NBA stars want to return to Team USA … and not a moment too soon

According to Stephen Curry, he’s in. It sounds like Draymond Green is, too. Others will surely follow.

That opportunity will come next summer at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, where the U.S. will go in as an overwhelming favorite to reverse the disappointment of last week’s seventh-place finish at the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

The reason a fourth straight Olympic gold medal seems so likely is precisely because of comments from three-time NBA champions Curry and Green, as well as similar sentiments from their peers. Whereas the league’s best American players shunned this year’s World Cup, being part of a quasi-American basketball revival is a neat enough narrative to draw plenty of star power toward the 2020 Summer Games in Japan.

“Definitely want to go,” Curry said in an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. “I’ve never been on the Olympic team. I’ve been on two World Cup championship gold medal teams. But the Olympics is the experience that I want. And next year will hopefully be it.”

His teammate Green was more succinct in an interview with CNBC, saying, “I do hope to play, and I think a lot of guys will want to play.”

A lot of guys will definitely want to play, and you can expect to hear more big names throwing their designer hats in the ring over the coming months. And if they do, gold medal guaranteed, right? The long legacy of American dominance, set to continue deep into the future.

Maybe … and maybe not.

The basketball world is a very different place these days, vastly changed from 13 years ago, which was the last time the Americans lost in meaningful international competition — a sixth-place finish at the 2006 World Championships.

The most discussed reason why things have changed is that the rest of the world has gotten seriously good. Good enough that defeats to France in the World Cup quarterfinal and Serbia in a consolation game were seen as surprises, but not monumental ones.

The 2019 American team was without its truly elite talent; 31 of the 35 players who were on the Team USA roster last summer backed out of the World Cup. Yes, Team USA still had an All-Star in Kemba Walker, a rising star in Donovan Mitchell and a cast of solid NBA players to call upon — but without top-tier homegrown firepower, it wasn’t enough to overcome the stacked European teams.

The talent gap has been closing for quite some time. As Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times pointed out in the wake of the tournament, many of the best players coming into the NBA these days are not necessarily Americans. Woike looked at NBA win shares (a stat that attempts to capture a player’s overall contribution to his team’s wins and losses) of players emerging from recent drafts and found that the past several years tell a significant story.

The top three players from the 2013 draft were Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, France’s Rudy Gobert and New Zealand’s Steven Adams. From 2014, the top two have been Joel Embiid (Cameroon) and Nikola Jokic (Serbia). The top four from 2016 were all international: Ben Simmons (Australia), Jamal Murray (Canada), Buddy Hield (Bahamas) and Pascal Siakam (Cameroon).

Even with the wealth of talent coming from abroad, an American team packed with the leading lights of the NBA, historically, should have little difficulty. But the modern nature of international basketball is more intricate than in the past. Put simply, the game is more team oriented.

Building a team for the U.S. involves USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo persuading enough guys to give up their down time and a big chunk of the offseason. For international groups, it means building a cohesive unit and fostering national pride and team spirit over the course of several years — possibly through a tough qualifying campaign.

“Basketball is the ultimate team game,” Colangelo told Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix. “The more familiarity that players have with one another on the court, the better.”

Of course, this all could be easier said than done. The main stumbling block for the Americans leading up to Tokyo is the risk-averse approach NBA players (and their agents) take to anything that could impinge upon future earnings — with Paul George’s horrific leg injury ahead of the 2014 World Cup serving as the ultimate red flag.

Furthermore, the benefits of NBA “load management” are all too apparent. Last season, Kawhi Leonard was given plenty of time off during the regular season, then used that stockpiled energy to power the Toronto Raptors to the championship.

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert told the New York Times’ Marc Stein. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

And even as Curry and Green pledged their allegiance to the cause, there were caveats built into their statements of intent.

“Knock on wood,” Curry said. “You don’t want any injuries or things like that to interfere.” Green said he understood why there were so many withdrawals this time, given the schedule and travel commitments required. “A long ways to China,” he said.

It is a long way to Tokyo as well, both in terms of distance and timing. There are plenty of chances for the big names to opt in, and plenty of time for them to find reasons to opt out. Meanwhile, the rest of the world keeps getting better.