Can depleted Team USA squad still win gold at FIBA World Cup?
LAS VEGAS -- Almost exactly one year ago, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love flanked USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo, pledging to serve as the foundation for the program's FIBA World Cup roster. Yet USA Basketball's training camp opens Monday without half of that foundation, as Love abruptly withdrew from the competition last week, amid swirling trade rumors about his NBA future.
The Timberwolves All-Star is only one of many prominent NBA players to bail, but his exit best symbolizes the predicament currently facing USA Basketball: Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski must prepare to face Spain in the World Cup, which will run from Aug. 30 to Sept. 14, without the roster they had hoped for or expected.
Joining Love on the sidelines will be fellow All-Stars Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Russell Westbrook, and those are only the names that were initially announced in this year's player pool. Other prominent USA Basketball veterans -- including LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Deron Williams -- will be at home watching Durant and company like the rest of us.
Who does that leave that will actually play? How will the new-look roster fare against the world's top competition? What does their road to gold look like? Let's take a look.
What is the FIBA World Cup?
The FIBA World Cup is an international basketball competition that was formerly known as the World Championship. Held every four years in various locations around the globe, like soccer's World Cup, the event helps bridge the four-year gap between the Summer Olympics. Although not nearly as prominent as the FIFA World Cup, the FIBA World Cup is the highest-profile international basketball tournament besides the Olympics.
This year's World Cup will include 24 teams, split into four groups of six teams. Those teams, in alphabetical order, are: Angola, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Croatia, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Finland, France, Greece, Iran, Lithuania, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Senegal, Serbia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine and the USA.
Much like the FIFA World Cup, the FIBA World Cup includes a round-robin group stage before proceeding to a single-elimination knockout tournament.
USA Basketball is seeking to defend its gold medal at the 2010 World Championship in Turkey, where it defeated the host country in the championship game. Additionally, USA Basketball will look to extend its streak of global dominance that includes gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2012 Olympics in London. Spain took Silver at both events.
The last time USA Basketball lost a major international basketball tournament was the 2006 World Championship in Greece, where the program settled for bronze as Spain captured gold.
The ongoing USA-Spain rivalry could add another chapter this year: Spain sits in Group A while the USA is in Group C, setting up a possible showdown in the gold medal game if both teams win their groups as expected.
Which players can represent USA Basketball?
Colangelo and Krzyzewski are charged with selecting a 12-man roster, and they will use a four-day training camp in Las Vegas this week to help make their cuts. The roster will be composed of players drawn from a 19-man player pool and an additional set of USA Select players, a group that generally consists of up-and-comers working towards spots on future USA Basketball rosters.
Here's how the current player pool and USA Select group looks as of Monday. Players are listed by their NBA position and in alphabetical order.
PG: Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Derrick Rose, John Wall
SG: Bradley Beal, DeMar DeRozan, James Harden, Klay Thompson
SF: Kevin Durant, Paul George, Gordon Hayward, Kyle Korver, Chandler Parsons
PF: Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried, Paul Millsap
C: DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond
Who will make the cut?
USA Basketball has made it a priority to reward loyalty, giving returning players a leg up on making the roster.
With that in mind, Davis, Durant and Harden are all returning members from the 2012 Olympic team, while Curry, Durant and Rose are all returning members from the 2010 World Championship team. Although Rose is somewhat of a question mark because of his ongoing knee injuries, the other four returning players should all be shoo-ins to make the team.
Last summer, Krzyzewski also spoke fondly of Irving, whom he coached at Duke. George's rapid ascendance to stardom would seem to make him a virtual lock.
There are plenty of unanswered questions outside of that group. Colangelo and Krzyzewski have expressed a desire to tap players who are capable of playing multiple positions, and players who can play with and without the basketball. USA Basketball also clearly faces a positional imbalance, with plenty of backcourt depth, particularly at the point guard position, but relative slim pickings when it comes to the interior.
The international game, which includes a shorter three-point line and includes opponents that are generally at a serious talent disadvantage, allows for plenty of flexibility when it comes to the use of smallball lineups. Davis, for example, could easily log minutes as a center, with Durant playing as a power forward so that additional ball-handlers and/or perimeter shooters could get on the court.
Lest this turn into too deep of a dive into guesswork, remember that this week's training camp should help produce some roster clarity.
Will the USA win gold?
USA Basketball should be considered the favorite to win the FIBA World Cup, without any doubt. Krzyzewski will be able to start a lineup composed entirely of NBA All-Stars, led by the NBA's reigning MVP, and that accumulation of talent is something that no other team in the field can match. A hypothetical Curry/Harden/George/Durant/Davis quintet should be just as deadly in reality as it looks on paper.
Even if a depleted USA roster lacking in A-list big men must win on Spanish soil, in front of what will surely be hostile crowds, any result besides gold would be a disappointment.
For context, USA Basketball won its five group games at the 2012 Olympics by an average of 38 points, and it won all but two of its games by double digits during the entire tournament. At the 2010 World Championships, only Brazil stayed within 10 points of the USA.
This year's groups set up nicely for the USA. Among its five fellow Group C squads, only Turkey (No. 7) places in the top 10 of FIBA's rankings. New Zealand (No.19), Dominican Republic (No. 26), Finland (No. 39) and Ukraine (No. 45). Meanwhile, Spain (No. 2) will need to contend with France (No. 8), Brazil (No. 10) and Serbia (No. 11) in Group A.
The USA's top competition in this year's field will undoubtedly be Spain, followed by Argentina (No. 3), Lithuania (No. 4), France (No. 8), Australia (No. 9), Brazil (No. 10) and Slovenia (No. 13). The medal hopes for many of those teams will hinge on which players are healthy and available once rosters are finalized. Tony Parker (France), Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Luis Scola (Argentina) Andrew Bogut (Australia) and Patty Mills (Australia) could all miss the tournament.
For what it's worth, France won gold at the 2013 FIBA EuroBasket -- an off-year tournament comprised of European teams -- thanks in large part to Parker's brilliance. Lithuania captured silver and Spain took bronze at the tournament, which was held in Slovenia.
What's next on USA's slate?
USA Basketball will run its Las Vegas training camp all week, with a showcase intrasquad scrimmage set for Friday at the Thomas & Mack Center. After a two-week break, training will pick up in Chicago from Aug. 14-16, with an exhibition game against Brazil at the United Center on Aug. 16. The cross-country tour will then move to New York, where practices will run from Aug. 18-22, with exhibitions against the Dominican Republic (Aug. 20) and Puerto Rico (Aug. 22) at Madison Square Garden before USA Basketball heads abroad.
On Aug. 24, training will continue in Gran Canaria until Aug. 26, when USA Basketball will play an exhibition against Slovenia.
The opening round of the FIBA World Cup will then commence on Aug. 30, with the knockout round beginning on Sept. 6. USA Basketball's opening round slate includes five games that will be played in Bilbao: Finland (Aug. 30), Turkey (Aug. 31), New Zealand (Sept. 2), Dominican Republic (Sept. 3) and Ukraine (Sept. 4).
The gold medal game is set for Sept. 14 in Madrid.