You have to be a certain age to feel this way I suppose, but this tournament really reminded me of 2002. If you don't remember it firsthand, just read this excerpt from the wiki page. Celtics fans will remember this as the tournament where NBA players were defeated for the first time, and Pierce famously clashed with head coach George Carl and was subsequently labeled as selfish and a ball hog.
I'm old enough to remember 1992, as well as all the games leading up to 2002. 2002 was much more of a shock for me than 2019 because it had been only a decade ago that the Dream Team ran roughshod over everyone on their way to gold in Barcelona, beating everyone even before they stepped on the court. Same in Atlanta. This was an article in the New York Times on July 23, 1996 (I will post some snippets, full article is available via the link):
Sports of The Times;Competitors Without a Competition
By William C. Rhoden
WAGERS were being taken on how badly Dream Team III would route Angola last night in Game 2 of its gold-medal tour. Twenty-five points? Thirty? Thirty-five? Forty?
The winning number last night was 33 points: United States 87, Angola 54.
This has become the essence of men's basketball competition at the Olympics: half seminar, half circus.
In many ways, the United States has been reduced to Olympic tinsel. The Americans are here to add star quality, good looks and entertainment to the Games. But in one sense, the team fits perfectly with these Olympics, which have become a carnival of excess in congested Atlanta. They do nothing for the essence of the Olympics: competition.
The other countries beat each others' brains out, and then attend a master class against the United States.
"Their presence here takes away one of three medals," said Toni Kukoc, star of Croatia and the Chicago Bulls.
Last night, in a familiar pattern, Angola stayed close early -- 26-21, 31-24, 38-31 -- but with little more than five minutes left in the game, the Dream Team had a 70-47 lead. And away they went.
The essence of the Olympics, the saving grace of the Games, is intensity and parity of competition: from archery to wrestling, the Olympics are distinguished by a sense of tension to achieve the gold. The only source of tension entering last night's game was whether Herlander Coimbra of Angola would get revenge against the Dream Team's Charles Barkley for something that happened four years ago. During the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Barkley set off an international firestorm when he elbowed Coimbra. To make matters worse, Barkley said Coimbra might be "hiding a spear."
"Besides entertainment -- and filling the arena -- I don't think they add anything" Radja said. "The games are boring; they just beat teams by 30, 40 points. The beauty of the game is competition."
On Saturday, Croatia lost to Lithuania in a dramatic overtime game, despite 26 points from Kukoc.
"That's exciting," Radja said. That's what people like to see."
People like to see the Dream Team, too: half come hoping to see it lose, half come hoping to see it win in a dunkathon. So far all they have seen is sloppy play and semi-routs.
Croatia will play Dream Team III on Sunday, and Radja is not looking forward to it.
"I know what's going to happen when we play them," he said. "They are going to beat us by 30 points."
Kukoc doesn't quite agree with his teammate. He looks forward to watching the Americans and thinks that the only way the world's players will improve is by playing against superior competition.
"That's the way you really know how far you have to go," he said after Croatia's 32-point victory over China yesterday.
"I think it'll take a few Olympic Games," Kukoc said. "But, who knows?"
Little did Kukoc know that the very next Olympics, a team led by Vince Carter and Kevin Garnett and featuring Jason Kidd, Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton and Ray Allen among others would squeak out a 2 point win against Lithuania in the semifinals and a 10 point win against France in the finals. (I was living in Sydney at the time and saw that game against Lithuania, it was a classic). That team also featured a lot of withdrawals - 14 in all, including Kobe, Shaq, Webber, Pippen, Stockton, Duncan, Iverson just to name some. Then two years later, 2002. That, for me, was when it became clear that preparation was important, you couldn't just out-talent your way to victory, particularly if your top talent isn't there. From The Ringer, regarding Team USA's loss against Argentina:
You could feel the haughtiness emanate from their casual strides in the full-court press, as though they were playing against high school kids. They were burned repeatedly on backdoor cuts and drive-and-kicks due to missed rotations that occurred because they didn’t think enough of the competition to seal off the weak side. After Team USA’s first loss, against Argentina, Manu Ginobili explained how it happened. “We know each other,” Ginobili said. “We know where picks will be, when to cut for a pass. Apparently [Team USA] did not.” That remains the meanest **** Manu has ever said in his life.
After that it took a few years for Team USA to get its act together, for players to take it seriously - Krzyzewski for the long term, a lot of structural changes happened around USA Basketball, moves were made to try and attract the top talent again, etc. Paid off in 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2016, though you could see by the end of that period that the gap was closing again, with some close games in Rio.
But back to your original point, with this team, Team USA 2019, I didn't feel anywhere near the level of shock that I did in 2002. Back then, like Chuck Daly and Lenny Wilkens I thought Team USA would never be beaten as long as they had NBA players. But after 2002, and seeing how the world has narrowed the gap, I couldn't even be certain that this iteration of Team USA would even make the medal round, much less win the gold - which they didn't. Just not enough quality. Let's be honest, if you picked a team for the tournament how many Americans would be on it? Maybe Kemba and Donovan? JT didn't play enough and JB didn't shine enough when it counted. Would players like Plumlee and Lopez even make the rotation for Serbia or France? And the preparation, even though it was much better than 2002, just wasn't enough for players who didn't know each other's styles that well. Some of these other countries have been playing together for years.
But I agree that things are cyclical. I'm sure the Olympics will be a different story. Hopefully this spurs some changes and stirs some players out of apathy and increases participation levels. But even so the days of rolling over the opposition and expecting a win no matter what are over I think. Any victory has to be earned. And that's not a bad thing, if you like basketball:
But winning gold wasn't even that easy for the Redeem Team, Bryant pointed out. That team with Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul, Jason Kidd and more beat Spain 118-107 for the gold medal, but it took some heroics - a four-point play by Bryant with about 3 minutes left among them - to pull away in the final moments.
''We needed a hell of a fourth quarter to beat Spain,'' Bryant said. ''And that was a hell of a team we had. We still needed a really late push to beat Spain. So I say that to say, put the best players that you think makes the best U.S. team out there on the floor and we are still going to have challenges. It's not going to be a cakewalk.
''The days of the 1992 Barcelona Dream Team are gone, over. It's going to be tough.''