With the 2014 FIBA World Cup tipping off this weekend in Spain, we consider a few of the most intriguing questions heading into the tournament.
How much will Team USA miss Kevin Durant?
Through much of his team's preparation for the tourney, USA Basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski was operating under the assumption that Kevin Durant would be his team's centerpiece. The NBA's reigning MVP is somehow even more devastating in international play, where his size enables him to be a full-time power forward without much defensive concession. Even the better teams in the tournament would have been forced to assign players like Pau Gasol, Luis Scola or Boris Diaw to guard Durant, though none is really able.
That's no longer an issue. Durant's sudden and unexpected withdrawal reset Team USA from a tactical standpoint, setting up this particular version of the team to rely on Anthony Davis and guard play. James Harden logged more minutes than any of his teammates in USA's four exhibition games. Klay Thompson took the second-most shots behind only Harden. Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry and Derrick Rose all played prominent roles and will be expected to work as the creative backbone of this team. None alone is as talented as Durant but none will likely need to be; Team USA has such a ridiculous talent base that even without Durant (and LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Kevin Love…), scoring won't likely be much of an issue for the bulk of the tournament.
Yet come Team USA's toughest games, Durant could be missed. This team is not above stretches of stagnant offense, stretches which won't play well against an opponent as formidable as Spain. The Americans also have no single option that takes to the power forward spot so dominantly as Durant. In the event that Team USA suffers a loss, the void left by Durant could be the reason why.
Which other team can best survive its absences?
Team USA is not alone in its dearth. Almost every team in the tournament is missing notable talent from its usual roster, largely on the grounds of injury. The fringe contender that best acclimates itself under that restriction could very well end up in the top three. Argentina, which is again without Manu Ginobili, has made a habit of such overachievement. Australia, playing without Patty Mills and Andrew Bogut, is positionally set to cover for its absent stars. Lithuania even has some chance of making it work without Mantas Kalnietis and Linas Kleiza, provided the team's execution remains on-point and Jonas Valanciunas steps into a bigger role.
Even more exciting, though, is the possibility that some younger player or unforeseen contributor could come to influence the tournament in a significant way. Every FIBA World Cup has its surprises, and with so many players sidelined from this year's action, there's even more of an opportunity for surprise variables.
How far will teams go to dodge Team USA?
Once in the elimination stage, it would behoove any team to avoid a matchup with Team USA for as long as possible. Such is a matter of survival; by delaying a potential encounter with the tournament favorites, a national team could better position itself to medal.
It will be worth tracking how that particular interest shapes the competitive dynamics of group play. That initial stage of the World Cup has its teams compete within their respective groups to determine bracket seeding. The format is not immune to manipulation, especially in the final games of that preliminary round. Teams in FIBA tournaments past have walked the line of what could be considered gamesmanship, as losing a game here or there offers real strategic value. It works to a team's benefit, for example, to have the third-best record in Group D rather than the second, or the fourth-best record in Group C rather than the third. The coaches in the tournament know this, but how it might influence their approach (if at all) remains to be seen.
What's in store for Derrick Rose?
The NBA world watches anxiously as Rose, who has played just 10 games in total over the past two seasons, returns to competitive play. Thus far Team USA has handled his situation delicately; Rose sat out one of USA's four exhibition games leading into the World Cup while also pacing himself in practices along the way. He may or may not be the team's starter at point guard, presumably depending on how his body holds up against a schedule that puts Team USA through five games in six days. It would be hard to know what to expect from Rose at this point under any circumstances, but the unique pacing of the World Cup and the star-studded makeup of Team USA make his status even trickier to predict. Will the lesser burden that comes in playing alongside other stars make things physically easier on Rose, allowing him to thrive? Or might Team USA be particularly wary with Rose given that players like Irving and Curry can handle the ball in his stead?
No one yet knows. Rose will likely be a mystery on a day-to-day basis for this team, both as he deals with his ailing knees and works through his rusty game.
Which team is the primary roadblock to a USA-Spain collision course?
At some point in the elimination stage, at least one of Spain or Team USA will be unexpectedly pushed to its limit. This is the beauty of the single-elimination format; although those two are the clear favorites to emerge from their respective sides of the bracket, all it takes is a single loss -- such as the one Spain suffered to Serbia in the second round of the 2010 World Cup -- to upend that expectation. Neither of these teams is invulnerable. But which opponent stands the best chance of crashing the much-anticipated USA-Spain final?
We'll have a better idea after seeing how teams fare in group play, though the answer likely depends on matchup specifics. Brazil stands a chance as the team that can best match up with Spain on its own terms. Tiago Splitter, Nene and Anderson Varejao are all terrific defenders who might pare down the value of the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka. Teams like Serbia or Croatia, on the other hand, could potentially unseat Spain by coming at them sideways -- with bigs comfortable on the perimeter, high-scoring wings and fairly high-functioning offenses. Team USA, for its part, doesn't face any glaring threats. Yet a Lithuania team on just the right day could provide a temporary scare, as might Slovenia or Australia.