2023 FIBA World Cup: Can Team USA still be expected to have golden touch on the global stage?

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - SEPTEMBER 08: USA leave the court after losing the FIBA Basketball World Cup Semi Final game between USA and Germany at Mall of Asia Arena on September 08, 2023 in Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)
Members of Team USA leave the court after losing the FIBA World Cup semifinal game to Germany at Mall of Asia Arena on Sept. 8, 2023, in Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

MANILA, Philippines — The semifinal contest was already over. Clutching a 113-111 lead that would stand as the final score, Germany called timeout with 0.5 seconds remaining against Team USA on Friday. The huddle was nothing more than an abundance of caution. Players watching from the German bench crouched eagerly behind the promotional LED screens as their starting lineup returned to the floor in firetruck-red uniforms, coiling their knees to spring into a raucous celebration.

They’d been preparing to party. Priming themselves to claim this FIBA World Cup crown ever since the club with “Deutschland” across its jerseys fell inches shy of the gold-medal game at last summer’s EuroBasket to eventual champion Spain. After squandering a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter of that semifinal clash nearly 12 months ago to the day, Germany turned a 60-59 halftime deficit to Team USA into a 10-point advantage by the start of the fourth quarter at Mall of Asia Arena and never let go of the rope.

“I think the run that we had last year, I think we felt we let one slip,” said Franz Wagner, the brilliant Orlando Magic forward who scored 22 points. “And I think we grew from that as a group together.”

The Germans’ continuity and forward progress felt more than apparent compared to the Americans, who were 10.5-point favorites. Their synergy scrambled Team USA’s lackluster defense. From the opening possession —which head coach Steve Kerr highlighted during his postgame comments — Germany ripped an offensive rebound and swung the rock to sharpshooter Andreas Obst for a knockdown triple, the first of his game-high 24 points to go along with six assists.

“He was one of our keys going in, and we didn’t get him under control and that really hurt us,” Kerr said.

The Germans’ passes pinged with a precision that’s fostered over years running as a unit. EuroBasket and this World Cup only marked Wagner’s first and second stints with the German national team. But this roster that now stands 40 minutes away from its golden goal is loaded with players who have joined forces for several years and plenty of FIBA competitions — like Pacers center Daniel Theis, who tallied 21 points and seven rebounds Friday.

“I think that helped us immensely,” Wagner said. “From the first day we got together this summer, we believed that we’re a special group and we can win against any team.”

“They were the better team for tonight,” Mikal Bridges said.

The Germans beat the Americans at their own game, pushing the breakneck tempo at which Kerr said throughout this World Cup he felt his club could best any challenger. He has reiterated Team USA’s depth could outlast any opponent over the course of 40 minutes, and the team was without Brandon Ingram, the Pelicans All-Star who was sidelined with an upper respiratory illness. But this program — which indeed reclaimed gold with an All-NBA cast at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo — has simply lacked necessary ingredients to even reach the first-place contest in each of the last two World Cups, dating back to a seventh-place finish in 2019.

“We’re expected to win. Year in and year out, we’re expected to win because of the history that USA Basketball’s had,” Jalen Brunson said. “That’s just the outside opinion. I think for us, we obviously didn’t come ready to play from the start.”

For nearly three weeks in Manila, Kerr has pointed to the inherent obstacles of bringing a lineup together in just five weeks, which he and managing director Grant Hill quietly assembled and then announced to the world. There was no veteran with senior national team experience. There were no trials or auditions with players being cut after scrimmages, such as with Canada’s training camp — the program Team USA now faces on Sunday for the bronze.

Following the loss to Germany, Kerr was asked how USA Basketball could instead attempt to replicate some semblance of continuity the Americans see on opposing sidelines throughout FIBA competition.

“I’m not sure how you would do that. If you wanna ask the same 10 guys to play every summer, I think that’s very unrealistic,” Kerr said.

This result, though, suggests that’s perhaps too narrow of an approach. Perhaps it's not 10 guys every summer, but a cohort for several in succession.

After serving as an assistant on Gregg Popovich’s 2020 staff, Kerr was named Team USA head coach in December 2021. His first game manning the sideline didn’t come until the exhibition friendly against Puerto Rico on Aug. 8. While head coach Gordon Herbert and Germany clawed their way through EuroBasket, the Americans sent a lower level roster to AmeriCup last September in Brazil, overseen by Jazz assistant coach Alex Jensen.

“Part of the deal with USAB is you pass the baton to the next coaching staff, the next group of players,” Kerr explained. “It’s different than most countries. But we’re unique in that we have a deep talent pool and a lot of very worthy players. And I think those players and coaches all deserve to have the honor of wearing that USA jersey.”

And yet with this German team that’s dancing as Friday turns into Saturday, Herbert established a plan featuring three-year commitments not dissimilar to how Mike Krzyzewski claimed the reins of USA Basketball in 2005. It has been done before and is being done right in front of them right now.

“This is Year 2,” Herbert said. “We got together last summer, and everybody showed up on time, everybody came in shape. Same thing this summer.”

The Americans have another shot at payback next year at the Olympics in Paris. Germany, though, has no plans of stepping aside from the podium. Then there’s Serbia, which bested Canada in the World Cup’s other semifinal matchup, even without Finals MVP Nikola Jokić. And the bunch from north of the border are only gaining momentum and experience with each international outing.

Lithuania could return from this quarterfinal appearance with their All-NBA center Domantas Sabonis. What if host nation France secures a commitment from Joel Embiid? The list can stretch even longer when you scan the countries still vying for an Olympic berth.

“The game has been globalized over the last 30 years or so. These games are difficult. This is not 1992 anymore,” Kerr said. “And so, players are better all over the world. Teams are better. It’s not easy to win a World Cup or an Olympic Games.”

No, this is far from a dream. And the need for Team USA to redeem itself is becoming as much a theme as any.