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USA men’s basketball is still No. 1. Barely.
Training camps are now open for all 30 teams in the NBA, which, as you know, is the finest professional basketball league in the world and operates almost entirely in the United States (hello, Toronto). About 80 percent of the league is made up of American players, which means there are roughly 360 young men from this country who can count themselves among the best players on Earth. That’s a pretty big number.
It should come as no surprise that, according to FIBA, the U.S. is ranked first in the world in men’s basketball, as it has been since the rankings were created nearly 20 years ago.
But the Americans have never been this close to losing the top billing. According to the latest world rankings, presented by Nike and released this week, USA Basketball is ahead of Spain by 1.8 points, based on a weighted system of international games played and won.
In fact, if things don’t go the Americans’ way on the court over the next couple months, they could realistically enter play at the 2023 World Cup in the Philippines next summer as something other than the No. 1 team.
Below is my explainer on what the Americans’ precarious hold on the top ranking in men’s basketball means, how it got to this point, and what Team USA’s outlook is for upcoming major international competition.
Is American basketball in danger of being surpassed by Spain or someone else?
Yes, as far as FIBA rules go. From the summer of 2019 through this month, Team USA has finished seventh at the World Cup in China; won gold at the Tokyo Olympics (after losing its opener to France); finished third at the AmeriCup, a tournament of countries from North America and South America. Spain, meanwhile, won the 2019 World Cup, fell to the Americans in the Olympic quarterfinals, and then won EuroBasket this month.
Since 2017, FIBA has ranked teams based on a weighted system of games and victories, and results stay with teams for six years. So when Team USA finished an unfathomable seventh under Gregg Popovich at the 2019 Cup in China (with losses to France and Serbia), the stigma from those defeats was going to stick with the Red, White and Blue until 2025.
The China debacle was especially bad for Team USA because the Americans sent a full roster of NBA players, with big names like Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Khris Middleton and Jaylen Brown on it.
When the Americans finished third at the AmeriCup earlier this month, losing in the semifinals to Argentina and beating Canada, their top player was Norris Cole, 33, whose last NBA appearance came with the Oklahoma City Thunder… in 2017. When it comes to FIBA rankings, though, a loss is a loss, regardless of how big the names are in USA jerseys.
Wow, OK. So how would the Americans actually slip from No. 1?
Countries are in the middle of qualifying tournaments to reach the 2023 World Cup. There are two “windows,” or mini tournaments left, including the next one for the Americans in Washington in November. The Americans are in first place in their group with a 7-1 record. If they win the next two games against Brazil and Colombia, USA officials believe they will officially qualify for the Cup. But if they lose any of the next four games – in Washington or during the next window in February – they’ll slip behind Spain.
The teams the Americans have been sending to the qualifiers consist mostly of G-Leaguers and former NBAers, and have been coached by Jim Boylen.
Wait, didn’t I see Luka Doncic, Giannis and Nikola Jokic, among other NBA stars, playing in EuroBasket? Why aren’t LeBron, Steph Curry and KD playing for Team USA?
These World Cup qualifiers take place almost entirely on dates within the NBA season, so no household names are in those games. But, yes, EuroBasket took place in August and September, and many of the European NBA stars were playing for their countries as an excellent tuneup for training camp.
American NBA players don’t do that. They are only typically available to Team USA for the actual World Cup and Olympics.
So does it even matter if the USA isn’t ranked No. 1?
In practice, no. All that matters to Team USA is winning the World Cup next summer, and another gold in Paris at the 2024 Olympics. If there are hiccups along the way, and the rankings change, so be it.
Symbolically, though, the narrowing of the world ranking is yet another sign of the global proliferation of basketball and a general catching up to the Americans by more than just Spain. It was evident in China in 2019, and let us not forget last year’s turbulent trip to Tokyo, which began with exhibition losses in Las Vegas to not only Australia, but Nigeria, too. Team USA lost to France in the Olympic opener, trailed the Spaniards in that quarterfinal match, and took gold from the French in a nail biting, three-point win.
The top players in the NBA right now are by and large not American, if you count them as Jokic (Serbia), Giannis (Greece), Doncic (Slovenia) and Joel Embiid (Cameroon/France).
LeBron is about to be 38. Curry is 34 and Durant turns 34 this week. The team the Americans send to the Philippines, coached by Warriors great Steve Kerr, could be made up of almost entirely up-and-coming stars with little or no international experience.
Depth will always be on the Americans’ side, always. But on a team of 12, where only five can play at a time, and there is but one ball to go around, winning these big tournaments is going to be tough for Team USA.
Maybe it won’t be this year, or next. But at some point, Spain or some other proficient basketball nation will take the top ranking from the Americans.
“It would be very good (to be ranked No. 1), but I would rather beat the Americans on the court than in the rankings – something I’ve never done,” said Spanish star and Cleveland Cavalier Ricky Rubio, who will play for Spain next summer if healthy.
(Photo of Kevin Durant: Thomas Coex / AFP via Getty Images)