BEIJING -- From the minute Team USA lost to France in the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup earlier this week, USA Basketball had to begin preparing itself for 10 months from now and the Olympics in Tokyo.
Fair or not, that is shaping up to be a referendum on the state of the national team.
The modern era of Olympic basketball started in 1992 in Barcelona. And for all the Olympics since, the Americans have sent a team loaded with All-Stars and high-level role players who represented the birthplace of the game at the highest level. Even when they were beaten, it was not because of talent issues.
But that model is a bit on the line now. Players are pulling back on summer commitments as rest and recovery methods become more of a focus. And a new calendar where the World Cup and Olympics are played in back-to-back summers is clearly going to stress America's stars going forward.
There is an assumption that the cavalry will come next year with the event in the middle of the offseason in late July, and in the wake of this showing, which ended Saturday with a win over Poland and a seventh-place finish -- their worst finish in either the Olympics or World Cup. Perhaps that will be the case and James Harden, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and the like will be striding into the opening ceremony in Japan with this adventure in China reduced to an asterisk.
But making that assumption is perhaps a little dangerous. If nothing else, this summer showed that.
While still in China, USA Basketball officials already have been meeting to discuss strategy for how to approach putting the pieces back together. Though in the disappointment of the moment, coach Gregg Popovich was a little defiant on Saturday.
"What does USA Basketball have to do? Continue and keep going. We coach and they play and we do our best. That's what USA Basketball does," he said. "It's not like something has to be changed or do this O's and X's wise or do something strategy-wise. It's a tough competition. You do the best you can with whoever comes and that's it. All the other countries have some guys who didn't come."
Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo was feeling a little raw, too. He told the Associated Press after the France loss that "you can't help but notice and remember who you thought you were going to war with and who didn't show up."
Of course they do have to make changes. They finished 13th in the tournament in 3-point shooting and eighth in scoring. They were scrambling to fill out the roster to be sure, but it had some holes that could've been better addressed on this front. Whoever is on the roster next year, there's going to have to be some better decisions made, especially after seeing how the competition handled them this summer.
But they also have to evaluate the approach. Colangelo was stunned by the number of pullouts and the timing of many of them, leading to some self-evaluation on the process. But again, maybe it's just changing tastes and there was nothing that could be done. It became fashionable among the superstars to pull out of China, and for a few weeks there, it almost seemed cool to pass.
These aren't just issues for the U.S. but for much of international basketball. In general, this tournament was missing a lot of big names. The move to an odd year just before the Olympics has been blamed.
"The FIBA calendar proved to be wrong in any competition they have organized. From the national team windows in the middle of the season 'til organizing the World Cup one year before the Olympics," Euroleague CEO Jordi Bertomeu said at an event in Italy this week. "The logic says to return to World Cup to even years."
Colangelo has a track record of fixing Team USA's problems. He also has been able to win over stars and assemble megastar teams. Unless there was a widespread cover-up, the players who were here enjoyed much of the experience with Popovich and, in theory, that word should spread.
Fearing a black mark on their reputations for being part of a losing roster could've played a role in the dropout rate this summer once the ball got rolling. But rallying to the rescue could reverse the trend among the big names.
One thing is clear: For the first time in a long time, there is some real drama involved in the future of USA Basketball.