Gregg Popovich made his name in professional basketball by taking players from all over the world and instilling in them a true sense of team.
The San Antonio Spurs’ system — which is more of a mentality than a series of pick-and-rolls or defensive principles — has been the envy of the NBA for two decades. It didn’t matter if teams had bigger names, splashier stars or higher draft picks. Popovich made the most of the sublime scouting abilities of San Antonio’s staff and built a dynasty in a tiny Texas market.
What he’s accomplished as a professional coach is essentially impossible.
And this job, as the new coach of Team USA, might be only slightly easier. The team, which will compete in the FIBA World Cup beginning Aug. 31 in China, opens training camp Monday in Las Vegas with almost all of the top NBA stars sitting out the tournament.
Not long before Popovich and the Spurs began their run, all of the best basketball players in the world wore Team USA’s uniform. In 1992, the first year NBA players were allowed to compete in the Olympics, Charles Barkley famously said, “I don’t know anything about Angola, but Angola’s in trouble,” before the U.S. beat the African country 116-48 in Barcelona.
Those days are long gone.
In the years since the original Dream Team, there have been ups and downs for Team USA — the unquestioned low coming in the 2002 world championships when the U.S. finished sixth, and the most recent highs coming in response to that failure.
Those teams were built around the commitments of players like LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant and won a pair of Olympic gold medals. But even during that new era of national team dominance, it was hard to get players to commit for the non-Olympic events.
The 2014 World Cup roster, though, was carried by young stars like Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson, and that team went undefeated.
This year, though, Popovich won’t have that kind of talent — not even close.
Like someone who keeps sending out late invitations to a wedding that people keep RSVP-ing “No” to, Team USA has become a bit awkward as various players have either declined invitations or withdrawn from consideration.
None of the NBA’s top stars will be there. Of the players on the roster, only Boston guard Kemba Walker made an All-NBA team a year ago.
The Clippers had two players invited — Montrezl Harrell and Landry Shamet — and both withdrew, with Shamet citing an injury. Davis, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, Tobias Harris and Eric Gordon all said “Thanks, but no thanks” to Team USA too.
While part of this speaks to how NBA players view FIBA’s world championship tournament — those rosters are always weaker than the Olympic ones — it also should cause some concern to Jerry Colangelo and the rest of Team USA’s decision makers.
In the load management era with athletes more and more engaged with their own physical condition and with access to sports scientists and their data, selling players on working for another month and a half before training camp should only get tougher. Winning in the NBA is just more important than winning for country.
The risks are obvious — see Paul George’s leg injury in a Team USA scrimmage that cost him almost an entire season, not to mention to cumulative wear-and-tear damage that players are eager to avoid.
So that leaves Popovich as Team USA’s biggest (and most important) star, tasked with winning without traditional talent. He won’t be empty-handed — Utah guard Donovan Mitchell is headed for stardom and Jayson Tatum and Kyle Kuzma are exciting young players.
Popovich’s Spurs teams won because of trust, because of a belief that their style of play would lead to wins and because of talent that was willing to sacrifice to win. They also won because of continuity.
With this job, he won’t have much time to get all that accomplished.
This isn’t the same kind of trouble Angola was in 27 years ago, but this isn’t the same kind of Dream Team either.