There’s no reason to sugarcoat it: the Senior Men’s National Team the United States sends to China for the FIBA World Cup next month isn’t going to be the Dream Team, or the Redeem Team, or even nearly as good as the squad we’ll send to the Olympics in 2020. After a number of high-profile names took themselves out of consideration, either for personal or business reasons, the resulting group of sixteen players still vying for a spot on the final 12-man roster is an eclectic mix of third-tier stars, young bucks trying to establish themselves, and high-end role players. And with a variety of international squads deploying more NBA-caliber talent than ever before, the possibility of an embarrassing defeat for Team USA is more realistic than it has been in some time.
Thing is, I’m not that worried. This year’s team won’t have the brightest stars, but it is not a star-less roster either, and if new coach Gregg Popovich and his brain trust get the rest of the picks right and get everyone to buy into a defined role, there’s reason to hope the whole could end up greater than the sum of the parts.
Those parts are certainly a bit disparate. After Marvin Bagley III recently left Team USA training camp, the sixteen remaining candidates are: Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox, Harrison Barnes, Kyle Kuzma, Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton, Myles Turner, Mason Plumlee, Joe Harris, Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker, and Derrick White. So which twelve should go to China next month, and how should they be deployed to give Team USA the best chance of continuing its international dominance? Let’s break it down.
- PG: Kemba Walker
- SG: Donovan Mitchell
- SF: Jayson Tatum
- PF: Khris Middleton
- C: Myles Turner
- Wing: Jaylen Brown
- Guard: De’Aaron Fox
- Big: P.J. Tucker
- Big: Brook Lopez
- Guard: Kyle Lowry
- Guard: Marcus Smart
- Wing/Big: Kyle Kuzma
I’ve been watching USA Basketball for most of 30 years at this point, and I’ve learned a few things about what kinds of NBA guys are successful in the FIBA game. First and foremost: you don’t need a lot of bigs, and the ones you do need don’t have to be traditional post-up brutes. The true interior lunks mostly get swallowed up by the zone principles and more cramped spacing, somewhat similar to the college game in that respect. You want guys who can protect the rim, ideally shoot a respectable percentage from outside, and are mobile enough to corral water bug point guards coming off screens. With Turner, Lopez, and Tucker, they would have enough of a combination of those traits (even if Lopez isn’t a particularly adept defender in space, his shooting and rim protection make up the difference), and they’re all low-usage enough they wouldn’t be siphoning off too many possessions from the real scorers. There’s an argument for Mason Plumlee’s energy and athleticism, but I trust Tucker as much or more to be the “dirty work” guy, and he comes with the bonus of a credible outside shot (36% career from the NBA 3-point line).
I mention the NBA line because the shorter FIBA 3-point line acts as both a blessing and a curse. Sure, it’s generally easier to make a shot from just over 22 feet away than it is from 23’9″, but the trade-off is the amount of space to operate the offense sacrifices when all ten bodies are packed in slightly closer to the hoop. Passing and driving lanes are smaller, and the defense doesn’t have to close out as far to shooters, so dishes have to be on-time and on-target. The best way to combat the more cramped geometry of the floor in the half court is to have quick point guards who can break down the initial defense and draw a lot of attention. Thankfully, this otherwise odd roster is blessed with two such players: Walker and Fox. Kemba stands out as the likely “alpha” and crunch-time assassin on this year’s team, and we should be in good hands, even if he isn’t the sexiest name to fill the role in Team USA annals (Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, Durant, among others). Fox was recently promoted from the Select Team (as I expected he would be, given my sky-high projection of his talent), and he should be a lock for the final roster and significant playing time. [Kyle Lowry is still recovering from thumb surgery and his availability is in doubt. I suspect he’ll be on the team, but he could take on more of an off-ball role, so he may not impact Fox’s court time as much as one might initially think.] Both point guards will help to unlock space in the set offense, and to push the pace in transition, which will help maximize Team USA’s biggest advantage: size and athleticism on the wing.
Most competitive international teams can more or less match us with skilled bigs and quick guards, but no other country on Earth can duplicate the sort of force we can bring to bear on the wing, even when we send our “B” squad. Part of the reason not to load up on big men is because those roster spots can instead be used on big, strong wings who can shoot, handle, defend, and get out on the break. The other teams are simply not equipped to withstand the pressure this type of player puts on them at both ends. Playing a fast, full court game is to our advantage every single time, and while the current options on the wing aren’t exactly the all-world destroyers of past tournaments, there should be more than enough to get the job done. I suspect Mitchell will be the breakout player of the tournament with his explosive, end-to-end athleticism, but Tatum, Brown, Middleton, and Kuzma will all dine on a steady diet of easy looks as well.
[I’d be OK with substituting Barnes for Kuzma (or Lowry/Smart if one of them can’t go) because he offers better shooting and defense, but he’s just such an uninspiring option. I’m no Kuzma stan, but chances are good he’ll thrive in an environment where he can run up and down for limited minutes. Same with Derrick White, who won’t take anything off the table in a small 3-and-D role if Lowry or Smart should have to bow out. Since White is not a household name and plays in San Antonio, the perception would be his selection amounts to nepotism, but he would be a fine bench option.]
Some will argue Joe Harris should be included to give the lineup one true sniper (he led the league at 47.4% from three last season and won the Three-Point Shootout at All-Star Weekend), and it’s a valid point. But as constructed, there is already shooting up and down the roster (depending how you feel about Fox’s burgeoning stroke and Smart’s possible outlier last season), so stocking up on defense and athleticism should convey a greater benefit. Yes, it seems crazy Team USA would need to make strategic sacrifices of any kind, but the summer of 2019 is a crazy time, so here we are. Again, I wouldn’t have beef with Harris replacing Kuzma, but we’re picking nits now, and I have a sneaking suspicion Kuz is going to end up on the roster one way or another. Lakers Exceptionalism infects everything.
This roster construction represents a solid mix: veterans and youth, shooting and defense, playmaking and athleticism. They would be able to play fast, defend aggressively, and get out on the break — the hallmarks of all the best American squads — without losing the ability to generate quality looks in isolation when required. Rebounding will likely be an issue against countries with a lot of size up front, but if it’s the price of getting the track meet we’re looking for, then so be it. As Tyler Durden so succinctly put it: “You wanna make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs.”
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over who isn’t going to China, how it impacts the culture of Team USA going forward, and what it means to represent one’s country in the age of player empowerment and load management. It’s all fair. But life happens while you’re busy making other plans, and the absence of the top-billed stars may allow Jerry Colangelo, Coach Pop, and crew to stumble into a new winning formula: instead of stacking stars and hoping they play nice, create a more organic hierarchy by surrounding a few ball dominant guys with elite role players who are used to sacrificing for the greater good.
The flow of a basketball game means there are certain sets of responsibilities which have to be accounted for, outside of simply putting the ball in the hoop. The best teams assign those responsibilities to players whose talent and attitude most consistently align with their roles. The more talented iterations of Team USA have often had a stilted, “my turn, your turn” vibe to them, with minimal ball movement and an overall lack of cohesion. Sure, talent generally wins out, and even great players know to whom they should defer in the biggest moments. But basketball teams need role players. So maybe, just maybe, it will turn out to be a good idea to have your role players, you know, actually BE role players.
Perhaps I’m retconning the entire process which led us to this semi-motley crew, and the usual lack of continuity Team USA faces combined with a lower overall level of talent will be this edition’s undoing. But if all the pieces somehow fit together and this team plays truly beautiful basketball on the way to another title, there will be some difficult decisions to make when the Olympics roll around next year. And in the meantime, if everyone actually hates superteams as much as they claim to, maybe it will be fun to root for a team that’s not such an overwhelming favorite for once.
You go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had. And our armies (basketball and otherwise) are not in the business of losing, so this team isn’t going to roll over just because it doesn’t consist of twelve superstars. Play great defense, force turnovers, push the pace, move the ball, and hit enough open shots. The rest will take care of itself.
Let’s go, Team USA.
[Update: Kyle Lowry has since confirmed his injury will keep him out of the World Cup and he has withdrawn his name from the player pool. Marcus Smart remains day-to-day.]
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