Of the pool of 28 Team USA players announced earlier today, three have made verbal commitments to play this summer at the World Cup (formerly called the World Championship) in Spain. They are Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Additionally, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul will definitely NOT play in Spain … although all three should be considered locks to play at the 2016 Rio Olympics. (James and Anthony will become the first American players to appear in four Olympics).
So let’s take a look at the pool of players and try to figure out who will be going to Espana.
The first thing to consider is the need for big men. Coach Mike Kryzyzewski occasionally used James as his center and Anthony as his power forward at the London Olympics. And although it worked, it was still a structurally flawed roster that left the Americans at a disadvantage on the boards. Krzyzewski and Colangelo knew it was a risk going to London without a ton of size, and they won’t want to do the same this summer — especially when the host team will be able to field a front line of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.
There are five natural centers on the 28-man roster: Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond. Since Davis was a member of the 2012 Olympic team, we should consider him a lock. As for Howard, my educated guess is that he will be one of the players who will be squarely in the mix for Rio, but might want to take this summer off rather than travel to Spain. He will be asked about it in the coming days, and his answer will be a major factor in what the roster looks like. The other three are going to have to battle for a roster spot as the team holds training camp in Las Vegas and New York, and Chandler — because of his experience with the 2010 World Championship in Turkey, should not be counted out.
Educated guess: ANTHONY DAVIS.
With Love and Aldridge having already made verbal commitments, there may or may not be room for more than one additional big. It may depend on how many natural centers they take, but for argument’s sake, let’s assume the American federation will want to go to Spain with a minimum of five bigs (and that includes Kevin Durant, who anyone affiliated with USA Basketball will tell you is actually 7 feet tall in sneakers).
So the power forwards competing for those spots would be David Lee, Kenneth Faried and Blake Griffin. When I was covering the 2010 team’s training camp in Las Vegas, Lee injured his finger during the very first scrimmage and was immediately summoned back to Oakland to meet with Warriors doctors, as Golden State had just signed him as a free agent. A knee injury knocked Griffin off the Olympic team in 2012, and I’d imagine both will have some sympathy on their side as they head into camp. Also, since dunking is a big part of the Americans’ strategy, no one fills that need better than Griffin.
Educated guess: DAVID LEE, BLAKE GRIFFIN, LaMARCUS ALDRIDGE.
Kevin Durant needs no introduction. He is the clubhouse leader at the midpoint of the season to be the Most Valuable Player, and only an injury can keep him off this team despite Colangelo saying Thursday that “there are no locks.” So who makes the cut behind him? Well, the Americans always like to bring along a new player to let him learn the ropes of FIBA basketball without necessarily having a prominent role, and the player who seems to fit that profile is Paul George. Will he play? The guess here is not much, no matter how productive he is. In Turkey in 2010, Love’s minutes were severely limited despite him being the most productive player on the team statistically on a per-minute basis. The Americans also love having at least one lockdown defender, and Krzyzewski loved Iguodala so much that he used him at center in both Istanbul and London. What does that mean for Kawhi Leonard? How about “first player to get cut.”
Educated guess: KEVIN DURANT, ANDRE IGUODALA, PAUL GEORGE.
The backcourt is where it gets interesting, as there is a ton of talent but probably only five spots open if the Americans choose to bring only one true center. Coach Krzyzewski places a premium on players who can man two positions — point guard and shooting guard — which immediately gives the edge to Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. But where does that leave James Harden, who was a member of the 2012 Olympic team? On the bubble is my guess, and if push came to shove, the Americans would probably go with five bigs instead of six and bring along an extra shooter to be a zone buster. That’s where Harden is a fit, although Kyle Korver, Gordan Hayward, Klay Thompson and Bradley Beal are no slouches and could make the final cut if they have an outstanding camp. Remember, back in 2010, Eric Gordon was expected to be one of the first players cut. Instead, he became one of the most important contributors to the gold-medal winning team. On a side note: Colangelo emphasized that the roster is “fluid,” and the first player I’d expect to benefit from that fluidity is DeMar DeRozan of the Raptors. It wouldn’t surprise me either if he becomes the 2014 version of Gordon — although I’d be foolish to predict that at this point.
Educated guess: STEPHEN CURRY, KYLE KORVER.
As mentioned above, Krzyzewski loves players who can man both guard positions, so we should go ahead and consider Westbrook a lock. Coach K loved him so much in Turkey, he promoted him ahead of Derrick Rose, who had one terrible game after another until finally finding his form in the gold medal game against the host country. Also, go back to the summer of 2012, and you know who the best player in camp was to neutral observer Jan Hubbard, who covered that camp for this site? It was Kyrie Irving. So I’m going to disregard Colangelo’s warning and go ahead and call him “a lock.” That leaves a lot of good players on the outside looking in, and there could be quite the competition in camp if Deron Williams decides he wants to be a part of the program again. But let’s face it, he is not as good of a player as Westbrook or Irving or Damian Lillard, so he could be setting himself up for a fall. We can cross Rose off the list because of his knee injury, and Chris Paul — like LeBron and Carmelo — wants to go to Rio but not Spain. If Lillard can show himself capable of playing the two-guard spot, it’ll be very hard to keep him off the team.
Educated guess: RUSSELL WESTBROOK, DAMIAN LILLARD, KYRIE IRVING.
Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. He has covered every version of Team USA since the 1996 Atanta Olympics. Follow him on Twitter.