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All is fine when Team USA brings its best

2023 FIBA World Cup - USA Men’s National Team v Canada - Bronze Medal Game
Tyrese Haliburton and Austin Reaves.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The USA basketball team finished fourth at this year’s FIBA World Cup. Is this a sign that the world is catching up, as Team USA coach Steve Kerr suggested? Is America’s long reign atop the hoops world coming to a close? Should all of us who follow these sorts of things sign up for stress management classes?


We could try to get strategic and puzzle out roster fit and lineup optimization and hey! let’s fire the coach, or we could employ Occam’s Razor: The simplest explanation is often the correct one.

In this case, the simplest explanation is that the US didn’t send its best players. That’s not to say they sent a bad roster, just that it was significantly weaker than what they could have sent.

For this exercise, I’m using Basketball-Reference’s Box Plus/Minus stat, which uses box score data to calculate a player’s impact on his team’s scoring differential per 100 possessions.

Here are the players who comprised Team USA this summer, and their BPM:

  1. Tyrese Haliburton +7.2
  2. Jalen Brunson +3.9
  3. Walker Kessler +2.9
  4. Jaren Jackson Jr. +2.8
  5. Cam Johnson +2.6
  6. Mikal Bridges +1.7
  7. Brandon Ingram +1.7
  8. Anthony Edwards +1.0
  9. Josh Hart +0.9
  10. Austin Reaves +0.7
  11. Bobby Portis +0.7
  12. Paolo Banchero -1.5

That would be a very good NBA team — one we’d expect to win 54 games in an 82-game schedule, assuming an even distribution of playing time. It could surely be optimized to win more. But it’s a long ways from the best Team USA that could have assembled. This group included just one player (Tyrese Haliburton) who ranked among the top 16 American players.

Here’s the top 12 to comprise the “Better” Team USA:

  1. Joel Embiid +9.2
  2. Jimmy Butler +8.7
  3. Stephen Curry +7.5
  4. Tyrese Haliburton +7.2
  5. Kevin Durant +7.1
  6. Damian Lillard +7.1
  7. Anthony Davis +6.3
  8. Donovan Mitchell +6.3
  9. Lebron James +6.1
  10. Kawhi Leonard +6.1
  11. Domantas Sabonis +5.8
  12. Ja Morant +5.7

That group would be an all-time great NBA team — expected to win 74 games (about 20 wins better than the team USA brought to the 2023 FIBA World Cup). Again, that assumes an even distribution of playing time, which wouldn’t be necessary (or advisable) in a truly competitive situation.

Now, if you want to get all jingoist and exclude Embiid, even though he is an American citizen, Better Team USA can replace him with Jayson Tatum and have their expected win total drop all the way to 73 wins.

But forget the bigotry and enjoy the hoops. Better Team USA would keep Embiid, and then have four injury replacements better than the second best player on the 2023 Team USA:

  • Jayson Tatum +5.5
  • James Harden +5.4
  • Devin Booker +4.2
  • Kyrie Irving +4.1

All that said, it’s clear to me that the actual 2023 Team USA underperformed in FIBA competition. They lost to Lithuania, Germany, and Canada, which combined had three above-average NBA performers, according to BPM — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (+7.3), Kelly Olynyk (+0.4), and Moritz Wagner (+0.6). Team USA brought 11 such players.

While Team USA should have been able to win the tournament with the players they had on the roster, they were some distance from the best squad Team USA could have assembled.

Looping back to Kerr’s comments, the world is gaining ground. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when USA could have lapped the field with a roster like this. Heck, that could have been the case this summer if guys had played to their full abilities.

Nowadays, they still have the best team and should still be favored, but they’re not necessarily a lock to win international tournaments. But it’s highly improbable that a squad comprised of their best players would lose. Something akin to “best players” is apparently in the works for the 2024 Olympics.

Should be fun.