USA’s journey to an 18th Olympic gold medal in men’s basketball was far from impressive, but their arduous road in Rio was an overall positive for the sport.
Before getting into the significance of style points, it’s necessary to note that at the end of the day, the Americans accomplished their goal. They went unbeaten en route to the top step on the
podium, meaning the history books will chronicle a flawless campaign at the Games, not a somewhat turbulent voyage which included a few scares.
In the minds of those who followed their run, however, USA will be remembered as a good but not great team who did just enough. They weren’t at full strength as they were missing some of the game’s brightest superstars and didn’t have the best cohesion on the court.
Yet, as discouraging as it was to see the evident flaws of what should have been a more dominant squad, it made for entertaining viewing.
There was actual competition and some drama sprinkled in during their close calls against Australia, Serbia, France and Spain – a 10-point win, three-point win, three-point win and six-point win, respectively.
USA eventually brought their best for the rematch against Serbia in the gold medal game, triumphing by 30 points, but the enjoyment of watching Kevin Durant catch fire and a suffocating defence wasn’t as fun as watching the Americans be challenged in their earlier contests.
From an American perspective, the Olympics is a perfectly appropriate time for some good old-fashioned nationalism, but at least there was more of a desire to see USA pushed than there was to see them win. Part of it, admittedly, was wanting to avoid a predictable outcome, but mostly it was a hope to see the sport continue to flourish across the globe.
Because USA’s games were closer than usual, it can only mean there’s more talent blossoming outside of the States, resulting in an influx of talent into the NBA, which in turn only strengthens the product. It’s a win-win for everyone.
To be fair, it’s a bit of a ‘chicken or the egg’ conundrum. Did USA not play well or are their international opponents closing the gap? If you take a look at the recent NBA draft in June, the fact that 28 international players were selected – the most in history – and 10 foreign prospects were taken in the first 16 picks, suggests the latter.
Other nations should only continue to develop on the hardwood too, with young NBA’ers like Rudy Gobert, Dario Saric, Mario Hezonja, Ben Simmons and Andrew Wiggins all expected to lead their respective countries at Tokyo 2020.
But what about the Americans? How does the gap closing or their drop in play – depending on how you see it – help them, at least on the international level? Simple, it means they can’t be complacent. Competition breeds excellence and if USA want to remain dominant, they’ll have to take playing in the red, white and blue more seriously.
The end result will be basketball being in a better place than ever.
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