MANILA – There was a long flight awaiting USA Basketball on Monday. Manila to Los Angeles, about 13 hours on a chartered jet that didn’t have the wi-fi that’s necessary to communicate with the outside world from 30,000 feet. No texting, no emails.
That’s unfortunate. Those were 13 hours where recruiting for Paris couldn’t happen.
The World Cup is over. The U.S. didn’t medal. The world proved again that the Americans, even with NBA players, are vulnerable on the international stage. And now, every bit of USA Basketball’s focus shifts to the Paris Olympics — where the challenge will be even tougher than the World Cup, which again reminded the Americans how much the FIBA game has changed.
“The narrative about USA Basketball and FIBA, and do we need reminders, we’re past that,” U.S. coach Steve Kerr said. “These teams are really good.”
Kerr will be at the Olympics next summer. His staff — Erik Spoelstra, Tyronn Lue and Mark Few — are also committed to the Paris Games. USA Basketball’s team leadership, Grant Hill and Sean Ford, will spend the next few months trying to pick the right 12 players to accompany them to Paris.
The mission won’t change: Gold or else. Silver won’t be enough, bronze won’t be enough, a repeat of Manila’s fourth-place finish would be a disaster. The U.S. has gone to the Olympics in men’s basketball 19 times and has won 19 medals, the last four of them gold. On paper, it looks easy. It is not, not anymore. It probably never will be easy again.
“I don’t think as Americans and basketball players that we think that we can’t lose,” said USA Basketball legend Carmelo Anthony, who won four Olympic medals — three gold, one bronze — with the national team. “I think the fear of losing is what drives us and what keeps us going and wanting to win and feeling so bad after losses. We do a great job as an organization at (USA Basketball) as far as respecting the game. … But our players back in America, they know we have to compete.”
And now USA Basketball will find out which ones want to compete on the high-risk, high-reward stage.
Win or lose at this World Cup, the U.S. brain trust knew it was going to have some serious roster decisions to make over the coming weeks and months. Some players from this World Cup team will almost certainly be retained for Paris — Mikal Bridges, Tyrese Haliburton and Austin Reaves clearly showed they fit in the international game, Josh Hart did everything the U.S. asked, and Jalen Brunson and Anthony Edwards are among those who will get strong looks.
“I’ll never say no,” said Bridges, who had a moment that’ll go down in USA Basketball history — an intentional missed free throw and then a game-tying 3-pointer with 0.6 seconds left — to give the Americans a chance in the bronze-medal loss to Canada in Manila. “It’s an honor, every time. Even though the outcome is not what we wanted, I wouldn’t trade these six weeks, seven weeks away for nothing.”
And then it becomes a matter of how many NBA stars that didn’t play this summer will want to play next summer on the bigger Olympic stage and give up six or seven weeks like Bridges and his teammates did this summer.
Stephen Curry has talked about it. Kevin Durant should have an Olympic spot for as long as he wants. If LeBron James wants to play, he’ll play. Bam Adebayo is planning to be in Paris after playing a significant role on the team that won in Tokyo two summers ago, Devin Booker and Jayson Tatum should be there as well, and Draymond Green wants to try to win more gold.
There will be no shortage of options because the Olympics are more appealing to most U.S. players than the World Cup is. More prestige, more attention, brighter lights, bigger stage.
“What we’ve tried to do is really learn what wins a FIBA game,” Kerr said. “We’ve really studied everything about FIBA and the history of United States basketball. When we’ve won, what has been the reason. When we’ve lost, what has been the reason. We study all that stuff.”
There is one big wild-card out there as well.
The reigning NBA MVP is, in the international sense, a free agent. If he decides to play, and there’s no reason to think otherwise, Embiid will be wearing red, white and blue next summer at the Paris Olympics. Those are the colors of the uniforms USA Basketball will be wearing. Those are also the colors of the uniforms France will be wearing.
Embiid is a true rarity: He was born in Cameroon, has French citizenship and became a U.S. citizen last year. And he’s never played on a senior national team, so it's his call.
The Americans want him. The French want him. What he decides will go a long way toward determining who wins gold in Paris.
Let the recruiting begin.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org