We have two pieces of news to pick apart today: The announcement that USA Basketball has released a list of 30 finalists for the 2016 Olympic team, and the “non-commitment” from LeBron James regarding whether he will be part of the party.
And yes, it will be a party.
The games are in Brazil, after all. And LeBron, whose non-commitment is disingenuous at best, does not miss a good party.
So let me tell you a little story about the Brazilians.
Back in September 2000, I was covering Team USA at the Sydney Olympics when an off day brought me to the famous Bondi Beach, which was overflowing with humanity and also happened to be the headquarters of the Brazilian Olympic Federation, whose offices were directly across the beachfront road from the swirling surf. The scene that day was gorgeous — the sun was finally warming up what had been chilly Southern Hemisphere air, the beach and the streets were packed, and the folks wearing yellow and green were dancing up a storm.
I visited for three or four hours, and I noticed one thing: Those Brazilians — the ones sporting the green and yellow colors — never stopped dancing. It was like they had a genetic predisposition to use their dancing as a way to quantify their zest for life. For them, the party never stopped.
So the rule of thumb in covering latter Olympics was this: Whenever I went, I found out where the Brazilians were headquartered and tried to spend as much time in that neighborhood as possible. To be surrounded by Brazilians is to be surrounded by energy, vitality and beauty. Life is not fully lived until it is lived in the company of these people.
So when LeBron James comes out and says he is unsure what he will do this summer, I am beyond skeptical. This is a man who is a seasoned world traveler, a guy who has suffered through the Athens Games (bronze medal when Larry Brown would not let him play), the Beijing Games (gold medal tarnished by smog) and the London Games (it was all good — except for that scare from the Lithuanians).
So when the Americans travel to Rio this summer, it will likely be James’ swan song as a member of Team USA. That’s what it will certainly be for coach Mike Krzyzewski, who is handing over the reins to Gregg Popovich, and it will likely be the same for Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and perhaps even Dwight Howard, who got his initiation to USA Basketball at the 2006 World Championship in Japan when the Americans were pick-and-rolled to death by Greece in the semifinals — a game that still stands, a decade later, as their last loss in international competition.
With James, the Americans will be able to field a team that will actually be more talented, one through 12, than the famous original Dream Team, which included a hobbled Larry Bird and a green Christian Laettner. The youngest players were David Robinson and Scottie Pippen, each 26. Aside from Bird, the oldest players were Magic Johnson (32), John Stockton (30) and Clyde Drexler (30). Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing were each 29 and in their primes. Chris Mullin and Karl Malone were 28, also at the top of their games.
But when you cast aside Bird and Laettner, that team was only 10 deep.
This team? You won’t find a weak link among the dozen players who will be named to the final roster in late June.
So who will they be?
That’s why we’re here today. In my estimation, there are 10 or 11 (probably 11) locks and two to four players vying for the final two spots (or one). And when it is all said and done and these guys are flying back to the states with gold medals draped around their necks, they will be remembered as the most dominant Olympic team ever assembled. Mark my words on that.
Featuring 18 players who have collected 29 Olympic or FIBA Basketball World Cup gold medals and six bronze medals, the 30 finalists for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team include: LaMarcus Aldridge (San Antonio Spurs); Carmelo Anthony (New York Knicks); Harrison Barnes (Golden State Warriors); Bradley Beal (Washington Wizards); Jimmy Butler (Chicago Bulls); Mike Conley (Memphis Grizzlies); DeMarcus Cousins (Sacramento Kings); Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors); Anthony Davis (New Orleans Pelicans); DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors); Andre Drummond (Detroit Pistons); Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder); Kenneth Faried (Denver Nuggets); Rudy Gay (Sacramento Kings); Paul George (Indiana Pacers); Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors); Blake Griffin (Los Angeles Clippers); James Harden (Houston Rockets); Gordon Hayward (Utah Jazz); Dwight Howard (Houston Rockets); Andre Iguodala (Golden State Warriors); Kyrie Irving (Cleveland Cavaliers); LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers); DeAndre Jordan (Los Angeles Clippers); Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs); Kevin Love (Cleveland Cavaliers); Chris Paul (Los Angeles Clippers); Klay Thompson (Golden State Warriors); John Wall (Washington Wizards); and Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder).
LeBron James. Three-time gold medalist. His wife and kids will come along for the trip this time, and he’ll tell them some of the stories — although not all — of being housed on the Queen Mary II during the Athens Games with Allen Iverson assuming the role of the face of the team — until, of course, he was usurped by Brown, who wanted to throw Iverson off the roster when the team was in Belgrade on its pre-Olympic tour. That roster also featured 12th man Emeka Okafor, who failed to score a single point during the tournament despite his teammates force-feeding him the ball time and again in the fourth quarter of a blowout win over Angola.
Carmelo Anthony. Another member of the 2004 Nightmare Team, a player who was brought along to get a taste of the Olympic scene at a very young age. Certain members of the USA Basketball support staff will recall, not too fondly, how Anthony often appeared shirtless in the post-game mixed zone where athletes are interviewed. Remember that the next time you see Anthony looking like a fedora-wearing fashion icon in a post-game interview. It wasn’t always that way. He gets a chance for a fourth gold, too. Don’t think he’s passing that up. It’ll help make up for his current role playing second fiddle to Kristaps Porzingis.
Stephen Curry. He was the final cut prior to the London Games, but he was a key member of the 2010 World Championship team in Istanbul along with the 2014 World Cup team in Barcelona and Madrid. Oh, and he is the reigning MVP and is a virtual lock to win the award for a second straight season. He will have the lowest NBA salary of any player on the roster, but he’ll surely add to his wallet by kicking ass and taking names on golf courses around the Rio area. Dude consistently shoots in the 70s from the tips. In Turkey, he did it with rental clubs. In Spain, his dad, Dell, brought his clubs across the pond.
Anthony Davis. Whether or not you consider him a true superstar (a topic that was touched on by our own Chris Bernucca), he was an integral part of the 2014 team in Spain after being the 12th man on the London roster to get him some exposure to what it is like to compete at an Olympics (Highlight: Opening Ceremony. Lowlight: Being forced to wear a credential around one’s neck 24/7). He can play his natural position of power forward rather than being slid over to center as he often was in 2014. If you doubt his abilities as a stretch 4, just wait until he starts knocking down the shorter FIBA 3-point shot in Rio.
DeMarcus Cousins. He is putting up Shaq numbers this season, he is unquestionably the best center in the NBA and he has learned the ins and outs of the international game (like coming to the rescue of Davis after the Pelicans star was whistled for three quick fouls in the gold medal game of the 2014 World Cup). Krzyzewski loves him, and Krzyzewski is able to control him and channel his passion in positive ways. You don’t leave a guy like this behind — even if Dwight Howard might be more deserving in some people’s eyes based upon his years of service to USA Basketball. That is why he is listed here as a lock.
Kevin Durant. Played for Team USA in Turkey (2010) and London (2012) before abruptly quitting the team in the summer of 2014 following Paul George’s gruesome leg injury in an intrasquad scrimmage. That episode did not sit well with federation bigwigs, but these guys are forgiving types, and they realized that Durant’s sneaker negotiations during that summer (he ultimately re-upped with Nike after getting blown away by Under Armour’s offer), along with his evolving relationship with new agent Jay-Z, were keeping him from executing 20/20 vision. Deep down, they know he is a good kid. Oh, and you can’t guard him. USAB people will tell you he measures 7 feet in sneakers. The Thunder won’t make any such acknowledgement.
Paul George. He sacrificed almost an entire NBA season after crashing into a basket stanchion at the Thomas & Mack Center, and Krzyzewski spent several extra days in Las Vegas visiting George in the hospital after the rest of the team broke camp. There were reports at the time (later denied by Colangelo) that George had been promised a spot on the Rio team in 2016 if he was able to return to his previous form — a requisite that he has clearly exceeded. His presence will likely preclude James Harden, DeMar DeRozan and Bradley Beal from taking one of the wing spots, but his playing time might be sparse given the caliber of the players ahead of him.
Kyrie Irving. Back in 2014 when Derrick Rose was brought to Spain instead of Damian Lillard (a slight that Lillard — conspicuously absent from the 30 final candidates — will never forget), the best subplot of the tournament was how poorly Rose was playing. After beginning camp as the starter, he was replaced by Irving, who went on to be named MVP of the tournament. And if you are the reigning international MVP, you don’t get passed over. That will be the tough reality that John Wall and Mike Conley will have to accept. Four point guards will be more than enough. But does Kyrie start ahead of CP3? My crystal ball says “no.”
Kawhi Leonard. He is a clear contender for what amounts to the best individual award race in the NBA this season — runner-up to Curry in MVP voting. It may be a tough battle between Leonard and Draymond Green for the designated defender position on Team USA, but Leonard is the better scorer (and the least bombastic of the two … by a lot) and happens to be coached by Popovich, who is taking over the program. That will likely mean that Green will become the most deserving candidate left off the final roster. When the Americans turn to their second unit and put guys like Leonard and George up against the competition’s backups, it’ll get ugly — or beautiful, depending upon your perspective.
Chris Paul. Once again, we come to a situation where we have a player who has earned national team equity, as Colangelo likes to say. Paul has been an Olympic mainstay, winning gold medals in 2008 and 2012. He will probably be the starter, because he is the least prone to make mistakes as evidenced by his 3.48 assists-to-turnovers ratio. (Curry can move to shooting guard in a starting five that might also include LeBron, Cousins/Davis and Anthony.) The Americans want to blow the doors of every opponent right from the get-go, and a point guard who is not prone to turnovers is invaluable.
Russell Westbrook. Another guy with Team USA equity. He was a favorite of Coach K at the 2010 World Championship in Turkey, where he played off the ball at shooting guard, as he had done at UCLA. Coach K loves players who can play at more than one position, which is one reason why Westbrook will get the nod over Wall. Oh, and there’s also the fact that he is just better — although Wall is clearly closing the gap. Westbrook earns bonus points for being a fashion icon. And in Brazil, a country populated by more beautiful people than imaginable, that is going to make Westbrook one of the most popular Team USA players on social media.
So that gives us 11 locks in my book. Which means there are 19 players vying for one spot.
Do the Americans take an extra big man? Do they take an extra shooter? Do they take a youngster to show him the Olympic ropes in preparation for Tokyo 2020?
Those are all solid considerations.
LEGIT BUBBLE GUYS
Draymond Green. Tough to leave off a triple-double machine, even though they already have one in Westbrook.
His versatility (he could be an emergency center if needed) is a plus, his relatively poor shooting is a minus. His defense is a plus, but it is sub-par when compared to Leonard’s. Also, his lack of Team USA experience is going to work against him. There are other bubble guys listed below who have paid dues.
Klay Thompson. Always nice to have an extra shooter, because the Americans will be facing a lot of zone defenses, and Thompson is probably the second-best shooter among the 30 finalists who is not named Curry.
He was an integral part of the 2014 team in Spain, getting my all-tournament vote over Pau Gasol, who was a beast for Spain until they faltered against France.
I wouldn’t count him out.
Jimmy Butler. Best player on the Bulls, and will have a major advocate in his corner in USA assistant coach Tom Thibodeau.
Is he a better pick than Thompson? That is tough to say. Butler can definitely score in more ways than Thompson, but Thompson is a better fit for the pure shooter position when looking to fill a 12th spot.
Doesn’t hurt that he dropped 53 on the Sixers last week with Colangelo in attendance.
James Harden. It was under Coach K in 2014 that folks were raving about Harden’s defense. Yes, really. So he has it in his bag of tricks, even if the knock against him is that he’d rather lead the NBA in scoring than win an NBA championship.
Biggest thing working against him is that he can be a ball stopper prone to turnovers.
The Americans needed him to carry a heavy load in Spain two years ago. They will not need that this summer.
LaMarcus Aldridge. He has bailed on the American federation multiple times, and that never sits well with Colangelo.
The boss man likes to give each guy one free pass when they want to take a summer off. Aldridge has exceeded that allotment.
That being said, if there is a desire to bring an extra big man, Aldridge is as solid as they come and can make free throws, which is something that cannot be said of ….
Andre Drummond. On the surface, how can you not bring a guy who is gobbling up rebounds like a latter-day Dennis Rodman, a guy who is virtually automatic within three feet of the basket, a guy who paid his dues sharing time at the end of the bench with Mason Plumlee in 2014.
The Americans are preparing for this tournament, as always, with an eye toward facing Spain for the gold.
And when you face Spain, there are two Gasols and an Ibaka to deal with.
Dwight Howard. If he opts out of his contract, he is going to be busy in late June choosing his next destination (unless he is dealt by the Rockets prior to the NBA trading deadline). His USA Basketball resume dates to the 2006 Worlds in Saitama, Japan. He is a rim protector, be can rebound at a Drummond-like pace when properly motivated, but he also has problems at the foul line.
I’d say he has an outside shot of being brought along as a 12th man who would be saved for a Spain game.
Beg your pardon for being overly dismissive, but gotta write off a number of guys for one glaring reason above all others.
Harrison Barnes: Lack of USAB experience.
Bradley Beal: See you at the 2019 World Cup.
Mike Conley: Sixth-best point guard among the 30 finalists.
DeMar DeRozan: See you in Tokyo in 2020, when a player who plies his trade in Canada will help defeat Canada.
Kenneth Faried: Courtesy invite because he was so valuable to the 2014 team. Since then, he embodies regression.
Rudy Gay: A stalwart for so many USA Basketball teams. But he is fading to the point where the Sacramento Kings are the latest team that is willing to move him.
Blake Griffin: Trouble with foul shots. A damn good player, but sometimes you get judged on your biggest flaw.
Gordon Hayward: Part of the next generation; not the present/past generation that will comprise this roster.
Andre Iguodala: Would be a nice fit on any 15-man roster. But this is a 12-man roster.
DeAndre Jordan: Can’t make a foul shot. Is not as good as Cousins.
Kevin Love: Got his gold medal in 2012, when he was twice the player he is now.
John Wall: As mentioned above, the fifth-best point guard among the 30 finalists.
More on the Team USA candidates in this interview with CineSport’s Noah Coslov:
(Photos courtesy of USA Basketball/Getty Images)
Chris Sheridan, publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com, has covered every senior U.S. men’s national tam since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Follow him on Twitter.