruiting — Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Jayson Tatum and Draymond Green — would not offer that. While they have all reached the international gold medal stand at least once, all except Tatum are well into their 30s. This almost certainly would be their last international appearance.
“Some are in their prime, some are past their prime but still very productive,” Hill said. “And then you have guys on this team who are emerging, and so I’ll have some tough decisions to make. You want to win, but you want to win with people doing it the right way.”
Colangelo’s core in 2005 didn’t reach the top of the podium right away or without some key additions, either. LeBron & Co. finished third in their first tournament, the 2006 World Cup in Japan. It wasn’t until two years later Colangelo added the late Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd and Dwight Howard to form the Redeem Team for the 2008 Olympics and the renewed gold rush began.
And while the team James is recruiting would shore up one of the current squad’s shortcomings — familiarity with the international game — it wouldn’t resolve all of them. Familiarity with each other, defense and a lack of frontline size were also major issues. Utah Jazz rookie Walker Kessler was the World Cup squad’s only 7-footer. Starting center Jaren Jackson Jr. was in constant foul trouble, limiting him to less than 17 minutes and three rebounds a game. Orlando Magic power forward Paolo Banchero was his primary back-up. Among NBA centers with U.S. citizenship, reigning MVP Joel Embiid would offer the most obvious solution, and he was not mentioned in the report.
“As our game has evolved in the states, we’ve rewarded big guys who can play on the perimeter, who can space and shoot 3s, screen and roll to the rim,” Hill said. “There are some exceptions here and there, but we don’t have traditional post-up guys. We’re getting further and further away from that. That style doesn’t work in the NBA, but that’s what you’re going to see in FIBA.”
The trickiest decision Hill may have to make is on the reported ringleader of the replacements, James. Among those mentioned, no one fits the profile of a legacy player “past (his) prime but still very productive” better than James. He will turn 39 in December. He averaged nearly 30 points a game last season and helped the Lakers reach the Western Conference finals, but his offensive rating was the lowest it’s been in the last eight years and his defensive rating was the worst of his career.
If Hill is looking for answers to the 113 points scored by Germany, the most allowed in Team USA history, James would not be his first choice. Nor, for that matter, would Curry, whose mention on the recruiting list, incidentally, is suspect. He has only participated in World Cup competition and made it known back in January that winning Olympic gold with Warriors and USAB head coach Steve Kerr was on his bucket list.
But then there are James’ and Curry’s leadership and previous contributions to the program. The thought of denying either of them a chance to appear on a world stage one last time is hard to fathom.
Hill’s autonomy might’ve been further compromised by the public reaction to the idea of once again loading the roster with established stars. The sting of not only losing to eventual champion Germany in the semifinals but also in overtime to Canada in the bronze-medal match remained fresh in the minds of American basketball fans when the report named nearly a dozen interested All-Stars. Social media was immediately abuzz with posts about the USA exacting revenge and reclaiming its throne as the world’s preeminent basketball nation.
But Hill and managing director Sean Ford told FOX Sports last week that simply putting together a star-studded lineup no longer assures Team USA of success.
“It’s not ’92 or ’96 anymore, when we could just roll the ball out there,” Hill said. “We got tested a little bit in the ’96 finals, but other than that it was still these countries were in awe. That is no more.”
The most reasonable course, it would seem, would be to upgrade this year’s World Cup roster with several carefully chosen gold-medal owning veterans. Mikal Bridges, Anthony Edwards and Tyrese Haliburton led the World Cup team in efficiency and several other players made key contributions. The 2023 squad, after all, was only a play or two away from fulfilling expectations, a margin that has determined success or failure in many of the recent gold-medal results. A complete roster overhaul seems neither necessary nor, in the big picture, wise.
But that would require Hill to be selective about how many veterans he incorporates and which ones. As he said, he has some tough decisions to make. The Team USA plane landed, but who will be on board when it takes off again remains very much up in the air.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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