The U.S.'s last loss before that was against Greece, in the 2006 World Championship. That this most recent loss came in an exhibition, however, was in a way even rarer. Saturday's loss at the hands of a firespitting Patty Mills was only the second exhibition defeat for Team USA since 1992; the first came 15 years ago, when it lost 95-78 in Cologne, Germany, to an Italy team that couldn't miss from behind the arc.
Team USA is still the favorite to win World Cup gold, but the playing field is more level than it's been in more than a decade. At its peak, the U.S. men's national basketball team experience is akin to an Avengers moviegoing experience: big stars, big explosions, big, mind-deadening fun.
This is a perfect time to root for the underdog, to root for chaos, to discover a nation's folk favorite. Because, as if foreshadowing the NBA season to come, it seems as though anything could happen in the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
This time around, he'll set foot in China as the second-best player in the tournament, behind only Greece's Giannis Antetokounmpo. And for the first time in his international career, Jokic will serve as the undisputed focal point of his national team.
With its depth, size, and star power, Serbia has become something of a cofavorite to win the whole damn thing. And that is without one of the most recognizable Serbian stars of several generations, passing wizard Milos Teodosic, who suffered a foot injury earlier this summer in a game against Lithuania.
Serbia's biggest advantage over the field may lie in its ability to dictate style of play. The team is enormous; half its roster consists of players 6-foot-10 or taller, and both of its point guards are listed at 6-foot-6. All four of its centers have NBA ties: Jokic, of course, is an All-NBA player; Boban Marjanovic; Nikola Milutinov ,Miroslav Raduljica.
Rudy Gobert is the clear headliner, and the Stifle Tower will offer both offensive and defensive structure to a French roster that will largely be determined by its perimeter play. Nicolas Batum (who is somehow only 30 years old) has certainly seen better days in the NBA, but his two-way versatility across several positions and roles should alleviate some of the pressures now put on young Knick Frank Ntilikina, who projects as the team's starting point guard.
France's best lineup against Team USA might just be a four-out attack that leverages its massive defensive presence in the paint and perimeter shooting across positions, with Gobert manning the 5, Batum sliding up to the 4, Evan Fournier at the 3, Nando De Colo at the 2, and Ntilikina at the 1. That would put four capable offensive initiators on the floor at once. All five also have NBA experience;
The case for Greece is simple: They have the undisputed best player in the tournament, a guy who was named the most valuable player in the best professional basketball league in the world. There's just not much most teams will be able to do if Giannis Antetokounmpo simply decides to drop 30 points in a game.
The hope is that the rest of the Greek team—one with many familiar names like Ioannis Bourousis, Kostas Papanikolaou, Nick Calathes, and notorious NBA flameout Georgios Papagiannis—can hold up its end of the bargain.
Giannis changes everything in a setting like the World Cup; it fully explains the level of attention given to the Greeks as legitimate medal contenders. But 2019 could wind up as merely a preface. It's not hard to imagine all four Antetokounbros leading the way in the near future.
Gasol, now 34, remains the team's cornerstone, and it will be hard to ever envision a Spanish team not playing in the image of the country's two best-ever basketball products. The Gasol brothers have all but instilled the synaptic, read-and-react basketball reflexes into the country's DNA.
This will be Spain's 12th FIBA World Cup appearance, the most of any European nation in the tournament. It's no longer the front-runner, but after a decade-plus of watching this team rise to the top of the basketball world with an earnest team-as-family ethos, it's hard to count it out when a good chunk of the core remains intact.
Valanciunas is the established star at this level of competition: At 7 feet tall, with a mammoth wingspan, touch around the basket, and range out to the FIBA 3-point line, Valanciunas is the player most teams will base their game plans around.
The Pacers organization has said that Sabonis and frontcourt mate Myles Turner will be spending more time on the court together in the 2019-20 season, but should the two meet in China, we might get some useful fodder for the Which Big Should the Pacers Actually Build Around? debate.