In an awkward scenario only made possible because of how massively the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all elements of life, Milwaukee Bucks players Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton and Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker will all depart for Tokyo just hours after the Bucks beat Booker’s Suns for the NBA championship. They’ll be teammates on the U.S. Olympic team.
The Olympics were pushed from 2020 to 2021 due to the pandemic. The NBA season was also impacted. After last season’s playoffs extended into October after the NBA restart, the 2020-21 regular season also had to be pushed back as that would normally be starting in October.
This season’s playoffs officially ended on July 20, giving teams less than two weeks before the NBA Draft, followed by a compressed free agency period. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said he expects the 2021-22 season to be played on a “normal” schedule, which means that the offseason will be almost non-existent.
For players on the Olympic team, that is especially true. USA’s first three games are against France (July 25), Iran (July 28), and the Czech Republic (July 31). If they finish first or second in their group, they’ll move on to play in the knockout round, which will extend through the first week of August. That would basically give members of the Olympic team just two months to rest before next season starts.
Along with Middleton, Holiday, and Booker, Team USA consists of Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat), Kevin Durant (Brooklyn Nets), Jerami Grant (Detroit Pistons), Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors), Keldon Johnson (San Antonio Spurs), Zach LaVine (Chicago Bulls), Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers), JaVale McGee (Denver Nuggets), and Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics).
Of that group, Durant has a significant injury history. The team has also already lost players from the roster – Bradley Beal and Kevin Love both recently pulled out.
This version of the Olympic team is playing in a pretty stressful environment, too. Because the pandemic is still ongoing and COVID-19 variants are spreading in different parts of the world, several testing and quarantine protocols are in place.
On the court, the U.S. also hasn’t exactly had an easy go of it. They went 2-2 in exhibition games, losing to Australia and Nigeria before recovering to beat Spain and Argentina. The losses created a particularly annoyed exchange between a reporter and coach Gregg Popovich, and they also impacted betting odds. Team USA is still heavily favored to win the gold medal, but those odds have dropped significantly after the exhibition losses.
The biggest problem seems to simply be wonky roster construction. Green, Durant, Adebayo, Grant, and Tatum are good defenders, and Holiday joining the roster helps immensely, but the team also has some notoriously porous defenders in Lillard and LaVine. Beal and Love were also poor defenders, but their replacements, McGee and Johnson, are upgrades.
The team also has to continue to adjust to international officiating. A criticism of the NBA game in recent years is the lengths – and theatrics – players go to as they hunt for fouls, often drawing calls and free throws for moves that aren’t basketball moves. A shooter jumping horizontally into a defender who is going straight up is one example of a call has become common in the NBA. Referees ignore those sorts of plays often in international games, though.
The team’s two exhibition losses has drawn comparisons to the last time the U.S. didn’t win a medal in the Olympics in 2004. That team, coached by Larry Brown, also had a wonky roster construction with players who didn’t complement each other well. They lacked good perimeter shooting – a necessity against international zone defenses – and Brown notoriously relied on veterans in every stop in his career. That 2004 Olympic team had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony glued to the bench at the expense of inferior veterans.
This version of Team USA is likely not in as much danger as the 2004 version. Even with two surprising exhibition losses, the U.S. recovered with wins over tough Gold Medal contenders in Spain and Argentina. Popovich’s point in his rant against the reporter was a good one. He stressed that it is disrespectful to how much the rest of the world has improved in basketball to assume that the United States will easily win Gold.
“When you make statements about, in the past, just blowing out these other teams — number one, you give no respect to the other teams,” Popovich said. “We’ve had very close games against four of five countries in all these tournaments.”
The competitiveness of international basketball and a vulnerable American team should make for an entertaining Olympics, but the more competitive and tough the games are, the harder it will be on players who have already didn’t have a typical offseason last year and won’t get one this year either.