LAS VEGAS—Even though its practices were essentially a dog and pony show and its intra-squad scrimmage was played at half-speed, USA Basketball still managed to generate a significant amount of intrigue this past week at its off-year minicamp in Las Vegas.
The four-day camp concluded Thursday with a final press availability from USAB chairman Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski, who laid out their timetable and strategy to build a 12-man roster for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Here’s a rundown of the five biggest takeaways from the week that was, including the nitty-gritty details provided by Colangelo and Krzyzewski after USA White beat USA Blue in the showcase game Thursday night.
1. USAB brass lays out 2016 Rio roster plans
As SI.com noted before this week’s minicamp opened, the USA will enter Rio as the overwhelming favorite. It’s possible that 24 of the NBA’s top 25 players are Americans right now (Spanish center Marc Gasol being the lone exception) and, somewhat remarkably, just about every single one of those elite players swung through Las Vegas for meetings or practices this week. Needless to say, that will make for a brutal whittling process.
Colangelo and Krzyzewski told reporters that they will unveil a 24- or 25-man pool of candidates during the 2015–16 season. Then, after the 2016 Finals and 2016 draft conclude in June, USAB will simply announce its 12-man roster without holding any sort of tryout or minicamp. After a two-week break, those 12 players and a group of USA Select players will convene in Las Vegas to begin the preparation process for Rio.
This process, which is similar to the one used by USAB in selecting its 2008 Olympics roster, was driven by two factors. First, it eliminates any potential embarrassment associated with last-minute public cuts. “Bringing 18 or 22 players here, and then asking six or eight or 10 to go home, that didn’t sit well with us,” said Colangelo.
Second, the process will cut down on the time commitment required of the Olympic players. As is, Colangelo expects that the 2016 roster will be together for 35 days from the beginning of its preparation process, through a five-game exhibition schedule, and then on through the conclusion of the Olympics. “That’s a lot of time,” Colangelo said. “By cutting those days on the front end, it’s very helpful to the players and their families.”
What does this process mean for the roster composition? Well, it’s safe to assume that it strongly favors returning players. Remember, newcomers really didn’t get a true tryout process this summer and there won’t be a real opportunity to impress the coaches next summer. Krzyzewski again referenced the importance of accumulating “equity” from previous USAB appearances on Thursday, adding that the trust built up over playing in previous competitions “helps immensely” during the jelling process.
2. Positive vibes from LeBron James
While LeBron James refused to commit to playing in Rio this week, there were a lot of positive indicators, not least of which was Krzyzewski’s excitement. After the 2012 Olympics, many observers believed it was more likely than not that James would skip out on 2016. Now, the opposite seems true: James made a point of showing up and going through a practice, he seemed excited to spend time with Krzyzewski this week, and he shared plenty of laughs with his close friends, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony.
Krzyzewski did seem to tip his hand just a little bit by saying clearly that he believed James would play if he was healthy and adding that James was “one of the leaders” of the program currently. With Anthony back healthy and Paul his usual gung-ho self, it’s easy to envision the trio of USAB veterans (and Nike/Jordan signature shoe endorsers) making up the foundation of the 2016 roster.
Generally speaking, Colangelo has been a little more cautious in discussing James’s status for 2016, although he’s made it clear that USAB is saving him a spot (duh). On Thursday, however, Colangelo did finally step out on a bit of a limb. “If our guys were to stay healthy, this will be the best team we’ve ever put together, potentially,” Colangelo said. “The talent pool is that strong.” Given the talent that existed on both the 2008 Beijing squad and the 2012 London squad—including James, Paul and Anthony on both teams—it’s hard to believe Colangelo would make such a claim without significant confidence that all three players are ready for Rio.
3. Kobe Bryant emerges from left field
If there was one genuine surprise this week, it was the notion, first reported by SheridanHoops.com, that both USAB and Kobe Bryant are leaving open the possibility that the Lakers guard might find his way to Rio. Although the 36-year-old Bryant has previously said he didn’t plan to play, Colangelo told reporters Thursday that he has talked to Bryant about reversing that position.
“[Bryant] mentioned to me that if he had his druthers, he would love to ride off into the sunset playing one more time and winning the gold medal,” Colangelo recounted. “That would be the end. He was very quick to say, ‘I don’t want a spot. I need to earn the spot. I need to be capable of playing at that level to be considered.’ I said, ‘You got that. That’s always there for you.’”
Many expect Bryant, who is set to enter his 20th NBA season and will be playing on the final year of his contract, to retire after the 2015–16 season. The future Hall of Famer has already earned gold medals in Beijing and London, and a third Olympic gold in Rio would move him past Michael Jordan’s count of two.
From a pure basketball perspective, there is little argument to be made for Bryant’s inclusion. After three straight season-ending injuries, he’s simply not among the USA’s 12 best performers, and the Rio roster is sure to be stuffed to the gills with high-usage scorers. Bryant doesn’t fit a position of need and his skillset doesn’t align with USAB’s potential weakness.
Of course, it’s never quite that simple. Bryant enjoys a strong relationship with Krzyzewski, he has the ever-important “equity” from his previous USAB commitments, he remains as famous globally as anyone except perhaps James, and he—like James and Kevin Durant—is a signature endorser for Nike.
It’s possible that this idea is mere wishful thinking, or that injury concerns will rule it out before it gains true momentum. If Bryant does get serious about one last hurrah, though, it’s important to realize that his inclusion will come at the expense of a very, very, very good player. If we assume that USAB veterans James, Paul, Durant, Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, and James Harden are all close to being Rio locks, Bryant would be supplanting someone like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Paul George or an extra center that could prove valuable against Spain’s imposing frontline. From an on-court perspective, USAB would be best served if this idea fades between now and June.
4. Kevin Durant is back
Perhaps the most memorable moment from a fairly forgettable two days of USAB’s light minicamp practices came on Tuesday, when Durant discussed his health and state of mind. In stark contrast to last summer, when he surprisingly pulled out of the FIBA World Cup team after he had previously been propped up with Kevin Love as one of the faces of the roster, a refreshed Durant made it clear that he was fully invested in playing in Rio.
There were major extenuating circumstances last year: Durant was in the middle of monster shoe deal negotiations with Nike and Under Armour, and he admitted to feeling burned out once it came time for USAB to hit the road on its way to Spain. It was fair to wonder where Durant’s interest level with the program would be after a 2014–15 season that was totally derailed by three foot surgeries, and it was good to see him reinvigorated by the time off and recommitted to USAB, as he seemed to enjoy his previous experiences in the 2010 World Championships and the 2012 London Olympics.
Durant’s return to good health and good humor is great news for basketball fans, who missed him in the 2015 playoffs, and bad news for the Thunder’s opponents, who must account for Oklahoma City as a major title contender once again.
5. If the roster was selected today…
There’s just no way to predict who will be healthy when the official selections are made next June. Instead of trying to play doctor and psychic, here’s SI.com’s best guess at what USAB’s Rio Olympics squad would look like if the selections were made today (based on who is currently healthy and who participated in this week’s minicamp).
All 12 players listed have Krzyzewski’s desired program “equity”—in one form or another.
1. Chris Paul: He generally carried himself like a man who expects to be starting in Rio.
2. Stephen Curry: His shooting skills are absolutely jaw-dropping, even in a relaxed practice setting.
3. Russell Westbrook: Even when surrounded by the best of the best, Westbrook’s athleticism always stands out.
4. James Harden: The MVP runner-up looks like a prime candidate to see an uptick in his playing time compared to London.
5. Andre Iguodala: Krzyzewski repeatedly praised Iguodala’s contributions to the 2010 World Championship team and the 2012 Olympic team. Although the 2015 Finals MVP was excused from camp this week because he was getting married, it would be foolish to overlook him given his coach’s affection for his defensive abilities and positional versatility.
6. LeBron James: The reigning best player in the world who will eventually be remembered as one of the greatest and most influential players in USAB history.
7. Carmelo Anthony: A lethal scorer in the international game, many forget that Anthony’s USAB career dates back to the 2004 Olympics.
8. Kevin Durant: The London team’s leading scorer said he can go at 100% speed following his latest foot surgery, which was performed in March. His hard, explosive cuts during shooting drills and his generally competitive demeanor support that claim.
9. Blake Griffin: Technically, Griffin doesn’t quite have “equity,” as he was a late health scratch in 2012. Still, he’s been involved with USAB for years, and it’s hard to imagine his high-flying game being grounded by a roster cut next summer. In support of that thought, Krzyzewski told reporters that it was great to have Griffin in camp this summer and that it would be even better if he was around next summer. Griffin earned brownie points for being the biggest star to compete in Thursday’s Showcase game.
10. Anthony Davis: USAB’s projected starting center, Davis continues to fill out and progress towards eventually claiming the “Best player in the world” title in a few years. Still just 22, New Orleans’ finest would be going for his third gold medal (2012 Olympics, 2014 World Cup) in Rio.
11. Dwight Howard: Here’s another case where “equity” could kick in. Howard’s USAB career dates back to 2006, and although his star has slipped a bit in recent years, he’s still a gigantic paint-commanding defender.
12. DeMarcus Cousins: With Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Paul George not participating in drills this week, Cousins can claim the last spot as an extra big man to contend with a Spanish frontline that could include Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Krzyzewski praised Cousins this week, noting that Sacramento’s All-Star center helped turn the tide against Serbia during the 2014 FIBA World Cup.