With Paul George sidelined, Kevin Durant removing his name from the player pool and Rudy Gay now bound for training camp in Chicago this week, USA Basketball’s roster situation sits in a new state of flux with just a few weeks left before the World Championships in Spain.
The considerable losses of would-be starters Durant and George leave a couple of roster spots up for grabs during the next couple weeks of practice and exhibitions. Although the backcourt situation could be affected – U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski has discussed playing three-guard lineups, and sans Durant, they could take a fourth point guard (likely Damian Lillard) – the biggest selection issue remains in the frontcourt.
That said, operating under the assumption that six spots will go to guards and that another belongs to either Kyle Korver or Gordon Hayward as a shooting specialist, five positions remain to fill out the team with big men. In selecting one of the most depleted American frontcourts in years, finding the correct fits will be even more critical. Let’s take a look at the players in the mix:
The only guaranteed lock to make the team out of this group, Davis appears poised to announce his presence on the international stage at the ripe age of 21. The Pelicans star is a terrific fit for the international rules given his skill level, size and elite rim-protecting ability, and after cutting his teeth at the 2012 Olympics, the kid gloves have come all the way off. With the versatility to swing between the five (where he’ll start) and the four (the spot he’ll play for stretches against the big frontlines of Spain and Brazil), Davis is the backbone of the American defense. With Durant sitting out, he’s now USA Basketball’s most important player.
Officially added to the roster on Friday afternoon, Gay won gold as a reserve with USA Basketball at the 2010 World Championships and already understands the team philosophy. That familiarity works in his favor, and Gay will man a swing forward role similar to the way Durant and George would have been used. His perimeter scoring and ability to defend multiple positions will let Krzyzewski deploy smaller lineups with Gay as a floor-spacing four-man. It seems unlikely the United States decision-makers would have brought him to camp if he didn’t have strong odds to make the final cut. He might even be slated for a bigger role this time around.
The past couple of weeks have been tough on Cousins, with rumors swirling that Mason Plumlee had the edge on him in a position battle to back up Davis in the post. When Cousins is motivated and at his best he’s a nearly-unstoppable load on the inside, and his passing, rebounding and physicality make him a great compliment to the more wiry Davis when Coach K wants to go big. There’s nobody quite like Cousins on the roster, and Krzyzewski spoke highly of his attitude on Monday. The Sacramento center now looks like a good bet for a seat on the plane.
Kenneth Faried, Denver Nuggets
Though undersized to play the five (where his skills best fit in the international game), Faried brings a unique dimension to the court with his motor and elite-level rebounding and athleticism. It’s easy to imagine him coming off the bench and terrorizing opposing bigs who could be unprepared for his relentless, aggressive style of play. Faried may not play much, but you can see him in a break-in-case-of-emergency role with the potential to alter the flow of games with his energy. Though not perfectly suited for international play, Faried offers a much different look than any other big on the roster (imagine the havoc he could create on the glass alongside Davis for spurts) and that could ultimately prove to be his ticket to Spain.
Before the addition of Rudy Gay, Parsons was the only guy with stretch-four skills on the roster sans Durant. Now, it’s unclear as to where he stands. He could be battling Gay directly for a spot over the next couple of weeks, with an edge in size and three-point shooting but behind in terms of defense, scoring and international experience. If the U.S. feels they need another true big to battle Brazil and Spain, Parsons could be out — but his ability to play either forward spot a la Durant and George would have remains invaluable.
Though Plumlee was rumored to have the edge on Cousins as a backup center last week, given recent developments it suddenly seems less prudent to take him solely for depth. Without Durant’s considerable scoring punch, opting to bring along Plumlee (who’s still a work in progress on offense) over the at-times-dominant Cousins would be treading on thin ice, and attributing that decision to character (as has been speculated) even more foolish. We know Coach K loves his Duke guys, and we know Plumlee will sit happily on the end of the bench until he’s needed to defend a Gasol or two, but that’s his only foreseeable role in these games.
Drummond has the longest shot of anyone to make the World Championship roster, as he’s unpolished offensively and still learning the game in a lot of ways. He’s a physical specimen with huge potential and will certainly be back with USA Basketball in the future, but appears clearly behind Cousins and Plumlee as a backup center for the time being. Barring anything catastrophic, Drummond looks like one of the odd men out.
So what now?
Although it’s still conceivable that the United States could take a sixth big rather than an extra guard, long-term, that decision likely won't be all that significant. Krzyzewski emphasized in Monday’s press conference that he wants to stick to a “core” eight-man rotation, with the other four players serving as positional depth and emergency specialists. It’s worth noting that in 2010 and 2012, USA Basketball took just one true center in Tyson Chandler, so history suggests the Americans won’t overcompensate for the personnel they might face in the medal rounds (again, think Gasols).
Still, the Coach K-era national teams have never faced such a dearth of preferred talent in the frontcourt with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and now Durant and George all staying home. Although this year’s team could be heavily perimeter-driven as a result, there will be some difficult decisions to make this month for Jerry Colangelo, Krzyzewski and the USA braintrust. Regardless of what they do, the United States is still the heavy favorite -- but by no means is the situation clear-cut.