Even Pop has a dream job

The honest and sad truth here is that USA Basketball did not need Gregg Popovich to take over for Mike Krzyzewski to maintain its position of ridiculously comfortable international dominance on Planet Hoop.

Those of you who watched and remember what happened at the 2014 World Cup in Spain, where the United States sent a B-ish roster and romped to the gold with an average victory margin of nearly 35 points, are well-acquainted by now with our frequent lament in this cyberspace.

The one about how the gap between the best basketball nation on Earth and the rest of the world is actually widening when it should be shrinking.

Doc Rivers. Steve Kerr. Rick Carlisle. Young Brad Stevens. Doesn't take much time to generate a list of wonderful candidates fit to succeed Coach K after the Yanks surely romp yet again to Olympic gold in Rio this coming summer. With Jerry Colangelo, Godfather of USAB, committed to staying in his role as program head and lead recruiter through the 2020 Olympics -- along with Coach K himself determined to stick around in an advisory role -- any of those coaches would have been blessed with can't-lose rosters in the next Olympic cycle.

Gregg Charles Popovich is the one who needed this. Pop wanted this badly. The former Air Force cadet, much like the former Army officer Krzyzewski, is as fiercely patriotic as anyone you will meet in basketball. He earned a tryout for the 1972 Olympic team, rooming with a future MVP named Bob McAdoo, and has longed to be a part of it ever since he got cut from that squad.

For the red, white and blue? At age 66, Pop just buried a decade of tension with USAB's elders and signed away four straight summers of prime wine-tasting season ... mere months after promising LaMarcus Aldridge that, yes, he intends to coach for the full five years of his one-year-old contract in San Antonio.

It stung Pop so personally, when he felt publicly disparaged by Colangelo after the selection of Coach K to take over as head coach in the wake of USA Basketball's disastrous 2004 Olympics, that many in USAB circles wondered if the wounds on both sides (mostly Pop's) could ever be healed. If they could ever work side by side.

Yet the swiftness with which Friday's unexpected announcement came, just days after Coach K reiterated to our own Andy Katz that the Rio Games would definitely be his swansong after Colangelo sweet-talked him into one more ride following London 2012, brought a hasty end to that narrative.

The fences, it would appear, have been mended enough if Colangelo and Popovich could work all this out a good nine months before the first jump ball in Rio.

There is bound to be concern in South Texas that Lord Pop, at his age, is taking on too much by adding USAB duties, but that'll be as far as the fretting spreads on these shores when it comes to the next half-decade of national team hoops.

The top stars in this league, as so many have with Coach K, will be giddy to have the chance to play for Pop, so the competition better brace for facing teams far stronger than the one dispatched to EspaƱa last summer. You watch: When the 2020 Olympic Games in Toyko roll around, even though he'll be 35, LeBron James will be tempted to turn out for Team USA one more time just for the opportunity to sample life on Pop's side for a change.

And sorry to disappoint the wise guys out there who think Pop will soon be causing international incidents with poor, unsuspecting reporters from foreign lands ... but save your Vines. The man is Air Force Academy-schooled and had CIA aspirations in his youth before being wooed back to basketball. He understands international diplomacy better than most, so you can safely assume that we're going to see a different, more forgiving Pop on the world stage.

There's really only one downside to this whole story and it has nothing to do with who's standing in the coaching box. It's the fact that, as we've been regrettably repeating since that inaugural World Cup in Spain, Team USA's competition is fading instead of gaining.

Which isn't the way it was supposed to happen as we drift toward a full quarter-century of international basketball since the original Dream Team dazzled Barcelona and changed the game forever by inspiring kids worldwide.

Mighty Spain is only getting older. The French just failed to win the Eurobasket on French soil in September much like the Spaniards couldn't even reach the title game against the United States on Spanish soil one year earlier. Argentina's amazingly enduring Golden Generation, headlined by the likes of Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola, won't go away but has curiously spawned no heirs of note coming up through the ranks. And our neighbors to the north in Canada, for all their undeniable potential, couldn't clinch a spot in the next Olympics at the recent FIBA Americas tournament despite fielding nine NBA players to Venezuela's zero.

As one seasoned international scout in the NBA depressingly put it to me Friday: "I don't see anyone putting up a fight to Team USA for years anyway."


The only real drama for Rio, then, is going to be the agonizing cuts Colangelo and Krzyzewski have to make beforehand to get an overflowing pool of 40-some national team aspirants down to 12. The lone source of mystery en route to China for the 2019 World Cup will then be the forthcoming FIBA format change to mirror soccer's model, with qualifying for the World Cup taking place during various points of the NBA season ... only without the soccer-style international breaks in which clubs are required by FIFA to release players to their national teams. USAB will thus have to field two squads going forward. A team to play the qualifying games -- presumably heavy on NBA D-Leaguers -- and the senior team coached by Pop that will contest the actual World Cup.

Fret not, though. With the Worlds' field expanding to an eye-popping 32 teams for the 2019 event, there is no conceivable scenario in which the Yanks would fail to qualify out of the Americas. And if I'm proven naive and they somehow did miss out, you can safely assume that they would be granted some sort of wild card to participate in the tournament proper.

So book it. Team USA will win the 2019 World Cup, thus clinching a berth in the 2020 Olympics, with Gregg Popovich finally at the controls. Just as he has dreamed for years.

Colangelo was quietly confident for a reason when he and Popovich met in July to formally discuss the job in detail for the first time. He had a hunch that old feuds and past slights ultimately couldn't keep Pop away from what a lifelong military man -- even after all those championships and the near-utopia he has built in San Antonio -- would naturally regard as the highest honor in the coaching profession.

"I can't imagine having this opportunity," Pop said at Friday afternoon's news conference, sitting alongside Colangelo in the Spurs' practice facility.

"It's still sinking in, but I love it."

The emotion in Pop's voice, and in that suddenly not-so-gruff face, said it even louder.