Over the past 17 years, every time the United States men’s basketball national team has been terrible, Gregg Popovich has been on the sidelines. And that’s not an opinion, either. It’s a fact.
After losing 90-87 to Nigeria on Saturday, Team USA got embarrassed by Australia, 91-83, on Monday night. Two straight losses. Coming into the weekend, Team USA had a record of 54-2 in exhibition games over the past 29 years since we started letting the pros play in 1992. That record now stands at 54-4, and Popovich has three of those losses. After Monday night, his record as head coach is 9-5.
In case you forgot, in the 2004 Olympics, Team USA took home a disappointing bronze with a roster that included names like Iverson, Duncan, Lebron, Wade, Carmelo, Stoudemire, and Marbury. Now, we could spend all day talking about if that roster actually meshed, but then we’d have to spend even more time talking about how much the talent drop-off was between the U.S. and the rest of the world 17 years ago, compared to how close it is now. That bronze medal will always be a stain on USA Basketball, and it’s one that Larry Brown has to eternally wear as the head coach of that team.
And guess who was right there as an assistant coach back in 2004? Larry Brown’s BFF – Gregg Popovich.
If you had a front-row seat to the worst era in USA Basketball history, shouldn’t you know what to do, instead of repeating the same mistakes?
The thing that made Brown bad during his tenure is the same thing that’s ailing Popovich, which is their lack of control. When Brown was leading the Sixers and Pistons to the NBA Finals, he had veteran teams that bought into a system of his own. The same can be said for what Popovich has done in San Antonio by winning five championships by playing “Spurs basketball.” Team USA doesn’t work like that. There aren’t any “role players,” just a bevy of talent that you have to mold and adjust to in a short period with expectations of dominance. There isn’t time to implement “your system,” because you have to adjust to them.
And that adjustment has yet to take place, which was also apparent two years ago. Before Team USA lost to Australia in an exhibition game – snapping a 78-game winning streak – leading up to the 2019 FIBA World Cup where they fell to Serbia and France, we already had clues that Popovich was in over his head. Before the team left the country, Team USA lost 36-17 in a scrimmage to a group of G-League and overseas players. There were even reports that the group had already beaten Team USA earlier in the day.
With back-to-back losses, terrible offensive execution, bad defense – outside of Draymond Green – the lack of a pure point guard, and currently missing the likes of Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton, the pressure is mounting on Popovich despite all the built-in excuses at his disposal. But, given that his roster currently includes Kevin Durant, Dame Lillard, Jayson Tatum, Bradley Beal and Bam Adebayo, nobody is trying to hear it.
And Popovich, as you probably guessed, isn’t doing well with the criticism. After Monday night’s game, he got into a back-and-forth with Joe Vardon of The Athletic when Popovich took issue with the idea that Team USA has a history of “blowing teams out.”
Well, according to the numbers, that is in fact what USA Basketball has done over the years. The margin of victory was 22.5 in the 2016 Olympics, 33.0 in the 2014 World Cup, 32.1 in the 2012 Olympics, and so on. Since 1992, the two lowest win margins in USA Basketball have come when Popovich was on the coaching staff, as the 2004 Olympic team only won by 4.6 points per game and his 2019 FIBA World Cup team won by 13.3 points per matchup.
However, the thing that’s making this even worse for Popovich is that he’s following Coach K, a man who was 75-1 in his 10-year tenure coaching the team, while Popovich already has five losses in 14 games.
And his one loss still haunts Coach K 15 years later.
“The worst day of my life in coaching. The worst day. I wanted to end it,” he said last month about the 2006 loss to Greece.
Now, let’s compare that to what Popovich said after his first loss this week.
“I think with four days of practice, there were a lot of things I liked out there, but in a way, I’m kind of glad it happened,” said Popovich. “That loss means nothing if we don’t learn from it. But it could be the most important thing in this tournament for us, to learn lessons from this and see what we did to move on, because it’s a great group of guys, high character, and we’ll figure it out.”
If these weren’t just “exhibition games” and this was the Olympics, then Popovich wouldn’t be “glad” these losses happened, as Team USA’s ambitions for another gold medal would already be over after starting 0-2. On Tuesday night, they will take the floor against Argentina looking for their first win as a team. It’s now or nothing, as all eyes will be on Popovich to see how his team responds. But win or lose, gold or bronze, in just a few weeks it’s become apparent that the future of USA Basketball has more questions than answers going forward. Gregg Popovich should probably give Coach K a call and ask for some advice because Mike Krzyzewski isn’t walking through that door to save us.