Comprehending how much can change for USA Basketball between this week’s minicamp in Las Vegas and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro requires nothing more than looking back to last summer. Remember when Kevin Durant, Paul George and James Harden were delighting observers with their one-on-one-on-one games? Four combined surgeries later, Durant and George didn’t participate in the 2014 FIBA World Cup or the 2015 NBA playoffs, leaving Harden as the “King of the Mountain” by default.
Looking ahead to next summer in hopes of pinpointing a bulletproof 12-man USAB roster for Rio is therefore a fruitless exercise. There will be injuries, there will be aging, there will be unexpected regressions and breakouts, and there could be other off-court factors (contracts, family obligations, scheduling conflicts, etc.) that change the calculus.
Nevertheless, it’s not too early to build the latest Dream Team, as the process will provide a framework of expectations for next summer.
It’s worth noting, as SI.com did in previewing this summer’s minicamp, that USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski have expressed a preference for rewarding players that have participated in its previous camps and performed in previous competitions. In the past, Krzyzewski has also said he is looking for two-way players who can play multiple positions, who can have success with and without the ball, and who can thrive in an up-tempo style, while noting that he generally tries to form an eight-man core that is complemented by four role players (say, an extra big man, a three-point specialist, a defensive wizard, etc.).
The following is SI.com’s first crack at selecting a 12-man Dream Team for the 2016 Olympics from the 34 players who will be attending this week’s camp in Las Vegas. Note: This isn’t meant to be a prediction of what the actual roster will look like, but rather a collection of players SI.com feels has the best chance of helping Team USA win gold in its fifth straight major international competition and its third consecutive Olympics. The 12 players are ranked in terms of indispensability.
1. LeBron James
There’s no question whatsoever who should be the face of Team USA in Brazil. James erased any doubt about his standing at the top of the “Best players in the world” totem pole during his remarkable one-man army postseason run, and he remains the most recognizable star in basketball. One of the most important forces behind USAB’s turnaround, James could claim his third Olympic gold medal in Rio (Michael Jordan “only” has two) to go along with bronze medals from the 2004 Olympics and 2006 World Championships.
As James reminded everyone during Cleveland’s run to the 2015 Finals, he can credibly play all five positions and his presence can transform forgettable reserves into game-changing standouts. Start him at small forward, surround him with A-list talent and duck for cover.
During the 2012 London Olympics, the teenaged Davis was just along for the ride as an injury fill-in, looking like everyone’s kid brother and playing only spot minutes. A lot has changed since then, with Davis emerging as one of the stars of the 2014 FIBA World Cup team that won gold in Spain before earning All-NBA First Team honors and leading the Pelicans to the playoffs for the first time during his career. Although Davis isn’t necessarily the second-best player in the NBA—that title is fair game for debate—he’s fully deserving of the second spot on this list.
USAB needs a versatile, athletic and fluid big man to establish its defense-first, up-tempo style, and Davis, now 22, is more than up to that task as this roster’s starting center.
3. Kevin Durant
It would be a big mistake to sleep on Durant because he’s had three foot surgeries in the past 12 months. At 22, Durant was USAB’s leading scorer in London, averaging 19.5 points with blistering 48.5/52.3/88.9 shooting splits. Arguably the most unguardable one-on-one player in the NBA, Durant presents even more challenges internationally thanks to the shorter three-point line and his ability to stretch out defenses by swinging up to play power forward or center.
The 2014 MVP and four-time scoring champ is a natural fit between James and Davis, giving USAB a truly fearsome starting frontline. All three players are mobile, all three are credible threats from the rim to the arc, and all three present major problems for opposing offenses with their length, athleticism and motors. Pencil him in at starting power forward.
• MORE USA BASKETBALL: Colangelo discusses vision before World Cup
On paper, Krzyzewski’s toughest positional decision will be whether to start Curry (a gold medalist at the 2010 World Championships and 2014 World Cup) or Chris Paul (a gold medalist at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics). Based on seniority, Paul would get the nod, but Curry is arguably a better fit. While the 2015 MVP only had a so-so showing in Spain last year, his limitless three-point range and his experience in an up-tempo system are huge plusses for the 2016 roster.
It’s one thing for defenses to leave Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala to pay extra attention to Curry in pick-and-roll situations; it’s another thing entirely to leave Durant or James Harden open on the weakside. Curry’s on-ball dynamism forces opponents to pick a poison, and that’s why he would be SI.com’s choice to start at point guard.
5. Chris Paul
There really isn’t much separating Curry and Paul at this point, and it would hardly be shocking if Krzyzewski winds up starting the Clippers’ All-Star next summer. In addition to his longer track record with USAB, Paul also played with James, Durant, Davis, Harden, Russell Westbrook and a number of other 2016 candidates in London, where he ranked second on the team in minutes played (behind Durant) and assists (behind James). His superior defensive abilities and his distribution-minded mentality are major assets on a roster that is sure to be loaded with talented scorers.
Whether he starts or not, Paul is sure to play a vital role in 2016. SI.com’s preference is to use him as Curry’s primary backup.
6. James Harden
This is the point of the exercise where it becomes clear Team USA boasts an embarrassment of riches. The 2015 MVP runner-up, a player so skilled he carried an injury-plagued Rockets team to 56 wins and the West finals, is possibly the fifth-most important member of USA’s projected starting five. Harden grew from a bit player in London 2012 to a leading scorer in Spain 2014, but he’s likely to revert to being a complementary player in 2016 if everyone else is healthy.
In that role, he should be an absolute killer, as his foul-drawing ability, three-point range and comfort in the open court will mean nightmares for opposing coaches. SI.com would start him at two guard alongside Curry.
7. Russell Westbrook
In recent years, USAB has distanced itself from the pack both in terms of top-end talent and depth. Westbrook looks like a prime example of the latter point: he’s an MVP-type player who is totally overqualified to be a second-unit player in virtually every circumstance, and yet he is more likely than not to come off of Krzyzewski’s bench in 2016. An argument can easily be made that he deserves a starting spot over Curry or Harden, but his hard-charging style, instant energy, mediocre three-point shooting and gamble-heavy defensive style make him a more natural fit as the ultimate change-of-pace super-sub. SI.com would use him as Harden’s primary back-up.
• MORE USA BASKETBALL: Jazz's Rudy Gobert not happy with Favors snub
L.A.’s five-time All-Star is a bit of a forgotten man in USAB circles, as he was a late injury scratch for London. Although Griffin doesn’t yet have a medal to his name, his electrifying high-flying makes him a no-brainer selection for Rio. Unlike some of the other frontcourt candidates, Griffin should be able to do a credible defensive job at both power forward and center. In truth, Griffin’s improved midrange shooting isn’t likely to get as much run for USA as it does for the Clippers, but his ability to grab a defensive rebound and push the tempo by himself should make Krzyzewski’s mouth water.
In SI.com’s ideal world, James, Durant and Davis would handle the bulk of the important frontcourt minutes, with Griffin lending a hand off the bench at both the four and five.
It’s not easy for a player to jump from off USAB’s radar straight onto the Olympic roster. Then again, it’s not particularly easy for a second-round pick to become the second-most important player on an NBA title team in just his third season. Green, the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year runner-up, deserves serious, serious consideration for Rio: Golden State’s title run proved how ruthless and versatile he can be defensively as both a power forward and a small-ball center. Remember, the Warriors posted a +18 net rating during the regular season and a +13 net rating during the playoffs when Curry and Green shared the court. Something tells me those numbers would translate to the international game.
What’s more, Green brings a Charles Barkley-like edge to the table that’s sometimes hard to find in the superstar ranks. USAB is at its best when it is both feared and loved, and Green could help a lot with the “feared” part. SI.com would make him Davis’s primary back-up at center.
• MORE USA BASKETBALL: Jazz's Rudy Gobert not happy with Favors snub
10. Kawhi Leonard
Like Green, the 24-year-old Leonard is attempting to make the 2016 roster without any previous National Team experience. It would be a shame if that counted against him, as the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year looks like an ideal fit for this roster. Leonard’s time with the Spurs has made him an expert at contributing offensively without needing to dominate the ball: he’s a solid three-point shooter, an improving ball-handler and a threat to start and finish plays in transition. More importantly, the 2014 Finals MVP can guard positions one through four, and he is perhaps the NBA’s premier perimeter player when it comes to forcing turnovers with his length, positioning and hand/eye reflexes.
Leonard would theoretically function as a “XL” version of Andre Iguodala, who chipped in time for the 2012 Olympic team before taking home 2015 Finals MVP honors for Golden State. He could focus on suffocating the opposition’s star scorer and doing the little things while serving as an auxiliary option on offense. Plus, imagine the tone-setting possibilities Krzyzewski would have at his disposal. Want to psyche out a pesky opponent? Just trot out a Westbrook/Leonard/James/Green/Davis quintet that surely belongs in the discussion of the most intimidating and imposing lineups in USAB history. SI.com would include Leonard as James’s primary backup at small forward.
11. DeMarcus Cousins
Colangelo and Krzyzewski have long argued that versatility and skill are more important than pure size in the international game. As it turns out, the NBA game seems to be trending that way as well. At the same time, the best player in Rio not on USAB’s roster will almost certainly be the 7'1" Spanish center Marc Gasol, and it would behoove the Americans to add some beefy depth behind Davis in anticipation of that matchup. During the 2014 World Cup, USAB loaded up on bigs for exactly that reason, bringing three centers to back up Davis: Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee. That distribution feels like overkill if Durant and Griffin are back in the mix, and as it turned out Drummond and Plumlee barely saw the court.
One major downside to Spain flaming out in the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup: Colangelo and company were robbed of the opportunity to see how he fared head-to-head against Marc and Pau Gasol, and to examine how Sacramento’s famously moody All-Star held up under the extra scrutiny attention the matchup surely would have generated. Regardless, the 24-year-old Cousins is a natural pick to make the trek to Rio given his overall talent level and his comfort tracking his man from the rim to the elbow. SI.com would select Cousins with one of its final two roster spots unless Dwight Howard proves to be 100% healthy and back to Defensive Player of the Year type form.
12. Klay Thompson
Given the litany of primary scoring options on this roster, it would make sense that the final spot goes to a floor-spacer or a premier defender. Good news: Thompson checks off both categories. As one of the NBA’s leading three-point shooters, Thompson should be comfortable playing a catch-and-shoot role off of Curry, or Paul, or Westbrook, or Harden, or Durant, or James, or Griffin, or … you get the picture.
Even if his shot is running cold, the tireless Thompson could be used situationally—perhaps in tandem with Leonard—to shut down opposing wing scorers. This combination of skills and complementary mentality earns him the nod from SI.com, for now, as Paul George and Carmelo Anthony continue to work their way back from injuries.
Picking a USA roster is absolutely more difficult than picking the All-Star rosters. Rather than selecting a 12-man roster from 15 teams in a conference, five of whom are determined by a popularity contest, they must pick a 12-man team from a country that arguably has 24 of the top 25 basketball players in the world right now. The snubs here are so much harsher.
The following is a list of SI.com’s toughest cuts, in alphabetical order, along with a few thoughts on each.
• MORE USA BASKETBALL: Durant will practice at minicamp
San Antonio’s newest superstar brings a lot to the table, but his skills don’t necessarily align with USAB’s needs. A dependable alpha scorer, Aldridge needs a lot of touches in isolation to make his mark. A better-than-average defender, Aldridge isn’t a true rim protector and he has expressed an aversion to playing center in the NBA. Meanwhile, USAB has generally pursued a frisky approach on offense, and it would surely want Aldridge to play the five so that it could keep minutes free for its other frontcourt studs. Perhaps Aldridge, 30, could have provided answers to these questions in earlier international competitions, but he has consistently backed out of USAB obligations over the years.
If he can put his knee problems behind him, Anthony stands a strong chance of making the Rio roster. Along with James and Paul, Anthony represents this group’s “old guard” generation, as he’s earned two gold medals and two bronze medals while competing for USAB since 2004. Despite his recent struggles with the Knicks, Anthony’s 2016 case is bolstered by his sensational play in London, where he averaged 16.3 points (second only to Durant) and 4.8 rebounds. If his injuries linger, or if his interest in competing wanes, Anthony could go the way of Dwyane Wade in 2012.