We May be Missing the Greatest Men’s Basketball Tournament Ever

The fate of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo had been hanging in the balance ever since the COVID-19 outbreak began in China months ago. However, pressure truly began to mount on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as the virus rapidly spread throughout the world. 

The Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced last weekend that they would not take part in the games if the dates were not changed. Soon after, Australia, Brazil, Germany, Norway and the United States also released statements saying they were in favor of the ceremonies being postponed.

On Monday, veteran IOC member Dick Pound told USA TODAY SPORTS that the decision had been made to postpone the upcoming Summer Games.

This marks the first time that an Olympics was not held as scheduled outside of a world war occurring. (They were canceled in 1916 because of World War I and 1940-1944 for World War II.)

By Tuesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and IOC head Thomas Bach announced that the postponement was official and the games would be pushed back to 2021 with no new dates confirmed as of yet.

There were 33 sports scheduled to be held this Summer in Tokyo and those athletes will now get extra time to train and get ready for their moment in the spotlight. For some, however, unforeseen circumstances may change their availability and opportunity to pursue this Olympic dream.

Similarly, this news comes as a particularly crushing blow to FIBA, NBA and global men’s basketball fans.

After years of the Americans dominating internationally, we saw a crack in the armor during 2018’s men’s inaugural FIBA Basketball World Cup where Team USA finished in seventh place. Granted, the best of the NBA’s American best remained stateside, but there was a point in time when it felt like any compilation of All-Stars could defeat any other country.

That is no longer the case: Even the Olympic winners in 2008, 2012, and 2016 were tested at some points during their tournaments.

With the many of the world’s top teams becoming ever stronger, and with the U.S. delegation tapping into its golden age of top stars, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were shaping up to be one of the greatest-ever collections of basketball talent in one space on a global stage.

Instead of “Dream Team”, it was time to start thinking in terms of Dream Teams.

We know eight of the 12 teams that are already qualified, and that group includes such perennial heavy-hitters as Argentina, Australia, France, Spain (ranked 2nd), and the U.S.A. Those squads are ranked third, fourth, sixth, second and first (respectively) in the latest FIBA World Ranking presented by NIKE.

Each nation would have had a captivating storyline to follow throughout the tournament.

Argentina was reaping the rewards of the impact its golden generation⁠—led by former NBA players Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino, Pablo Prigioni and Andres Nocioni⁠—had on making basketball popular in the country. Australia and France were looking to finally break through on the big stage, and the Aussies were finally bringing Ben Simmons into the fold for the first time.

Spain was likely to give its own golden generation⁠—featuring Marc and Pau Gasol, Victor Claver, Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Llull, Sergio Rodriguez and Ricky Rubio, along with Serge Ibaka, Juan and Willy Hernangomez⁠—one last shot of competing together after pieces of that group helped lead them to victory at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in 2019.

And the United States was once again looking to recertify its standing as being head-and-shoulders above the rest of the world on the basketball court.

That alone would have made the action must-see television. Yet, with four open spots left, each of the four qualifying tournaments had at least one remaining member of the top-10 in them: Greece (7th), Brazil (10th), Lithuania (8th) and Serbia (5th). 

We could have had a scenario where nine of the 10 best teams in the world were battling it out for supremacy. Imagine if the Elite Eight had the eight highest-ranked teams in it: People would be losing their minds. (Like the Olympics, the NCAA Tournament was canceled for this year as well.)

On the other hand, if rankings alone don’t get you revved up, then there was the chance to have some of the greatest talents the world has to offer playing for a gold medal.

Just take a look at some of the younger star players that would have potentially been out there: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece), Bogdan Bogdanovic (Croatia), Luka Doncic (Slovenia), Shail Gilgeous-Alexander (Canada), Nikola Jokic (Serbia), Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania), Simmons (Australia), and Karl-Anthony Towns (Dominican Republic).

Not to be outdone, here is the list of 44 players (listed alphabetically) compiled by USA Basketball as the preliminary roster for 2020’s event: Bam Adebayo, LaMarcus Aldridge, Harrison Barnes, Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Malcolm Brogdon, Jaylen Brown, Jimmy Butler, Mike Conley, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, DeMar DeRozan, Andre Drummond, C, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Draymond Green, James Harden, Montrezl Harrell, Joe Harris, Tobias Harris, Gordon Hayward, Dwight Howard, Brandon Ingram, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, G, Brook Lopez, Kevin Love, Kyle Lowry, JaVale McGee, Khris Middleton, Donovan Mitchell, Victor Oladipo, Chris Paul, Mason Plumlee (how in the name of Coach K did he make this list?), Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Klay Thompson Myles Turner, Kemba Walker, Russell Westbrook, and Derrick White.

Olympics 2020: Building a Gold Medal Roster for Team USA Men’s Basketball

Moving the games back increases the likelihood that injured superstars Durant, Irving and Thompson will have played in an NBA game prior to suiting up for Team USA. But it also decreases the chance that some other players remain committed to participating: Aldridge Howard, James and Paul will all be 35 and older by 2021, for example. 

And with so many of the world’s best likely intent on returning to normalcy within their NBA and FIBA homes by that point, the Olympics may seem like a frivolous distraction rather than a golden opportunity.

Sure, there’s more than enough talent among that group for the United States to assemble basketball’s version of The Avengers, but that’s not true for some of the other top nations’ talent pools. And with the change in timing comes the uncertain trajectory of health and circumstance.

Don’t get me wrong, no one is advocating that the Olympics should have been held in unhealthy conditions. This is not a complaint about poor decision-making for the sake of our entertainment. Rather, it’s just the lament that no one knows if any of the names listed with any of the countries here will remain 100 percent healthy from now until whenever the Tokyo Olympics finally happen.

This summer would have provided an opportunity for the best players to play the best game with the entire world watching. Who knows what 2021 will have in store for us?

There is the chance we get to recoup the experience. But there’s also the chance we don’t.

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