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Damian Lillard and Team USA are like all of us, so give them the benefit of the doubt | David Murphy

Maybe we really are witnessing the decline and fall of Team USA as a basketball powerhouse. But it's also been a really weird year.

Damian Lillard, right, talks with U.S. head coach Gregg Popovich during an Olympic warmup exhibition game on Sunday.
Damian Lillard, right, talks with U.S. head coach Gregg Popovich during an Olympic warmup exhibition game on Sunday.Read moreJohn Locher / AP

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Everyone gets a pass for the next few months. We are at a rare point in time in human history where nobody on the face of the earth is the best version of himself or herself. I’m like Oprah on the first tee. You get a mulligan, and you get a mulligan, and you get a mulligan. The year 2021 is the Year of the Breakfast Ball.

Think about it. Fifteen months ago, I was buying $300 worth of potato chips and taco kits and spraying Lysol on them before putting them in the cupboard. A year ago, the golf courses weren’t letting us use scorecards. I’ve forgotten that you’re supposed to take the pin out when you’re on the green. A month ago, I had to make a reservation just to pop in somewhere and drink a beer. I still have momentary waves of panic when I realize that I did not put a mask on before getting up to use the bathroom.

Point is, the circumstances of life affect you in ways that you never realize until the circumstances change. Only then can you look back and see the circumstances for what they were. And for the last year-and-a-half, they’ve been completely abnormal. They’re still not entirely normal, but they’re getting there a lot faster than it takes them to shape you. Life might be returning to homeostasis, but all the people in it can be excused for taking a little longer to get there.

This goes for relationships. This goes for work performance. This goes for suboptimal personal habits. And it definitely goes for Team USA basketball, which is in the midst of one of the most embarrassing stretches of national play in the history of the sport. In back-to-back exhibition losses to Nigeria and Australia, Team USA looked more Squeam Team than Dream Team. It bounced back with a blowout of Argentina, but then learned that star guard Bradley Beal would miss the Olympics due to COVID-19 protocols, and that veteran reserve Kevin Love was withdrawing, and that its scheduled exhibition rematch against Australia would be canceled.

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The fact that Kevin Love is out of the Olympics is secondary to the fact that Kevin Love was even in the Olympics to begin with. That’s no offense to Love, who used to be very good at basketball. But being on Team USA used to mean that you were one of the 12 best players on the face of the earth, or Christian Laettner, and it has been a long time since Love has been close to being either. He’s 32 going on 40 and has played in 99 NBA games in the last three calendar years.

“I am incredibly disappointed to not be heading to Tokyo with Team USA,” Love said in a statement, “but you need to be at absolute peak performance to compete at the Olympic level and I am just not there yet.”

While that’s more of an understatement than a statement, Love at least deserves credit for being self-aware. The rest of us would be wise to follow suit. As we learned in the NBA bubble last summer, you can’t judge a surreal world by the same standards that you judge the real one. Maybe the Heat really were the second-best team in the NBA last season. Or maybe they got hot at the right time in a sterile environment in their home state.

Look, basketball is like life. Take people out of their routines, remove them from society, force them to deal with an extra layer of existential stress, and you’re going to see a lot of weird stuff happen. You just have to wait it out and see what happens when everybody finishes recalibrating.

Four years from now, we might realize that all of the hand-wringing about the future of Team USA was justified. The glory years of Olympic competition may have come and gone. The money is so big in the NBA, and the game itself so global, that the incentive to play and to care simply does not exist.

It could be a problem. A big one. At least, if you’re someone who cares about national play. But it won’t simply be an American problem. Ben Simmons checked out of the Australian national team to spend time fixing himself for the upcoming season. Serbia will be playing without the reigning NBA MVP, with Nikola Jokic sitting out the Games.

At the same time, we’re still a week out from Team USA’s Olympic opener. It still has one of the best basketball players in the history of the game in Kevin Durant. It still has Damian Lillard and Devin Booker, and a bunch of other guys who would be the best player in their country if they were born in a lot of the countries that Team USA will be facing. The NBA season isn’t even over yet. There’s a decent chance that all this team needs is time.

Really, that makes this year’s version of Team USA a fitting representation for the country as a whole. Given the last year-and-a-half, it really does deserve the benefit of the doubt.