Five-ring Circus

A Basketball Coalition of the Willing

The 2016 U.S. Olympic team isn’t dreamy, and it has nothing to redeem. It’s still incredibly fun to watch, and worth rooting for.

Carmelo Anthony stands on the precipice of becoming the greatest American player ever in international competition. Above, Anthony on Aug. 12 in Rio de Janeiro.

Elsa/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the U.S. men’s basketball team finally did what we’d long expected them to do: play like they’re the best team in the world. After routing Argentina 105–78 in the Olympic quarterfinals, extending its winning streak to 51 international contests, Team USA is now two wins away from its third consecutive gold medal. In Wednesday’s game, Kevin Durant—unusually subdued during group play—exploded for 27 points (including an NBA Jam–ish seven-for-nine from 3), while sixth man Paul George added 17 points, eight rebounds, three blocks, and three steals. At long last, it appears the Silver Cloud might be righted.

Though the 2016 U.S. squad is probably the least talented roster of hardwood Olympians in the post–Dream Team era, the Americans were still expected to win in a walk against a weak international field. Former powers like Spain and Argentina boast aging stars like Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili, while scrappy upstarts like Australia and Croatia are still scrappy upstarts. (If Ben Simmons had suited up for the Aussies, they might have been a lot more than scrappy.) But after opening group play with tomato-can blowouts of China and Venezuela, the U.S. had to hold on to beat Australia, Serbia, and France by a combined total of just 16 points.

This, of course, produced the expected hand-wringing about the team’s lack of cohesion, defensive lapses, and offensive stagnation, as well as heaps of passive-aggressive shade thrown the way of various NBA superstars—LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul—who chose to sit this one out. Not all of this criticism is unfair. Team USA is incoherent by nature. It is an all-star coalition of the willing assembled every four years to prove what everyone already knows: that the U.S. produces the best basketball players in the world. We don’t watch USA basketball to see drama. We watch for domination, and to marvel at the performances of peerless individuals. When we do see drama, we’re offended by it.

No matter what happens in the next two games, this team won’t possibly offend to the degree of the forever-maligned 2004 bronze-medal squad, a team so shockingly unsuccessful that the entire USA Basketball system was immediately overhauled. But even if it wins gold on Sunday, some will remember this team as a disappointment.

This is stupid. The 2016 U.S. Olympic basketball team is incredibly fun, both to watch and to root for. This iteration of Team USA calls to mind the 1976 classic The Bad News Bears, only if the Bears and the Yankees were somehow the same team. The U.S. Olympic roster team is stocked with a motley crew of players who’ve been historically saddled with reputations as ne’er-do-wells, or at least rarely-do-wells, all coached by Mike Krzyzewski, a man whose constant exasperation on the sidelines has brought untold joy to all the world’s Duke-hating citizens.

There’s perpetually grumpy and prodigiously gifted Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, who since entering the NBA in 2010 has led the league in invocations of the term malcontent. In Rio de Janeiro, Cousins has proven to be a lively and passionate piece of a winning team, his usual immovable force on offense and a surprisingly spry defender in the post. There’s Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, a feisty spark plug who’s notoriously difficult to get along with but who’s played his heart out on the international stage, as he does on all other stages. There’s former NBA champion Draymond Green, who might be “reigning NBA champion Draymond Green” right now if his penchant for doing violence to other people’s testicles hadn’t gotten him suspended from Game 5 of this year’s NBA Finals. Thus far in Rio, Draymond has avoided setting off an international nut-punching incident, which in the Lochte Olympics feels like an act of profound selflessness. Swingmen Jimmy Butler and Paul George—the latter of whom has returned to Team USA after suffering an unfathomably gruesome broken leg during the training camp for the 2014 world championships—have transitioned admirably from being the overburdened stars of their NBA teams to energetic situational players off the bench, at the ready with defensive stops and timely buckets.

And there are the team’s two stars, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. Last month, Durant announced he was leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to sign with the Golden State Warriors, a move that instantly transformed him from one of his sport’s most beloved players to one of its most polarizing. (Like a true patriot, Durant chose to announce his controversial independence on July 4.) Durant is a great international player and has been since his electrifying MVP performance at the 2010 world championships. As he reminded us on Wednesday, no American player aside from his new teammate Stephen Curry is so adept at demoralizing opposing defenses. Even when Argentina raced out to a 10-point first-quarter lead on Wednesday, Ginobili and co. were never going to stand a chance against a red-hot Durant.

Anthony, for his part, has long been a flummoxing case, a talented and prolific player who has shown an exceptional inability to get out of his own way. After winning a national title at Syracuse, his early career was beset by on- and off-court controversies, and following a speckled but mostly successful eight-plus years in Denver he forced a trade to New York, where his Knicks have failed to make the playoffs for the past three seasons. Throughout it all, Melo has garnered a hard-dying reputation as a player who values money over winning, individual fame over championships, his own shots and stats over the success of his teammates.

Earlier this summer, Anthony executed the most stunning public image reversal since that time Michael Jordan cried. The four-time Olympian took to Instagram and then the Guardian to become arguably the highest-profile current American professional athlete to speak out against police violence and racial injustice. In his Guardian column, he even preemptively called out corporate interests that would sever their endorsement ties to athletes who engaged in political and social activism, an act of real bravery in a league increasingly dominated by corporate logos.

And now Anthony stands on the precipice of becoming the greatest American player ever in international competition and arguably the greatest player in international competition from any country. Anthony has been playing for USA Basketball since 2002—the summer before his freshman year at Syracuse—and a win Friday and another Sunday will give him an unprecedented third gold medal. There is a deep irony here, that a player so widely maligned for being money-obsessed and insufficiently concerned with winning has put in an extraordinary amount of unpaid work to become the most decorated basketball Olympian in his country’s history.

This will almost certainly be Anthony’s last Olympics and quite possibly Durant’s as well, and Krzyzewski has already announced his plans to step down as coach after the Rio Games. It’s hard not to feel like an era of USA Basketball is ending, as perhaps it should. After all the successes of the last eight years, and the ongoing difficulty of getting the NBA’s best stars to sign away their summers, it might be time to explore a new model of sorts. (I’m personally in favor of making Team USA an under-23 squad, which would turn the Olympics into a showcase for up-and-coming players, many of whom play for NBA teams that don’t often get national TV exposure.) But until then I’ll be pulling hard for the misfits of this non–Dream Team, who, if not the very best of our very best, are certainly bad news for everyone else.

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.