Even after Australia’s Joe Ingles grabbed the basketball and the buzzer sounded to signal the end of his team’s exhibition victory over the United States senior men’s national team on Monday, U.S. coach Gregg Popovich wasn’t through taking Ls.
He now owns a 9-5 record in this position, a .642 winning percentage that would be perfectly adequate if he were in charge of a developing NBA team – which he is in his day job with the San Antonio Spurs. The person who preceded him as national team coach, however, finished a 12-year run in the position with a .987 percentage, so Popovich’s record appears less than stellar.
In the press conference that followed Australia’s 91-83 win Monday night in Las Vegas, Popovich wound up on the wrong side of the result yet again.
A reporter from The Athletic, Joe Vardon, asked Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, “What it’s like for you to have watched your colleagues go through some of these tournaments and blow these teams out, and now you are experiencing a much closer, a much tougher experience.”
Lillard presented a reasonable answer, stressing the improvement in world basketball and the cohesion of teams with more constant rosters though tweaking the history a bit by saying, “In the past, when I have watched, you’d see one guy on a different team that is in a rotation in the NBA and they might have a guy on a bench that is just on a team.” That might have been true of the weaker teams, but surely not of Spain, Argentina or France in recent Olympiads.
When Lillard was finished, Popovich subjected the history to much greater torture. Popovich scolded Vardon for asking a similar question following USA Basketball’s weekend loss to Nigeria, “where you assume things that are not true, when you just mentioned blowing these teams out – that’s never happened.”
Vardon tried to defend his question by pointing to the Americans’ average margin of victory in recent tournaments, but Popovich insisted, which he was entitled to do, that he finish his statement. And certainly a coach might want to assert, as he did, that such questions “give no respect to the other teams.” But then he doubled down on his factual error.
“We’ve had very close games against four or five countries in all these tournaments,” Popovich said.
Which is true.
“In general,” he continued, “nobody’s blowing anybody out.”
Which is not.
Between 2008 and 2016, the first and last Olympiads under previous coach Mike Krzyzewski, the U.S. prepared for and won five major tournaments (three Olympics, two World Cups). In pre-competition exhibitions and the tournaments, the U.S. played 31 games against a cohort of teams included in the current FIBA top 10, a list that has seen very little movement in that period: Argentina, Australia, France, Greece, Lithuania, Russia, Serbia and Spain. The U.S. won every one of those games. They won 25 of them by double-digit margins. They won 18 of them by at least 20 points and nine by at least 30.
Three of the single-digit games came in the most recent Olympics: against Serbia (94-91), France (100-97) and Spain (82-76). So maybe Popovich’s frame of reference is stopping there. But that tournament also included a 37-point victory over Argentina and a 96-66 destruction of Serbia in a rematch for the gold medal.
“These other teams and these other countries just continue to improve,” Lillard said. “These players, they get better, they improve and they also want to beat us badly. It’s definitely noticeable when you’re on the floor.”
The Australia team that took down the U.S. on Monday was plenty familiar to those who follow the game here. Four of the five starters have spent extensive time in the NBA (Ingles, Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova, Aron Baynes) and Jock Landale was an NCAA Division I star at Saint Mary’s. But Ingles’ 12.1 scoring average for the Jazz was the highest for any Australia player in this past season’s NBA. Add the averages of the Australia perimeter starters together and you’re still more than three points short of Lillard’s alone.
It shouldn’t be this hard.