How long can the USA hang on to the top spot in women’s basketball?
SANTA CRUZ DE TENERIFE, SPAIN – Are Team USA’s days as the dominant force in the international women’s game numbered? No one is checking the pulse on this All-Star squad quite yet, but the preliminary indications from here in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain, where the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup is en route to its final weekend, would suggest that, at the very least, the road ahead may not prove as easy as it has been for the past two decades.
There was a time not so very long ago when Team USA could be counted on to rout its opponents by 20 points or better each time it took the floor. The U.S team would barely break a sweat until at least until the medal matches when the U.S. had to face the best of the rest of the world’s best while playing for all the marbles. Even then, while the competition might hang tight for a quarter or two, Team USA’s ascent to the center riser of the podium was all but a foregone conclusion, as the rest of the world seemed content to duke it out for second place.
Take the scores from the elimination rounds at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero, for example. Team USA dispatched Japan in the quarterfinals by a 46-point margin, advancing in a 110-64 rout. France gave the Americans a closer battle than usual, but the United States still emerged from the semifinals the victor by just short of 20 points; 86-67 was the final. A talented Spanish squad hung around for a while in the gold-medal match, but when the dust settled, the scoreboard read: USA 101, Spain 72.
True, there was that time in 2006, at the World Championship in São Paulo, when a U.S. squad that had never practiced together as a unit before arriving in Brazil, short two of its premiere players, had to settle for bronze after a plucky Russian team the Americans had beaten just days earlier proved the United States was not invincible. Whether it was a strategic error on the part of the late, Hall of Fame U.S. head coach Anne Donovan, who failed to turn up the defensive pressure on the talented but often butterfingered Russian point guard quite soon enough, or just an off day for the American shooters, who averaged just 38.6 percent from the field, Russia got off to a strong start in the early going.
The Russians survived a second-quarter U.S. spurt and then exploded in a 21-6 point third-period, opening up a huge gap that not even a 21-point tour de force by a young Diana Taurasi would be able to fill.
Russia moved on with a 75-68 win, only to be knocked off by Australia a day later, taking the silver as the Opals collected their first and only World Championship gold.
However painfully that memory might linger for Taurasi and teammate Sue Bird, the only two players who experienced the sting of the defeat still remaining on the U.S. squad, it was an outlier – the first loss for the USA women in major international competition in 12 years. There hasn’t been another one since.
These games mark the 12-year anniversary of that breakdown in São Paulo, and Team USA is out to defend its title and, in the process, accomplish something it has never done before – earn a third, consecutive World Championship gold, its tenth overall. The only team ever to have achieved the rare World Cup trifecta, the Soviet Union, which took five back-to-back golds at each World Championship event from 1959 through 1975, no longer exists. Its successor state Russia, which was once a medal-stand regular in its own right, is not even here, having failed to make the cut for one of the five spots allotted to European teams over and above the one allotted to this year’s host country, Spain.
The United States is already well along in its quest for that unprecedented third-straight gold, having already secured a bye into the quarterfinals by locking up the top seed in Group D with victories over Senegal and China in its first two games.
It takes nothing away from the Team USA’s accomplishments, though, to note that their path to the top of the medal stand may not be as smooth as it once was. This is a team that takes nothing for granted, other than that their best is expected of them each time they don a USA Basketball uniform. It is also a team that respects its opponents, with whom the U.S. players are well familiar after playing alongside and against many of them both in the WNBA and abroad. And players will tell you, time and again, that competitors routinely bring their “A” games when taking the court against the United States, requiring the Americans to do the same. And in the 12 years since Sao Paulo, the rest of the world appears to have gotten much better.
Tuesday night’s 100-88 win over China stands in evidence. As recently as last April, the Americans defeated China by a whopping 37 points, 83-46, in exhibition play in Seattle. And lest one speculate that a “friendly match” doesn’t really count because the opponents have nothing but bragging rights at stake, the two teams also met in 2016 in the preliminary rounds of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, with the United States rolling to a compelling 105-62 rout, to cite another recent example.
But another lopsided U.S. victory would not be on tap on Sunday night when the United States and China once again faced each other, this time at the Quico Cabrerra Arena in Santa Cruz de Tenerife on the second day of World Cup group play. Indeed, the double-digit final margin of the 100-88 U.S. win belies just how close this game was for much of the night. Though the United States led for all but the first minute-and-a-half, the Chinese fought hard and well from opening tip to final buzzer, keeping the score close. China trailed by just four or five points for much of the way, and each time the Americans threatened to create some distance, the Chinese would battle back to narrow the deficit.
Perhaps equally noteworthy, the reason for this atypically respectable point spread was not that the United States tripped itself up by playing poorly. Quite the contrary. The 100-point tally for the United States by itself speaks otherwise. Unlike Saturday night’s opener against Senegal, when the U.S. took the better part of the first period to get their feet under them and shot poorly for much of the early going, on Sunday, Team USA came out strong from the get-go.
China drew first blood, seizing the opportunity created by a Tina Charles turnover, to drop in a layup by Jiacen Liu. But Taurasi, who had struggled all night to find her shot against Senegal, got the party started for the Americans, pulling up to knock down a quick jumper and even the score on the next U.S. possession. It would not be another off-night for Taurasi, who shot 5-6 (83 percent) from the field in a little less than 20 minutes in this outing, also nailing her lone three-point attempt, to finish with 13 points, to which she added four rebounds, five assists and a steal, but also five turnovers.
On China’s next trip down the floor, Breanna Stewart grabbed the rebound from Meng Li’s missed three-pointer, and Charles nailed a fadeway at the opposite end of the floor that would have done Kobe Bryant proud. The bucket gave Team USA a 4-2 edge at the 8:41 mark, a lead that would be challenged repeatedly, but never lost.
Charles, who finished the first 10 minutes with 10 points already on her stat sheet, was the U.S. go-to player in the early minutes, but saw limited minutes thereafter and would add only two points more the rest of the way. Despite only 15 minutes of total playing time, Charles led the U.S. efforts on the backboards, where she hauled down a game-high six rebounds.
The two teams battled their way to a 25-20 U.S. lead by the end of the first period. Despite Team USA’s superior shooting in the early going – 58 percent (11-19) from the floor for the Americans to 44 percent (8-18) for China – the Chinese managed to keep things relatively close thanks to a well-timed trey from Mengran Sun in the final two minutes of the period. And the Chinese sharpshooters had yet to get zeroed in, netting an atypical one-for-four of their long-ball attempts in the opening period.
China continued to keep things close through the early minutes of the second stanza, matching the Americans bucket-for-bucket and whittling the U.S. lead to just three points by the halfway mark, but Team USA put the pedal to the metal in the final five minutes of the opening half, to carry a 48-39 advantage to the locker room. By the intermission, three American players were already in double digits, with A’ja Wilson leading the pack with 14 points, to go with 11 from Taurasi and Charles’s 10 from the opening quarter.
China’s perimeter game had begun to warm up, as Xuemeng Wang knocked down both of her three-balls, and the Chinese overall improved their marksmanship at the arc to 43 percent (3-7). But while making fewer attempts from downtown, the Americans matched China with one trey apiece from Taurasi and newcomer Morgan Tuck.
According to Stewart, no one said anything to her about it in the locker room, but to that point in the game, she had only two points to her tally. She took it on herself to be more aggressive in the latter half of the game, and almost single-handedly took over in the third period, notching 17 points in that frame alone. She was nothing short of brilliant, alternating layups with jumpers from the top of the key, and keeping China honest, just inside the halfway point, added a three-pointer of her own.
But China matched the Americans nearly step for step, whittling the U.S. advantage to five points behind a Han Xu jumper at the 8:47 mark in the third quarter. Each time the U.S. would swell the lead to 10 points, as it did on a Tina Charles layup on an assist from Taurasi at the 7:47 mark, China would answer – in that case with a turnaround jumper from Mengran Sun on a feed from Ting Shao. Stewart swatted away Meng Li’s three-point attempt midway through the frame, and with the U.S. still hanging on to a nine-point (56-47) advantage, Xu made wholesale substitutions to his lineup.
After Stewart traded layups with Liwei Yang, Chinese forward Xuemeng Wang drained a triple to cut the margin to six, 58-52. A minute later, it was Stewart knocking down a trey, on a dime from Layshia Clarendon, to put the American advantage back at nine points, and Wilson made it an 11-point lead, netting a jumper with 3:57 to go in the third period. Stewart cut off a bad pass by China’s Xu Han, and nailed a midrange jumper to stretch the lead to 13 (67-54), but once again China answered, as Sijiing Huang landed a trey.
Siyu Wang’s layup, on a feed from Meng Li, cut the lead to eight (71-63) with a minute and a half remaining, but after Stewart fed Wilson for a jumper to restore the Americans to a 10-point lead, Wang answered in kind with seven seconds remaining. Fouled in the process by Clarendon, Wang converted the traditional three-point play to make the score, 75-68. However, Jewell Loyd’s buzzer-beating jumper put the U.S. right back where they had started the second half, riding an all-too-narrow nine-point lead, 77-68.
U.S. head coach, and former national team point guard, Dawn Staley, won’t admit to feeling any pressure on herself, other than “to do our best” and to well “represent the United States,” but it is hard to believe that she felt entirely comfortable even with a nine-point advantage entering the final frame. Staley had been on the sidelines in São Paulo, assisting Donovan when the U.S. last tasted defeat, and having had plenty of opportunity to scout the Chinese, she had to have known that that deficit remained well within reach of a Chinese squad prolifically armed with three-point shooters at every position from the 1 to the 5, as Chinese head coach Xu Limin proudly pointed out afterward.
The Chinese sharpshooters were still off target, landing only 36 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc. But they were shooting a lot of them — 14 to that point – and landing enough (5) to stay in contention. One had to wonder what might happen were their shooting to heat up.
In fact, the Chinese did land three more long-balls in the game’s final frame, to finish the night eight-for-21 (38.1 percent) from beyond the arc. Nonetheless, the U.S. managed to widen the gap to as many as 17 points after Kelsey Plum netted a pair from the foul line with 3:42 to go, and Staley seized the opportunity to get her youngsters some exercise, leading to a few rocky moments where ball-handling and player control proved a bit sloppy. A turnover by Plum set up the final three of the game for China in the final seconds, allowing the Chinese to whittle the score to 100-88, and with the win in hand, Plum dribbled out the final seconds.
The final statistics reflect plenty of grounds for optimism concerning the future of USA women’s basketball. Four U.S. players – Stewart, who finished with 23 points, on 75 percent from the field (including two three-balls), plus six rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal; Wilson, who tallied 20 points on seven-of-eight field-goal shooting, while grabbing six rebounds, three steals, three blocks and an assist; Taurasi, whose stat line has already been mentioned; and Charles, who posted 16 points, six rebounds and an assist – emerged in double figures, and three of those four are on the front ends of their careers.
The team as a whole shot the ball well (57.6 percent, or 38-of-66 from the floor, and four of 10 from long range), continued to distribute the ball well, with 24 assists on their 38 buckets; kept the turnovers under control (15 in total); and rebounded effectively with a total of 38 boards for the night.
What’s more, the Americans still did not have all of its best players on the court. Prior to Tuesday, Brittney Griner was day-to-day with a rolled ankle, plus there are veterans, including the Minnesota Lynx’ core group — 2017 WNBA MVP Sylvia Fowles (soon to turn 33, but still in peak form when not injured), 2014 WNBA MVP Maya Moore (just 29, but on a basketball hiatus, according to ESPN’s Michelle Voepel); as well as 34-year-old Seimone Augustus (a perennial All-Star and Team USA regular who opted out of this year’s team and is believed to also be taking some much deserved time off a compressed WNBA season and an injury-riddled career of year-round play) – all of whom could all be called back into action if needed for the 2020 Olympics. And then there’s two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker – she’s just 32 and still more than capable of putting up 20 points or more in an outing, but whose relationship with USA Basketball has soured since she was snubbed for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team reportedly thanks to a fractious relationship with then-head coach Geno Auriemma.
Team USA seems committed to passing the torch to the future generation, and if it is still in the hunt for the heirs to back court mantles of Bird and Taurasi, it is extremely well stocked in the frontcourt, even if all of the long-timers were to stay home.
The U.S. still has an enormous talent pool to draw upon. It’s just that there is more to success in basketball than talent alone. And the question remains how long the Team USA can rely simply on pulling together a line-up of All Stars at the last minute and count on continued success at the highest levels when the rest of the world is not only getting better in terms of talent but is also committed to building cohesive teams who take weeks or months off to practice together as unit.
It’s a fool’s errand to compare the teams from 1996 and 2018 and argue about which one is better. They will never face each other on the floor so how can anybody truly know? But imagine what kind of dominance we might witness if the talented athletes on this year’s national team had not a full year like the ‘96ers, but even a month to rest, recover and practice together as a unit?
Putting Away Latvia
The benefits of such time together as a team were demonstrated on Tuesday night, as the U.S. having had time to regroup and practice on Monday’s tournament-wide rest day, came out with a defensive intensity that had yet to be seen for more than a few minutes at a time. The result: A more familiar, lopsided win over a physical and spirited team from Latvia. The U.S. won, 102-76, in a game that counted for nothing but pride for either side.
Not only the final score but also the rebounding margin (56-39, in Team USA’s favor) and differential in steals (nine for the U.S., versus three for Latvia) were more in tune with the dominance to which the U.S. has become accustomed. (Of course, it couldn’t have hurt that Griner also saw action for the first time on Tuesday night. Then again, both Bird and Delle Donne sat out Tuesday’s game .)
Of course, the United States will not likely see another opportunity to field a team that has had an entire year to come together and practice. Just like the United States can no longer count on the significant height advantage it has typically enjoyed in the past. This year’s group checks in at 6-1 on average, but several teams can now compete on an even basis in that department, including up front where the height differential matters most. In this tournament, that group of competitors includes China (averaging 6-2), as well as Australia (averaging 6-2 with the 6-8 Liz Cambage, and plenty of back-up to take care of business down low), and Spain (6-0 on average but anchored by 6-6 Astou Ndour, who is joined up front by Laura Nicholls, Alba Torrens, Laura Gil and Beatriz Sanchez, all 6-3, even with 6-5 Sancho Lyttle sidelined by injury). That factor showed up on the stat sheet Sunday in the 38-30 rebounding margin, advantage still going to the United States but by nowhere near as much as one might have expected in the past.
Asked how much of a toll year-round play and the WNBA season takes out of her players, Staley responded, “A lot. … It takes a lot out of them.” She went on to praise her players for the sacrifices they make to participate. Taking part in both games and training camps comes at a considerable personal “cost,” she said.
And this, in turn, produces yet another detriment to sustained Team USA dominance. With the players already contracted to year-round play in the United States, Europe and Asia, there is very little time available for the national team to practice. In 1996, before the birth of the WNBA, USA Basketball was able to dedicate an entire year to team preparation in a move to put the Americans on the podium when the Olympics came home to Atlanta. The fruit of that effort was been not only a gold medal in Atlanta, but more than two decades for the United States on the medal stand, nearly always in the gold medal position, at the highest levels of international competition.
Even after Atlanta, the U.S. had much of its core group from ’96 together for the Olympics in Sydney. Even eight years later in Athens, as with the World Championships in between, the team still had Staley, Sheryl Swoopes, and Lisa Leslie from the ’96 group to form the nexus of the team. New players were integrated gradually, typically one or two at a time, and veterans stepped away a few at a time, from one event to the next.
Tellingly, Swoopes and Staley retired after Athens, and Leslie opted out of appearing at the next major international event – the 2006 World Championship in Brazil. There is no need to reprise that result yet again.
Perhaps the greatest threat to yet another generation of uncontested greatness for the U.S. women is the grueling year-round schedule many are forced to endure. WNBA salaries are so low in comparison to those the best players command elsewhere, that for most, overseas play is their real job, with summer league play in the WNBA is nearly a public service, performed proudly, but at considerable cost to the players’ bodies with the goal of keeping the league alive for future generations here in the United States.
The scheduling of major international competition in the late summer and early autumn presents a real problem for the still young league. The WNBA must choose between splitting its season, leaving its late-season and playoff games vulnerable to a lapse in interest in the face of stiff competition as football and other sports vie for viewers, or compressing its season, as it did this year, putting even more wear-and-tear on its players and rendering them even more susceptible to injury.
Ask nearly athletic trainer and she’ll tell you the importance of time off for rest, recovery and strength training, which no coach wants to undertake during the competition season, in preserving a player’s health and maximizing performance. The International Olympic Committee is unlikely to alter its schedule – they are, after all, called “the Summer Olympics – and FIBA is also unlikely to hand the USA what could be perceived as another advantage, by allowing the WNBA schedule to dictate the timing of the World Cup and other international competitions. But if the WNBA, USA Basketball or the various players’ committees and international leagues involve have ever undertaken to negotiate some bit of compromise with their respective schedules in the interest of the health and safety of all the players, they certainly haven’t bothered to publicize their efforts.
Today, in contrast, the USA players barely have time to shake hands with each other before donning their jerseys and heading into their opening games at the Olympics and World Cup. True, the senior team women typically come up through the development teams, one of the great assets of the USA Basketball program and a place where many of the nation’s top young talents can play with each other at the junior level. And it is also true that the U.S. does the best it can to work in some practices and friendly games when and where it can, but rarely is the full team on hand for any of them.
Staley concedes that she never had her entire team together at any of those training camps. That’s a challenge for any coach, but it is the hand that Staley and her recent predecessors have been dealt, and she intends to play that hand as best she can. Staley believes that something will have to be done about the WNBA schedule and its intersection with the calendar for major international play.
Still, there are limits to what any coach can do under the current arrangement. Monday was a rest day for the entire field in this tournament, and the benefits of having even one opportunity to practice with the entire team together revealed themselves in a much greater defensive intensity as well as improved rebounding.
For now, the safe money remains on the United States to successfully defend its title and take home yet another collection of gold medals. But that outcome is no longer the near certainty it was in the recent past. And even if it is yet again the American flag in the center come next Sunday night’s medal ceremony, there is no guarantee that will continue to be the case, as the rest of the world keeps improving, if at least incremental changes are not made. Staley says she hopes it won’t take another loss at the Olympic or World Cup level to bring that change to pass.