Is Team USA’s final 12 good enough to win the FIBA World Cup?

Bert A. Ramirez
Is Team USA’s final 12 good enough to win the FIBA World Cup?
With Team USA set to defend its FIBA world championship in Spain, the question on everyone's mind is whether their squad is up to the task against the world's best

A tooth for a tooth, match fire with fire, or, in this case, bring size to counter size. This is how the US plans to do it when it defends its title in the forthcoming FIBA World Cup in Spain this coming weekend.

The Americans made known their intentions when they announced their final lineup for this quadrennial gathering of the world’s best teams, dropping four players and keeping 12 from the pool of 16 finalists that went through a test of skills and fit over a three-week period.

Making it to the final 12 were Chicago guard Derrick Rose, Golden State guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving, Toronto guard DeMar DeRozan, Houston guard James Harden, Denver forward Kenneth Faried, Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins and forward Rudy Gay, New Orleans center/forward Anthony Davis, Detroit center Andre Drummond, and Brooklyn center/forward Mason Plumlee.

Dropped were Portland guard Damian Lillard, Dallas forward Chandler Parsons, Utah guard/forward Gordon Hayward and Atlanta guard Kyle Korver.

The final selection reflects a new emphasis on size by the Team USA braintrust. Most observers did not expect all five players at the power positions – Faried, Cousins, Davis, Drummond and Plumlee – to make it to the final lineup. But with host Spain, expected to be the US’ top rival, weighing on their minds, and with expected go-to guy Kevin Durant withdrawing in the middle of training camp, USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski were forced to rethink their options.

That included the question of whether to go with the small-ball concept that won for the US the title in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and the 2010 Worlds when it was still called the World Championship, or go with a big lineup that can match up particularly against Spain and its big frontcourt of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, which the Americans are expected to battle for this year’s World Cup championship.

In the end, the Americans opted to go with size this time, affording Krzyzewski “an opportunity to throw a new look at people,” in the words of Colangelo himself, and enabling him to occasionally use lineups that have Davis or Plumlee at power forward teaming up with a more traditional center like Cousins or Drummond.

“This gives us an opportunity to do some things we haven’t had a chance to do in the past,” Colangelo admits. “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?”

True enough, the 2010 World Championship team carried with it only one center – Tyson Chandler – and two players – Kevin Love and Lamar Odom – who could play the power slot at 6-foot-10. The 2008 Olympic champion team was worse in terms of size – only center Dwight Howard stood at least 6-10 along with Chris Bosh, with only the 6-foot-9 Carlos Boozer being able to play the power position after them. And the 2012 Olympic champions also employed just three with similar credentials: Chandler, Love and Davis, with the latter just earning his spurs at the time.

This team is different, with four – the 6-11 Cousins, the 6-10 Davis, the 6-10 Drummond and the 6-10 Plumlee – standing at least 6-10 and giving Krzyzewski, with the 6-8 Faried also around, his biggest team yet since he took over as Team USA headman in 2005 simultaneous with Colangelo’s assumption of the top post of USA Basketball, the sport’s governing body in America.

“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 frontline, he now has the capacity to do so,” explains Colangelo.

With all five possible players at the power positions on the roster, the US now has depth in case of foul trouble as well as numerous options to take if and when it faces, as many predict, the Spaniards and their imposing frontline of the Gasol brothers and Ibaka, all top-tier NBA players, in a projected finals duel. Pau Gasol stands seven feet tall, Marc is 7-1 while Ibaka is 6-10.

Davis, of course, is the best and most versatile of these bigs, and will assume a major role for the Americans on both sides of the court probably as the starting center. Faried, meanwhile, brings energy at the starting “four” next to Davis, while Cousins and Drummond provide muscle at the low post, with Drummond finding an additional role as a rim protector (1.6 blocks the past two NBA seasons). Plumlee can run with the best of them and fill in at the appropriate stretches.

The decision to keep all five was actually reached after the Americans’ 112-86 victory over Puerto Rico in their last tuneup game in New York before flying to Spain over the weekend. Deciding to keep Drummond gives Coach K five legitimate big men, and six if the 6-8, 230-pound Gay, a reserve on that Worlds team that won in Turkey in 2010, also plays the “four” as he’s regarded as capable of doing in the international game.

It was the second of two steps USA Basketball has taken since the team lost Durant and Paul George, the latter to that gruesome nationally televised injury last August 1, according to Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver. The first he said was turning over additional responsibilities to the squad’s leading backcourt players, notably Harden, Curry and Rose.

Drummond and DeRozan, who didn’t play a single minute in that Puerto Rico game, were the last two players to secure spots on the final roster. Both were widely perceived to be prime candidates to stay behind (see our own forecast last week) but Colangelo’s and Krzyzewski’s desire to field the biggest and most athletic team possible enabled them to bump off candidates earlier thought as having better chances of making the team.

Drummond, for example, pushed Parsons out of a slot while DeRozan made it over such players as Gordon Hayward, Kyle Korver and Damian Lillard with his relative size and strength as well as his being the better defender and shot creator over them.  

“DeRozan likely beat out Korver, Parsons and Hayward because his combination of size and athleticism is the closest USA can come to replacing George,” Golliver says. “The Gay/DeRozan combination is a serious downgrade from Durant/George, but length and leaping ability had to come from somewhere.”

But at least one sportswriter, Fansided’s Trisity Miller, thinks DeRozan should have taken a backseat to Korver. “Selecting Korver would have made more sense,” Miller says. “With Harden, Gay, Thompson, Curry, Irving, and Rose, the wing rotation is pretty much filled, leaving DeRozan as the odd man out in case of foul trouble. If he’s to receive limited minutes, why not keep a specialist for specific opportunities, more specifically Kyle Korver. Not only is Korver the best shooting wing in the NBA, but his ability to create havoc in the halfcourt without the ball would’ve been huge for a team that’ll likely struggle in the halfcourt.”

At least one sportswriter feels Kyle Korver should've made the cut due to his shooting from the wing and ability to play the half court game. Photo by Erik S. Lesser/EPA

Still, Colangelo says DeRozan’s versatility gave him the upperhand over the other candidates. “He’s an athlete, he’s versatile and he’s shown really well,” he says of the 6-7 slasher. “He just beat out a few people. He can not only play two positions but, against certain international teams, he can play even against bigger guys.”

He also admits team officials couldn’t resist leaving behind Drummond, especially with the potential matchup against Spain’s large frontline looming on the horizon.

“Drummond is a blossoming center in the NBA,” Colangelo says. “He’s just a kid (just turned 21 last August 10), but he’s come a long way in a very short period of time. We see him as a big part of our future. It’s a little bit similar to Anthony Davis getting his opportunity in London.

“Maybe it kind of catches people by surprise. Yes he’s young, but a seven-foot, 280-pound guy who can run the floor the way Drummond runs and who protects the rim… when you describe all the physical attributes, that’s a hard call to leave a guy at home.”

Rose’s selection, meanwhile, didn’t really come as a surprise once the team has decided to load up on bigs, despite the comebacking Bull star’s missing two days of practice and the Dominican Republic game to rest a sore knee. After Rose’s 13-minute stint against Puerto Rico off the bench behind new starter Irving, Krzyzewski felt comfortable enough about Rose’s fitness to declare, “I feel very confident about Derrick.

“I think Derrick feels very confident,” Coach K says. “And these guys want to play with him. That’s part of getting back… to be around a group of your peers.”

The US team mentor, along with Rose’s Bulls headman and Team USA assistant Tom Thibodeau and Colangelo, seems intent on helping Rose use the World Cup as a launching pad for his comeback after two serious knee injuries that kept him out of all but 10 games of the past two NBA seasons. “(It’s going to be a) huge, huge help for him,” Krzyzewski acknowledges.

“We’re comfortable (with Rose’s readiness for Spain) based on what we’re being told by people around Derrick and what we’re being told by Derrick himself,” Colangelo says. “He says he feels great and that there’s not going to be any issues going forward.  So we’re going with it.  We’re riding with that.”

Colangelo, however, admits coming up with the final roster wasn’t easy. “Since taking over the USA Basketball men’s national team program in 2005, this was without doubt the most difficult selection process we’ve gone through,” he says. “I can’t stress enough the outstanding effort and commitment that has been given by each finalist. I also want to make it clear that this is not just about talent; each player is incredibly talented and each player offered us unique skills. In the end it was about assembling the best team, selecting guys who we felt would be able to best play the kind of style we envision this team playing.”

That style, of course, will see Krzyzewski employing a high-pressure, floor-stretching, mismatch-creating kind of game, with the added dimension this time of using the more traditional post-up game that previous US teams regarded with casual interest with the presence now of more big men

Even without Korver, Parsons, Hayward and Lillard, the Americans still have enough excellent outside shooters with the Warriors’ Splash Brothers of Curry and Thompson (who combined for nearly 500 three-point shots made from the longer NBA line last season), Harden, Irving and even Rose all capable of heating up and making sagging defenses pay. In fact, Krzyzewski feels this is the best outside-shooting team he’s ever coached, even better than those that featured Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. 

The Americans plan to use pool play, where they’re bracketed in Group C with the Dominican Republic, Finland, New Zealand, Turkey and Ukraine, as an extension of the team’s training camp given this group’s lack of international experience.

But Coach K remains confident he has a winner in his hands. “I’m excited about the 12 players selected and feel we have excellent versatility and the makings of a really good defensive team,” he says.

The rest of the world better be forewarned. This US team may not be as experienced nor as seasoned as previous editions but it has plenty of youth, size, talent, and, most of all, hunger to prove itself. And that, in the end, could be the factor that tips the balance in the Americans’ favor.

SHORTSHOTS: The trade sending Kevin Love from Minnesota to Cleveland has finally been consummated. The Cavaliers have announced a three-team trade that also sends guard Andrew Wiggins and forward Anthony Bennett to the Timberwolves as well as a protected 2015 first-round pick acquired from Miami in the 2010 LeBron James deal to Philadelphia. As part of the three-team trade, Minnesota will also acquire forward Thaddeus Young from the 76ers, while Philadelphia receives forward Luc Mbah a Moute and guard Alexey Shved from the Timberwolves… The trade could not actually be completed nor announced until August 23 pending the lapse of a one-month period from the time Wiggins, this year’s top overall pick, was signed to his rookie contract by Cleveland. The conundrum was that while this one-month period was being awaited, the Cavs have reportedly engaged Love in secret talks and have forged a hush-hush agreement where Love will opt out of his contract when it expires and sign a five-year, $120 million-plus extension with his new team. This is, of course, tampering under league rules. In fact, James’ reported overtures towards Love in themselves represent another clear violation of the anti-tampering rule. It’s interesting to see what the league will do once Love does sign that supposed contract extension, which would prove that an under-the-table deal was indeed hatched… Our Gilas Pilipinas team broke a five-game losing streak in tuneup games by beating African runner-up Egypt 74-65. The Filipinos were led by Jeff Chan and Andray Blatche with 20 and 14 points, respectively. Marc Pingris had 12 while June Mar Fajardo had eight and Paul Lee six… Damian Lillard is the lone All-Star cut from the US team to the World Cup.  But the Portland guard isn’t fretting. “It’s nothing I did or didn’t do,” he says.  “No hard feelings. Wish them the best.”… Mason Plumlee, meanwhile, made the biggest rise with his making the final Team USA roster. The Brooklyn rookie last year was originally part of the US Select squad that scrimmaged with the pool for the regular national team when training camp opened last July, but eventually got a call-up himself to the pool. – Rappler.com 

 

Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the ’80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA’s International Basketball, and currently writes a sports column for QC Metro Manila Life and, until this summer, a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk.  A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.

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