The Real Olympic Challenge for American Basketball

For both the men and women’s teams, the USA’s expected dominance in Rio means their goal isn’t so much to win: It’s to prove they can’t lose.

The United States' Kevin Durant celebrates with his teammates during a basketball game against Venezuela at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on August 8. (AP)

For almost every athlete in Rio, participating in the 2016 Olympic Games represents the pinnacle of their career. The 100-meter dash, the uneven bars, the marathon pentathlon—these events reach public consciousness just once every four years, and the people who dedicate their lives to mastering them get to compete against others who’ve done the same on a massive, rare stage.

There are exceptions: people for whom the Olympics aren’t end points but pit stops. A gold medal does less to distinguish Serena Williams or Andy Murray than a Wimbledon trophy does. The golf world met the sport’s inaugural inclusion in the Games with such dismissiveness that many of its top players stayed home. For players of sports that are already popular and well-known, the Olympics provide an outlet for patriotism, but not for the highest level of competition.

The purest example of this disconnect comes from United States basketball. With rosters full of superstars, both the men’s and women’s teams are such heavy favorites in the Olympic tournament that the traditional measures of world-class competition don’t apply. They are out not only to win, but also to win in style, to assert the continued primacy of American players and leagues in an American game. On the one hand, this can result in some dull watching. Through four combined games so far, neither team has won by less than 30 points, margins that can make you thirst for the competition of the NBA or WNBA season. On the other, though, there’s a kind of thrill in seeing usual rivals come together to uphold a national sporting reputation. The goal of everyone in Rio is to win, but the goal of the United States basketball teams is steeper: to prove they can’t lose.

The last quarter-century of international men’s basketball features two watershed moments. One was in 1992, when the first U.S. Olympic team to include professionals—the famous “Dream Team,” with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, etc.—tore through the Barcelona Olympics with showy ease, ridding games of their drama in the opening minutes and spending the rest of the time performing intricate ballets of dunks and fast breaks, stifling defense and quickfire passing.  The other was in 2004, when the U.S. lost three times in Athens en route to the bronze medal: the first time an American team with NBA players failed to win gold.

After Athens, the United States adopted a more structured international program, seeking to build a team with continuity instead of the one-off All-Star rosters that it had gotten used to deploying. The Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was installed at the helm, and players who wished to be considered for upcoming Olympics had to establish themselves as part of the program in training camps and other international tournaments. The U.S. men have won every Olympic game they’ve played since then, taking home gold medals in 2008 and 2012.

This year’s iteration may be a bit lighter on top-level talent than the previous two—last year’s NBA MVP, Stephen Curry, declined to participate, as did the Finals MVP, LeBron James—but it retains its steep advantage over the rest of the world. Kevin Durant, 2014 MVP and habitual NBA scoring champion, paces the team, with four-time Olympian Carmelo Anthony, sharpshooter Klay Thompson, and sleight-of-hand point guard Kyrie Irving in tow.

The results to this point have been definitive. In its opener against China, the U.S. team played stifling defense, forcing turnovers and running out for easy baskets. In its follow-up on Monday against Venezuela, it overcame a shaky first quarter to pull away over the course of the game. Highlights came so frequently they massed into one mental reel: Durant rising easily and canning a long jumper, Irving skipping to the rim for a layup, the ball arcing for one of a dozen alley-oops. One or another of the U.S. maestros overpowered his defender, or the ball whirled around the court in a tic-tac-toe flurry. The shifting modes of attack seemed less strategic than inclusive; up 30 points, the players could make sure everybody got his share.

The competition will grow stiffer over the course of the tournament. On Wednesday, the U.S. will face an Australia team with some NBA talent, and even more well-stocked squads loom in the medal round.  Still, the pattern established back in 1992 and revitalized in 2008 seems likely to hold.

The United States’ Tina Charles is congratulated by her teammate Brittney Griner during a game against Senegal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. AP

If the United States men are heavy favorites, the women are mortal locks. The former team, for all its skill, is sometimes prone to lapses of missed shots and shoddy communication; the latter is as steady in its mission as a thresher rolling over a field of wheat. The women’s team has none of the holdout issues the men’s team does; it’s so full of great players, in fact, that even the depths of its roster feature peerless talent. The reigning WNBA MVP, Elena Delle Donne, comes off the bench for this team, as does the 2015 Finals MVP, Sylvia Fowles.  The starting lineup is ideal: Sue Bird as the steadying hand at point guard, Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore as versatile scorers, Tina Charles as the rebar-tough forward, Brittney Griner as the shot-swatting and rebound-wrangling center.

The true engine of the U.S. women’s team, though, may not be its talent but its history. Compile any possible lineup, and chances are its members have played together somewhere else before. Geno Auriemma, the steward of the University of Connecticut’s dynastic basketball program, coaches the team, and five of his former pupils play for it. Four members of the defending WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx are on the team as well. By mining the sport’s recent powerhouses, the U.S. team combines top-tier talent with honed chemistry.

The style of play that results seems telepathic. To watch the U.S. women’s team is to be aware of how beneficial brilliant players can be to one another. The ball moves logically and artfully, working its way inside and attracting multiple defenders before skipping back out to the hands of Taurasi or Moore for an open three-pointer, or shifting around the perimeter before darting, via a well-timed bounce pass, to a cutting player for a layup. Every possession is a masterpiece of control—advantages exploited, leverage maximized. The team is as tuned as an orchestra and as inevitable as a mathematical proof.

Barring disaster, the U.S. women’s team will provide even less drama than the men. It’s already walloped one of its presumed closest competitors, beating Spain by 40 points on Monday. Viewers looking for the excitement of close margins and time running out will have to look to other teams in the tournament, or to other sports. For an exhibition of pure expertise, though, nobody in the Olympics has it beat.

In a certain light, the United States basketball program can seem antithetical to the spirit of the Olympics. For its participants, it’s something of a side project.  Rather than staying in the athlete’s village in Rio, the two teams are based on a well-appointed nearby yacht, and the influence of Nike is so pervasive that non-Swoosh-wearers’ feet are obscured in promotional photos. For some NBA fans, the men’s team mostly provides the chance to see Durant, who signed with the Golden State Warriors this summer, play alongside his new teammates, Thompson and Draymond Green; for fans of UConn basketball, the women’s team is much like a family reunion. It’s big-money, big-name sports imprinting itself on an event that is at its best when it has an element of the amateur to it—the relative unknown coming up big in his or her only shot.

There is, though, a low-level desperation that comes with such heavy expectations. Addressing the pressure that comes with playing basketball for the United States, Auriemma said, “It’s my experience that the more you win, the more paranoid you become about losing because you know down the road it’s going to come. We just keep our fingers crossed and work really hard that it doesn’t happen in the next two weeks.” The job of the U.S. teams is to nudge the likelihood of victory from near-certain to certain. The output of that project is a level of virtuosity that, setting its trappings aside, is superbly Olympian.