CHICAGO -- Battered, depleted but far from broken, USA Basketball opened training camp Thursday afternoon, continuing preparations for the World Championships in Spain at the end of the month. Although roster spots remain up for grabs leading into Saturday night’s friendly with Brazil, the team offered a peek at the current setup, holding a full, though brief, eight-minute scrimmage with referees and a stopping clock. As the team moves on from the departure of Kevin Durant and eyes the gold medal, here’s what we’ve learned.
The latest stroke of bad luck for Team USA came early in the scrimmage, when DeMarcus Cousins suffered a right knee injury, taking a knock in a knee-to-knee collision near midcourt and spending a couple minutes on the ground. The Sacramento Kings center limped off the court with the help of trainers, and was officially ruled out for the Brazil game by USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo. He underwent a precautionary MRI, which revealed no structural damage, according to USA Basketball team physician Dr. Lisa Callahan in a released statement. Cousins is listed as day-to-day.
He left the gym favoring the leg, but without assistance. At surface level, the injury doesn’t seem serious. After what happened to Paul George, however, it could potentially dissuade Cousins from participating -- even if he’s physically able.
This presents additional minutes and an opportunity for Mason Plumlee and Andre Drummond to step up over the next couple of weeks. In wake of Kevin Durant leaving the team, it appeared Cousins had the edge behind Anthony Davis at the five spot thanks to his scoring ability, although previous reports indicated Plumlee was ahead of him on the depth chart.
With speculation that Team USA would take a third center for extra size should they face the front lines of Spain and Brazil at the World Cup, Plumlee and Drummond might already have been battling for one of the final spots. Now, they could be slated for added playing time down the road depending on Cousins’ status.
The picture surrounding Mike Krzyzewski’s favored eight-man core became much clearer, as a lineup of Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Rudy Gay and Anthony Davis ran together the entire practice and in the scrimmage. It appears Gay, a USA Basketball veteran and member of the 2010 gold medal-winning squad, has slotted directly into Durant’s role as a stretch four who can create with the ball in his hands. They didn’t bring him into camp just to send him home, and he’s a lock to make the final cut.
Coach K has been hinting we might see a lot of three-guard lineups, and without Durant that became a near-certainty with this team now highly backcourt-centric. Expect Team USA to open its games with the high-scoring Rose-Curry-Harden trio to drive much of the offense. Curry’s shooting ability will play well off the ball, Rose continues to display a much-improved perimeter game and Harden is the best pure scorer on the roster. As a group, they’ll cause a lot of problems for opponents.
Kyrie Irving looked like the best player in the scrimmage, and might end up as the sixth man. He’s an easy bet for regular playing time and looks to have a clear edge over Damian Lillard, whose chances of sticking on the roster look slimmer by the day. Irving was slashing to the hoop whenever he wanted and fits in extremely well with the rapid pace Team USA likes to play. He’s behind Rose and Curry based on prior USA experience, but his immense talent shines in this type of environment.
As far as the final roster goes, the five starters, Irving and Klay Thompson appear to be in for sure. A healthy Cousins would likely make eight. Thompson’s defense, shooting and the fact he doesn’t dominate the ball makes him a logical fit playing off the other guards. Kyle Korver’s elite three-point ability and leadership make him a good bet for a specialist role. That leaves Lillard, DeMar DeRozan, Gordon Hayward, Chandler Parsons, Kenneth Faried, Plumlee and Drummond.
A noticeably bulked-up Hayward played the four for stretches (which is how Brad Stevens often used him at Butler), and it looks like the staff sees him and Parsons in similar roles. Both provide shooting, size and flexibility at either forward position. Expect one of the two to ride the plane to Spain. So, that leaves two more roster slots.
From here, it gets a lot cloudier thanks to the banged-up Cousins. If he doesn’t play in the World Cup, it makes sense for Team USA to take both Plumlee and Drummond at center, with one of them assuming rotation minutes and the other serving as an emergency option. If Boogie sticks it out, one of the two will make the team should Coach K decide he wants an extra center, and it seems Plumlee has the edge. Though the Americans have taken only one true center in each of the past two Olympics (back when Tyson Chandler was dominant on defense), given the big names missing from the roster it makes sense for them to play it safe, with or without Cousins.
Although he’s been highly productive for the Nuggets, Kenneth Faried looked a little out of place playing in the national team environment from what we got to see Thursday. He doesn’t have a clearly defined role, since he’s undersized as a center and lacks the perimeter skills to really fit the international game as a power forward. It’s not clear how he’d fit here except as a change-of-pace guy, and with Gay and Davis able to man the four with Hayward or Parsons and Plumlee and/or Drummond available on the bench, he looks like one of the odd men out.
What happens with the last spot? Last week the possibility of taking a fourth point guard appeared realistic. Although with Rose looking extremely healthy and Irving’s emergence, Lillard’s presence would provide depth but also be a luxury. DeRozan played well in the scrimmage and with his size and athleticism, he also has a shot. Given all the prior logic, it would appear to be down to those two guys.