Forget gold, could this version of Team USA win an NBA title?

How good would this Team USA roster be in the NBA?

The Team USA roster that began the 2023 FIBA World Cup by blowing out New Zealand, 99-72, on Saturday is heavy on promising young talent but light on established stars.

Three USA players (Anthony EdwardsTyrese Haliburton and Jaren Jackson Jr.) were first-time All-Stars last year, with Jackson winning Defensive Player of the Year and Paolo Banchero Rookie of the Year, but none made an All-NBA team.

In fact, none of the players on the U.S. roster have ever been chosen All-NBA. That makes it interesting to think about how this USA team might perform against NBA competition. With seven players who averaged at least 32 minutes per game for their teams in 2022-23, Team USA would have a massive depth advantage on the rest of the league, but not the kind of singular star that typically leads teams to a title.

With the help of a preliminary version of my 2023-24 NBA team projections, let’s consider how the USA roster would perform over a full season together.

Projecting the U.S. roster

Based on the starting five and reserve units that coach Steve Kerr has used during exhibition play and in Saturday’s World Cup opener, here’s a guess at what the USA’s rotation would look like over an 82-game season of 48-minute NBA games.

Using that and players’ actual projections for the upcoming season based on my system, which incorporates both box-score stats from my SCHOENE projection system and adjusted plus-minus data from, the U.S. projects to win 52.2 games on average.

If that doesn’t sound very impressive — four teams won more than 52 games last season — remember that projections are conservative by nature. Based on current rosters and minutes projections, only the Boston Celtics (54.6) are forecast for more wins on average than the USA roster.

With so much depth, the U.S. would have the best projected offense at more than four points per 100 possessions better than league average, with only Boston (plus-3.6) even in the same ballpark. Despite having the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, the USA defense is forecast barely better than average as a function of lack of size beyond Jackson.

So far, Kerr has used Banchero as his primary backup to Jackson with an eye toward mobility and defensive versatility. During the NBA regular season, those traits don’t tend to be as important as rim protection, so switching the minutes of Banchero and Walker Kessler is enough to move the USA’s defensive projection into the top 10.

Comparison to 2019 World Cup roster

I last ran this exercise in 2019, ahead of the World Cup in China where the U.S. finished seventh, its worst performance in any major tournament ever. The 2019 team actually rated better entering the tournament with a projection of 56.4 wins on average, ahead of any team in 2019-20.

It’s amusing in hindsight the concern was whether the USA had enough star talent that year. Three players from that roster (Celtics teammates Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum as well as Donovan Mitchell, then with the Utah Jazz and since traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers) made All-NBA teams in 2022-23, with Tatum and Mitchell finishing fourth and sixth in MVP voting, respectively.

Of course, those players were earlier in their careers and hadn’t yet emerged as superstars. We may look back on this year’s young core of Edwards, Haliburton and Jackson in a similar vein.

Part of the reason the U.S. struggled in 2019 was losing Tatum — already a key starter — to an ankle sprain during a narrow win over Turkey early in the group stages. Then-Boston teammate Marcus Smart also missed the USA’s last two losses due to hand soreness, compromising the roster’s perimeter depth.

More than anything, the 2019 U.S. team never managed to find the chemistry necessary to beat more cohesive opponents. One of the points I made four years ago was that the USA’s projection plunged to 47.2 wins on average if players were all treated as having changed teams, a variable in my NBA projections.

The same is true this year — making the same adjustment drops the U.S. to 45.6 wins, which would rank eighth among 2023-24 team projections — but Kerr and the coaching staff seem to have done a strong job of finding a consistent rotation and roles early, which should pay off during the World Cup.

Precedent for champions like the World Cup roster

When it comes to winning NBA championships, star talent is historically far more important than the kind of depth the USA’s World Cup roster features. Although an All-NBA first team pick is no longer a requirement — in part because of injuries, four of the last seven title winners, and each of the last two, haven’t had one. We have to go back to the 1994-95 Houston Rockets to find a champion without a player on either the first or second team.

Looking back further, just three champs in NBA history haven’t had an All-NBA pick that regular season. The 1988-89 Detroit Pistons come with a bit of an asterisk: Hall of Fame guard Isiah Thomas was a five-time All-NBA pick as recently as 1986-87. When it comes to champions without a clear superstar, it’s the 2003-04 Pistons (center Ben Wallace was on the second team) who get cited rather than the Bad Boys teams.

Something similar is true of the 1977-78 Washington Bullets, led by Elvin Hayes, who made All-NBA every season from 1974-75 through 1978-79 except the year the Bullets happened to win the title. (Washington also had former MVP Wes Unseld, though remarkably Unseld’s MVP came as a rookie, which was also his only All-NBA appearance.)

That leaves the 1978-79 Seattle SuperSonics as the only champion truly comparable to the USA roster in terms of depth over stars. The Sonics, who beat the Bullets in a second consecutive Finals matchup, had no players on the roster who had ever been All-NBA picks. Budding guards Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams would both make it the next season, while second-year center Jack Sikma was early in his Hall of Fame career.

Add in the relative lack of playoff experience on the U.S. World Cup roster — Bobby Portis‘ 43 games, including the group’s only championship in 2021, lead the team — and I don’t think this group would be a favorite to win a title. Still, that lack of big-game action as a pro helps explain why this year’s World Cup could be vital to the development of young American stars.

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