Column: Gregg Popovich needs to take blame for the underperforming U.S. men’s basketball team

U.S. coach Gregg Popovich questions a call against his team during a game against France
U.S. coach Gregg Popovich questions a call against his team Sunday against France at the Tokyo Olympics.
(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

He was a firm, essential voice of reason during the most brazenly racist presidency in generations.

Over the four years in which the White House was occupied by a vulgar failed casino operator, Gregg Popovich earned widespread respect as more than a basketball coach. The praise came from both minorities who appreciated him using his position as a successful white authority figure to speak on their behalf and from white progressives who admired how he articulated their sentiments.

Now, in what could be his final act in public life as the leader of the U.S. basketball team at these Games, the 72-year-old Popovich has been considerably less dignified.

He’s blowing it.

In the wake of the U.S.’s embarrassing 83-76 defeat to France in its Olympic opener on Sunday night, the five-time NBA champion coach came across as unaccountable.


He was defensive. Arrogant, even.

“There’s nothing to be surprised about,” Popovich told reporters. “That’s the part that confuses me a little bit.”

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Really, there’s nothing surprising about a team representing the country that invented the sport, has the most competitive league and the best players blowing a seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter?

It’s bad enough that Popovich hasn’t been able to convince some of his players to take on the roles required for the U.S. to win a gold medal — or even beat cannon fodder such as France. It’s bad enough that Popovich runs an offense that fails to maximize the offensive weapons on his roster.

What turns this coaching failure into something worse is the demeanor of Popovich. The same man who represented the more sensible parts of America during the Trump presidency is now personifying the country’s worst traits, and on the global stage, no less.

If the selling of complete nonsense indicates how little a speaker thinks of his or her audience’s intelligence, Popovich obviously has none for the people chronicling his Olympic misadventures or to the readers and viewers to whom they are relaying his words.

“I don’t understand the word ‘surprise,’” Popovich continued. “That sort of disses the French team, so to speak, as if we were supposed to beat them by 30 or something. That’s a hell of a team.”


A hell of a team that lost an exhibition game the previous week to Japan, which at No. 42 in the FIBA rankings is behind the likes of South Korea, Tunisia and Georgia.

U.S. coach Gregg Popovich speaks with his players during training July 6 in Las Vegas.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

“They’ve got a great coaching staff,” Popovich continued. “They’ve got NBA players and other talented players playing in Europe [who have been] together for a long time.”

While it’s true the U.S. is subject to more roster turnover than other international teams, it also has the most talented collection of players.

LeBron James isn’t playing? So what?

Uneven as its roster might be, the U.S. has Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Devin Booker and Jayson Tatum. No other team here can match that, certainly not France, which has good-but-not-great players in Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier and Nicolas Batum.

“I think that’s a little bit of hubris if you think the Americans are supposed to just roll out the ball and win,” Popovich said.

And it’s an appalling abdication of responsibility to think it’s even remotely acceptable for the U.S. to lose to France.

Popovich pointed to how teams from other countries are improving. He’s right. Just because that’s true doesn’t mean that it also can’t be true the U.S. should still be lapping the field.

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None of this should diminish what Popovich has accomplished with the Spurs. He was the right coach at the right time for them. He is a surefire Hall of Famer. He also happens to be the wrong coach at the wrong time for the U.S., with a resume in international competition that doesn’t measure up to his NBA success.

He was an assistant to Larry Brown at the disastrous 2004 Games, where the U.S. settled for a bronze medal.

Taking over for Mike Krzyzewski as the U.S. head coach after the 2016 Olympics, Popovich led the team to a worst-ever seventh-place finish at the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

Earlier this month, the U.S. dropped exhibition games to Nigeria and Australia.

That shouldn’t be the standard. That can’t be the standard.

Brazilians wouldn’t ever accept the coach of their men’s soccer team excusing a loss to, say, the U.S. by pointing to how much its opponent has evolved. Brazil dropping a game to the U.S. in soccer is inexcusable under any circumstance.

Damian Lillard and Gregg Popovich wait for a replay
Damian Lillard and Gregg Popovich wait for a replay during their U.S. team’s loss to France on Sunday at the Tokyo Olympics.
(Eric Gay / Los Angeles Times)

That’s part of the job.

Regardless of whether he acknowledges it, Popovich inherited a similar burden from Krzyzewski.

While Popovich played dumb, at least one of his players said he understood the responsibilities that came with representing the U.S. in basketball.

“I think that’s just what the expectations are when you play for Team USA,” Lillard said.

Lillard didn’t perform up to the expectations on the court, but he understood how he had to comport himself after. Popovich didn’t do either.