|Pretty sure we'll be seeing this again|
For 8 years between 2000 and 2008, the United States, the greatest basketball power on the face of the earth, went winless in international men’s competition. Instead of running through the competition with Michael Jordan and Shaq, the U.S. was forced to turn to players like Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson to maintain our dominance. Needless to say, it didn’t exactly turn out well.
Since then, a new generation of stars has come to power and a new group of decision makers, led by Jerry Colangelo, has come together to put together the best TEAM, not just the best players. It’s worked, and gold medals at the 2008 Olympics and 2010 World Championships, even without many of our best players, has been the reward.
With the 2012 Olympics on the horizon, Colangelo and his team are working feverishly to put together the next great American squad. Yesterday, the 20 finalists were announced, so we have a pretty good idea of what the team will look like. Honestly, didn’t we kinda know already?
Instead of breaking down whether Lebron should be on the team (Hint: Yes, he should), I thought it would be more fun to put myself in Jerry Colangelo’s shoes. Before I pick my 20 finalists, here are the guidelines I’m using for making my picks:
Roster Balance – The 2010 World Championship squad was very light on big men, and I don’t want to repeat that. I’m looking to put together a team that can play any size, any style, at any time.
Roster Versatility – Especially in these types of competitions, it’s great to have versatile players. What made Durant so valuable in the World Championships was his ability to take bigger, slower guys out to the perimeter, while also dominating smaller, quicker guys in the post. Obviously you can’t have 20 Durant’s, but there are plenty of versatile options currently in the league.
Shooting – The USA’s Achilles heel during that miserable 8 year stretch between gold medals was the lack of consistent outside shooting. If you’re not aware, zone defenses are legal in international play. Since teams can’t match up with us one-on-one, they simply pack it in and force us to beat them from the outside. What I’m looking for, specifically, are guys who shoot it lights out from the 16-23 foot range. With the international three point line being just 20.5 feet, having guys who are money from that range pretty much invalidates any zone defense thrown our way.
Good Post Passers – Let’s just say “versatile big men” for this, OK? I’m looking for guys who are great passers out of the double team, who can step away from the basket and make plays, who can run the floor, and who can successfully find soft spots in the zone.
Physical Players – International play is pretty much rugby on a wood floor, and having guys who can both absorb contact and dish it out themselves is extremely important.
Using these guidelines, I have eliminated many quality candidates and whittled my list down to 20 finalists. Here they are:
PG Derrick Rose – Chicago Bulls
Rose’s game is far better suited for the NBA than for international play, but there’s just no way to leave the league’s reigning MVP off this squad. Obviously the lack of a consistent outside shot makes him somewhat of a liability against zone defenses, but he showed during the 2010 World Championships that his strength and ability to play both a fast paced and slow paced game make him extremely valuable, despite the shooting woes. And on that topic, Rose is a much better shooter than he was a couple summers ago. While no one will mistake him for Ray Allen, his 41% shooting from 16-23 feet is respectable enough to make him a credible threat from the international three point line. The lineup options are literally limitless with Rose, as he has the requisite size to guard a couple positions and be utilized in two PG sets and three guard sets. All in all, a must have for Team USA.
PG Deron Williams – New Jersey Nets
Williams was a key reserve on the 2008 gold medal team, and he brings a lot to the table in terms of international play. Like Rose, Williams is an extremely physical player who will have no trouble overpowering the opposition, even in a basketball tournament that will likely see less personal fouls called for the USA than the NFL had personal fouls called for Tom Brady. Here’s what concerns me about Williams…he kinda sucks right now. To be fair, the sample size I’m looking at is pretty small (just 25 games with New Jersey), but the dip in efficiency is striking. His turnovers are way up, his assists are way down, and his shooting percentage is waaaaaaaaaay down. Williams was a guy who, for his career, shot it extremely well from 16-23 feet (45-48%!), but that percentage has plummeted to the upper 20’s since being dealt to New Jersey. Maybe he’s just trying too hard, or maybe he doesn’t want to be there. Whatever the case may be, it concerns me. Still, I’m not going to ignore a careers worth of stats just because he’s struggled in his last 25. In an ideal world, Williams gets it together and once again is the best backup PG in the tournament, as well as an ideal fit in USA’s two PG sets.
PG Chris Paul – Los Angeles Clippers
How obvious is this one? No matter what award Rose has, Chris Paul is the unquestioned best pure PG in the game, and he’s a mortal lock to lead my version of the 2012 Olympic team. His efficiency is downright scary when you think about it! Despite having the ball in his hands for a majority of the game, Paul’s turnover ratio is significantly better than the league average. Not only that, but the guy pretty much never misses a jump shot! He’s shooting a surreal 54% from 16-23 feet and his effective FG% from the three point line is 68.3%! So yeah, I’m pretty sure I want Chris Paul on my team.
SG Kobe Bryant – Los Angeles Lakers
Look, there aren’t many people out there who hate Kobe Bryant more than I do. I hate his team, I hate his shot selection, I hate the way he treats his teammates, I hate his face…I pretty much hate everything about him. Trust me when I tell you that I did the best I could to talk myself into leaving Kobe at home. Honestly, I just couldn’t justify it, because even though Kobe is certainly a diminished talent at this stage in his career, he brings nearly everything I want to the table. Want a guy who can stick it from 16-23 feet? How about Kobe shooting 48% from that range in 2012? Want a guy who can take care of the ball? How about Kobe having a turnover rate even lower than Chris Paul? Kobe showed in his 2008 Olympic appearance that he can play under a team concept in these circumstances, so even that worry is diminished. On a team that will be full of guys who have yet to lead a team to a championship, having Kobe’s leadership, intensity, and winning experience will prove invaluable. Don’t believe me? Pop in a tape of the gold medal game from 2008…we probably don’t bring home gold without him.
SG Eric Gordon – New Orleans Hornets
Love his size, love his strength, love his shooting. Gordon made a bit of a name for himself at the 2010 Worlds by hitting 46% of his three point shots and establishing himself as Team USA’s only consistent perimeter threat outside of Kevin Durant. He’s a bigger guard who had no problem handling the physicality back in 2010, and he’s absolutely perfect as the third guard when Team USA decides to go small.
PG/SG Stephen Curry – Golden State Warriors
I thought it was brilliant to add him to the 2010 team, but Curry ended up being one of the biggest disappointments after shooting just 37% from three point range. That, and his current injury woes, probably cost him his chance to make the 2012 Olympic team, as he did not make the cut when Colangelo recently announced the 20 finalists. A bit of an overreaction on their part? I think so. As long as Curry is healthy, there is no way I’m leaving him stateside in a tournament that has a 20 foot three point line. The guy can flat shoot it. Never mind that he doesn’t fit the physical profile I’m looking for…he can shoot. Really, really well. Now if only he would stop breaking his ankle every time he plays…
SG Kevin Martin – Houston Rockets
In case you weren’t getting the hint…I WANT SHOOTERS!!! Martin isn’t an elite player by any stretch of the imagination, but he has one elite skill. Shooting. Though he’s struggled with his three point shot so far this year, his 60.1 TS% last season (and also his really high TS% in basically every year of his career) are proof that Martin is an elite shooter. With Rose, Paul, Lebron, Kobe, etc. garnering most of the defensive attention, Martin will get an opportunity to take, and make, plenty of open shots.
SG Arron Afflalo – Denver Nuggets
Colangelo made a smart decision in 2008 by selecting Tayshaun Prince, and he’d be just as smart to consider a guy like Afflalo this time around. Much like Prince, Afflalo is a lockdown perimeter defender that also specializes in finding open spots in the zone and knocking down open shots. On a team like this, it’s always beneficial to have a guy who can contribute without having the ball in his hands. Probably wouldn’t make the final roster, but worth a look anyways.
SG/SF James Harden – Oklahoma City Thunder
Pretty much the same philosophy as with Afflalo, except with an awesome beard. Harden has been one of the bigger breakout stars in the early going of this season. Watching his style of play, I can’t help but think he would be an awesome player on the international stage. I mean, what’s not to love about a 6’5” wing who’s built like a PF and who plays like a 60 year old? And I don’t mean that to be demeaning either! Harden has an “old-school” game that is very difficult to stop. As far as “role players” go, Harden is easily one of the most valuable.
SG Jason Terry – Dallas Mavericks
Terry is a bit of a surprising, and somewhat random, inclusion, but the numbers speak for themselves. He’s consistently near the top of the league in FG% from 16-23 feet, converting nearly 50% of those shots. Also, I love the fact that Terry is used to coming off the bench. Many times it’s hard for a star player to get his game going off the bench, so having a legit sixth man seems like a really good “outside the box” idea. He probably wouldn’t get very many minutes, but you can’t tell me that 6-8 minutes of the always confident “Jet” wouldn’t give Team USA a nice spark when the offense is struggling to find their rhythm. Even amongst a group of superstars, Terry would believe that he belongs…and hey, who’s to tell him otherwise? Guy stepped up big on the NBA’s biggest stage, and that says a lot in and of itself.
SF Lebron James – Miami Heat
This one doesn’t need much explanation. Lebron can be the world’s best “role player” on this stage, and is especially nasty when Team USA decides to play small. Gotta love when you can slide your 3 over to the 4 and he still dwarfs his man!
One last note: Lebron has significantly improved his shooting from 16-23 feet since 2008. Back then, he was converting just 34% of those shots. Now, he’s coming off a season in which he shot 45% from that range. So yeah, he’s pretty much going to destroy international competition.
SF Carmelo Anthony – New York Knicks
You pretty much have to throw out Melo’s decidedly mediocre NBA shooting percentages, because he’s always looked far more capable on the international stage. If I had to guess why, I’d say it’s because the talent around him guarantees him infinitely more clean looks than he normally gets in a regular NBA game. No matter what, ‘Melo has played well enough in international competition to guarantee himself a spot on the final roster.
SF Kevin Durant – Oklahoma City Thunder
We all remember the 2010 World Championships, right? You know, the one where Lebron/Wade/Kobe/Carmelo/Howard/etc. bailed on Team USA and we still won because Durant decided that there was no way he was going to let us lose? Yeah, that one! Needless to say, he’ll be back for the Olympics. The interesting question is, where does he fit now that all the other stars are back? Well, the one thing we learned from the 2010 games is that Durant can definitely play the 4 in international competition, and I can’t think of a more dominant lineup than having Durant and Lebron on the floor at the same time. With Durant shooting 16-23 footers at a 54% clip, he could once again take the world by storm.
PF Kevin Love – Minnesota Timberwolves
Love is a shockingly poor shooter from 16-23 feet (just 39% this year…a career high!). That’s hard to explain for a player with his shooting touch, though the fact that he attempts, on average, less than 2 per game for his career makes me think it’s somewhat of a fluky stat. After all, his effective FG% from three point land was 62.6% last year! Clearly, he can shoot it. Though he isn’t a particularly good defender, Love’s physical strength, rebounding skill, pick-and-pop prowess, and ability to space the floor puts him in line for some solid burn on this team.
PF LaMarcus Aldridge – Portland Trail Blazers
It would have been a crime had LaMarcus Aldridge not been named one of the finalists, as his skill set is exactly what Team USA needs. In international play, it’s imperative to have sweet shooting post players, and the fact that Aldridge is currently shooting 51% from 16-23 feet leads me to believe that he could wind up being a breakout “surprise” this summer. Seriously, how many 6’11” guys can stand out near the three point line and stick jumpers all day? But hey, let’s be good sports about it and wish the fat Greek center good luck for when he has to step out and guard Aldridge!
(Note: My head nearly exploded when I thought about the potential ‘small-ball’ lineups the USA could run with Aldridge at the 5. Yes, please!)
PF Chris Bosh – Miami Heat
While it’s a bit embarrassing that Team USA has to constantly bring Jar-Jar Binks with them to these big international tournaments, there’s no getting around Bosh’s value in this type of game. For evidence, please see the fact that Bosh averaged 9.1 PPG and 6.1 RPG during the 2008 Olympics…in just 17.3 MPG! Oh yeah, and he also shot 77%!!! Those who watched those games, like me, can attest to how perfect Bosh is for the international game. His freakish length and athleticism simply overwhelmed the competition, and he was easily the best big man on Team USA’s roster – even better than Dwight Howard! He’ll once again be counted on for big minutes at both the 4 and the 5.
PF Paul Millsap – Utah Jazz
I’m pretty sure nobody saw this one coming! Look, there’s no way Millsap will make the final roster, but he’s at least worth considering. After all, he very closely resembles a lot of the international big men Team USA will have to contend with. He’s slightly undersized at just 6’7”, is an absolute bull in the low post, has an array of crafty and highly effective post moves, and is a terror when stepping away from the bakset (currently shooting 53% from 16-23 feet). Watch enough international basketball, and you’ll quickly see that nearly every team features one or more of those types of players.
What gets me so excited about having Millsap on the team is the value he adds without needing the ball. He’s always been an extremely low usage rate guy. Still, he’s clearly made his mark in the league thanks to his high efficiency scoring, his rebounding, and his defensive prowess. Also, as with Jason Terry, Millsap is a guy who is used to filling the sixth man role, as last year was his first season as a starter. Again, he’s not gonna make it over Bosh, Love, or Aldridge, but he’s definitely worth a look.
C Dwight Howard – Orlando Magic
Howard had his struggles in the 2008 games, but he’s a much more polished product at this point in his career. Though he’ll likely struggle with fouls again – international play only allows 5 fouls – he should be much more capable of exploiting his physical advantages in the low post and on the boards. As long as he stays active against zone defenses, Howard should find himself on the business end of more than a few easy buckets. Since he’ll be matching up against international “superstars” like Boris Diaw and ‘Fat Greek Center,’ I’m going to assume that Howard will probably fare pretty well.
C Greg Monroe – Detroit Pistons
Monroe is far from a finished product at this stage of his career, but his skill set is an exact match for what I’m looking for. Though he isn’t going to physically overwhelm the competition like Howard will, Monroe provides a versatility that nicely contrasts what Howard brings to the table. In short, Monroe can really pass the basketball. He has one of the highest assists rates for starting centers, and it would be even higher if he wasn’t playing with Ben Gordon’s corpse and Charlie ‘cancer patient’ Villanueva. Sticking Monroe on the high post would be an excellent strategy, as it would open up huge driving/cutting lanes for both he and our athletic wings to exploit.
C JaVale McGee – Washington Wizards
I’m not sure if this guy has any clue how to play basketball yet, but I’m not going to concern myself with those kinds of minute details. McGee is perhaps the most athletic center in the game, rivaling even Dwight Howard, and has finally figured out how to harness that athleticism to a certain extent. He currently ranks second in the league in blocks at nearly 3 per game, while also being one of only nine players to average a double-double. This size/athleticism advantage would only be enhanced against international big men, and his ability to finish on the break gives him more than enough offensive value to justify making him a finalist. Look, the value of defending the basket cannot be understated. If Dwight finds himself in foul trouble, and he probably will, I need to have another guy I can count on to get that job done. Even if he never scores a point, McGee adds something extremely valuable to the team.