This iteration of Team USA is built far differently than those of the recent past. Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s most notable squads – the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams – put premiums on speed, athleticism, and skill more than anything else, a strategy made most evident by NBA wings like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony playing nominal power forward next to a traditional center. USA Basketball’s 2010 FIBA World Championships group was constructed in that same vein – the only full-time big man Krzyzewski took to Turkey four years ago was Tyson Chandler.
But the United States has taken a far different approach this time around, naming Mason Plumlee, DeMarcus Cousins, and Andre Drummond to the final Team USA roster behind stalwart Anthony Davis. And according to USAB chairman Jerry Colangelo, such a sea change in roster makeup hasn’t been completely born from necessity. He even hinted to ESPN’s Marc Stein that past American teams might have preferred a more typical roster structure if the pool of available talent made it a possibility.
“This gives us an opportunity to do some things we haven’t had a chance to do in the past,” Colangelo said. “It’s true that the preferred style of play [in recent years] has been going small, but you have to ask: Was that by choice or by necessity?
“Early on [this summer], we said it would be hard to carry four bigs, but that was kind of put on the shelf. Certainly there won’t be any discussion going forward about, ‘What are you going to do about bigs, what are you going to do about playing teams with size?’ If Coach wishes to show a big front line, he now has the capacity to do so.”
Colangelo is right about a lack of match-up concerns given the presence of so many big bodies. Spain has been the United States’ chief rival since 2008, and boasts a frontline that’s arguably more talented than the Americans’. But Team USA has the requisite combination of interior size, athleticism, and depth to bother Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, and Serge Ibaka almost as much as that trio will bother it. The higher pure talent level of past USAB teams compared to this one notwithstanding, that’s something Colangelo and Krzyzewski certainly couldn’t say in 2008, 2010, and 2012.
However, for Colangelo to act as if the late-stage absences of Kevin Durant and Paul George had little to do with four centers ultimately making the roster is misleading. Davis was always going to have a backup, of course, but in the early stages of training camp it seemed as though that’s where the United States’ center depth would end.
In defense of his time-honored strategy of small-ball, Coach K would frequently mention that the opposition has to match-up with his team’s speed and skill just like the Americans did the other’s size and strength. He was saying similar things at the beginning of training camp in July, and the withdrawals of Kevin Love and Blake Griffin only confirmed the notion that the United States would again opt for utilizing Durant, George, and players like Rudy Gay as all-important stretch 4s.
But the quality of candidates for that role drastically declined after Team USA lost Durant and George. It’s no surprise that Gay made the team even though he was only added to the USAB roster over halfway through training camp. As good as Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward are, they simply aren’t the caliber of players Krzyzewski has been accustomed to relying on in the past.
So talent simply won out in the end. The remarkable quality of the United States backcourt influenced the decision to bring three reserve big men to the World Cup, too, as did the surprisingly effective play of starter Kenneth Faried. And that Spain’s strength – and to a lesser extent Lithuania’s – happens to lie in the paint certainly isn’t a coincidence, either.
But if Colangelo and Krzyzewski had their way, the 2014 version of Team USA would look a lot more like those of the past. Any insistence otherwise is just lip service.
What do you think?
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