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TOKYO – If you want to call Gregg Popovich the greatest coach in NBA history, go right ahead. But let’s be as direct and to the point as Popovich usually is: He stinks at Olympic basketball.
We’ve seen enough to say that now, haven’t we? What more do we need to know?
If you want to know where to put the blame for Team USA’s 83-76 loss to France – America’s first Olympic men’s basketball loss in 6,176 days – look no further than the guy with five NBA titles who has been clueless from the very moment he was given the reins to USA Basketball.
Clueless in what he values with this roster. Clueless with an offense that unlocks very little of what his players do well. Clueless with the expectations he took on by following Mike Krzyzewski in this admittedly thankless job.
And it’s the last point that irks the most.
As Popovich attempted to slough off this embarrassment like it's a Wednesday night in January at Minnesota and not the Olympics, he sounded no different from every Power Five college football coach who tries to reassure their fan base after losing to a MAC school that, hey, those guys are on scholarship too.
“When you lose a game you’re not surprised, you’re disappointed,” Popovich said. “I don’t understand the word surprise. That sort of disses the French team, so to speak, as if we are supposed to beat them by 30 or something. That’s a hell of a team. They have NBA players, other talented players playing in Europe who’ve been together for a long time. I think it’s a little bit of hubris if you think the Americans are supposed to just roll out the ball and win. You have to work for it, and for those 40 minutes they played better than we did.”
Everyone understands that France has NBA-level players, as do several teams in this tournament. Rudy Gobert is a star. Evan Fournier and Nic Batum are names you know. Nando de Colo played a little bit in the NBA and has been awesome year in and year out in the EuroLeague.
But it’s not even the slightest bit jingoistic or hubristic to look at that roster, then look at the U.S. roster, and know within a fraction of a second which one you’d pick.
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You know who gets that? The players on the American team. After the game, a couple reporters caught Damian Lillard outside the locker room, and I asked him if it was fair for fans back home to be shocked by what they saw against France.
“I wouldn’t say it’s unfair,” Lillard said. “I mean, I think that’s just what the expectations are when you play for Team USA. I think we have a history of dominance, maybe not always blowing people out but we have a history of winning. It’s not often that you see Team USA go out there and lose especially to start.
"I think that’s why a lot of people will make it seem like the end of the world, but our job as professionals and as this team representing our country in these Olympics, we have to do what’s necessary. We can still accomplish what we came here to accomplish, and we have to make sure we keep that in mind.”
You know why Lillard isn’t afraid to own up to the fact that Team USA is expected to win these games? Because it’s true.
USA Basketball didn’t win three straight Olympics and dominate every international event in between by accident. It happened because there was great care put into building those rosters and because there was tremendous buy-in from the top American players and because Krzyzewski did enough not to screw it up.
This idea that the world has caught up to the USA? Pfft. The world has been good for a long time. The French team isn’t locked in a gym in Paris working on sets all year long laying in wait to knock off the Americans. They’re professional players who have to come together in a short window for these tournaments just like our guys do.
And for the last 17 years, since the debacle in 2004 in Athens that forced USA Basketball to overhaul everything it was doing, the U.S. has been better at that than everyone else. At least until Popovich showed up with a bag full of excuses, saying ridiculous things like it was good that the U.S. lost to Nigeria in an exhibition game or that “those things happen” when you blow an eight-point lead late in the game.
It’s not supposed to happen to the United States in international competition. But it seems to happen more than its fair share under Popovich, who was an assistant under Larry Brown for the 2004 disaster and has overseen a seventh-place finish at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup and now a loss at the Olympics after 19 straight wins.
“Basketball is an international sport,” Popovich said. “There are very good teams all over the world. People shouldn’t be surprised that the French team or Australian team or Lithuanian team – it doesn’t matter who it is – the gap in talent shrinks every year as there are more and more players all over the world, and you need to give the French team credit.”
You can give the French team credit while also wondering why the U.S. team wasted time at the beginning of this process by picking Kevin Love – a terrible decision that could not be justified by his play over the last couple years – only to see him bail midway through the training camp. You can wonder why the U.S., with a bevy of great young point guards who can run a half-court offense better than the guys they picked, snubbed someone like Trae Young who clearly wanted to be on the team. You can wonder why the spacing is so bad and the ball doesn’t move. You can wonder whether Popovich is too stubborn and too far past his prime to be the right choice to lead this team.
Ultimately, Team USA can shut everybody up by winning a gold medal, which is still within the realm of possibility. That’s the ultimate scoreboard.
But as we can see with our own eyes, it won’t be easy. It may not be likely. And it sure won’t be because the alleged greatest coach in basketball history figured something out.
Popovich has had years to figure out the whole Team USA thing. We’re still waiting for his first good day at the office.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USA Basketball: Gregg Popovich failing as Olympics coach in Tokyo