After NBA players were allowed to play in the Olympics, the U.S. men’s basketball team started to dominate their competition. Then, the world of international basketball was turned upside down in 2004 when the Americans had to settle for a bronze medal. They were then held to another bronze medal at the 2006 World Champions. This was a wakeup call for the United States, and since then the rosters have gotten better, and the U.S. has been winning golds. They are so far undefeated at the Rio Olympics, and expected to win gold again.
So the United States has gotten better at the international level, right? It’s actually that the other teams that are getting worse, according to a study done by FiveThirtyEight.
Since it is a FiveThirtyEight article, there is a lot of detail and jargon involved. They used Box Plus/Minus to figure out how talented every roster Team USA is that’s featured NBA players. They then compared those numbers to the points per game margin the teams actually compiled. For example, the Dream Team had the best roster talent at +23.1, but their PPG margin was +43.8, so they were great but their opponents were terrible.
It turns out that while the 2004 Olympic team was middle of the road in terms of roster talent, the PPG margin was much lower than expected, indicating that the world’s talent had really improved. Since then, the U.S. Olympic teams have gotten better, the World Cup teams less so, but the PPG margin has jumped up even more. This year’s Olympics team so far has a roster talent barely higher than the 2004 team, but they are winning by 37 PPG so far.
In short, if there was ever a year for players like LeBron James and Steph Curry to stay home because of Zika fear or what have you, it seems like this is the one.