If constructing a championship NBA team is like building a skyscraper – a complex operation requiring meticulous planning, precise timing, the coordination of many moving parts and the ability to improvise when those meticulous plans go awry – then putting together a USA Basketball team is like assembling a shed in the back yard.
You’ve got some surplus lumber, you know what you’re doing, there’s no plumbing, no insulation. Yes, it requires know-how and a certain amount of foresight, but it’s a project, not a nearly impossible campaign.
Consider: The Indiana Pacers are in deep trouble this season following the loss of Paul George to a gruesome compound fracture suffered during a USA Basketball scrimmage in Las Vegas. George’s injury – plus Lance Stephenson’s departure to Charlotte – means an already offensively anemic Pacers team will likely fall out of the top tier of the Eastern Conference, definitely into the bottom half of playoff seeding and possibly out of it altogether.
Or, if Kevin Durant withdrew from the upcoming NBA season, the Thunder would struggle mightily, although they’d be better off than the Pacers since they still have Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. Nevertheless, it would require a lot of adaptation for Oklahoma City.
How would losing not one, but both of those players effect a national team already re-tooling without the likes of aging superstars like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul? That’s what we were going to find out in Chicago.
Missing DeMarcus Cousins with a right knee injury in their exhibition game against Brazil at the United Center last Saturday, head coach Mike Krzyzewski started Kenneth Faried at power forward and Anthony Davis at center, both undersized. With Marcelo Huertas – who’s a pure point guard in the same way grain alcohol is pure alcohol – and rolling bigs like Tiago Splitter, Nene and Anderson Varejao at their disposal, Brazil immediately (and wisely) put Faried into the pick-and-roll again and again, and he was typically disastrous. He consistently left his man, which in turn left Davis – a player still possessing more length than breadth – to pick his poison, either leaving his man or staying home and allowing Faried’s man an unimpeded path to the basket. Several times, Brazil’s pinpoint passing picked-apart the USA defense and found open shooters at the 3-point line or unguarded big men under the net.
And yet, the United States won by almost 20 points, 95-78.
Even with Andre Drummond available, Krzyzewski only played Davis and Mason Plumlee at center. When Faried fared poorly on defense early, he swapped in the less-than-defensively-stalwart Rudy Gay. And in the end, despite defensive lapses, Faried notched a game-high nine rebounds and earned a +27 – best on Team USA. Sure, the game was tighter than the final score indicated and Brazil appeared to concede in the fourth, but nevertheless, this U.S. team – warts and all – made short work of them.
After the game, Krzyzewski called Brazil one of the best teams in the world and it’s true. Boasting a deep stable of NBA vets down low and the veteran chops of Huertas and Leandro Barbosa in the backcourt, they’re experienced and have played together a long time on the international stage. But beating Brazil in an exhibition doesn’t mean the World Cup in Spain is going to be a walk for USA Basketball. It just points to how putting the team together is such a wonky process.
Most international teams feature lineups that have put in years together, but Team USA remakes itself a little bit every time out. In a lot of ways, other country’s teams are more like NBA teams; built from the ground up, toward specific identities and around specific players.
Huertas, for example, didn’t play particularly well for Brazil, scoring 6 points to go with 5 assists and 5 turnovers, but he was nevertheless at the center of the offense – it seemed like he must have racked up at least as many secondary assists as regular ones. As NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner pointed out, there’s a reason Huertas has an $8 million buyout from FC Barcelona, and Brazil is constructed to take advantage of his deft touch.
Under Krzyzewski, the U.S. team is a much weirder amalgamation of college and pro construction. On the one hand, Coach K seems to lean heavily toward assessment based on character, favoring a straightforward hard-worker like Plumlee over the more volatile Cousins, or a stay-in-your-lane specialist like Kyle Korver over the more diverse (but less-focused) Chandler Parsons. But what makes such kinds of judgment calls possible is that all the players involved are so talented it almost becomes a wash.
Which offensively gifted combo guard do you want leading the team: Rose, Irving, Steph Curry or Damian Lillard? Which terrifyingly talented big man should carry the load in the paint: Davis, Cousins or Drummond? You’ll need some good 3-point shooting to help open things up, so if you only had Korver, Klay Thompson, James Harden and Parsons, who would you pick? It’s a murderers’ row.
Team USA is going to face some challenges. Their defense in the paint can be suspect, but when they fomented chaos in the second quarter, their athleticism and busy hands forced turnover after turnover. The withdrawals of Durant and Kevin Love leave them without big men who can stretch the floor, although Davis’ midrange touch helps a bit. But those things and other things can be shortcomings of this team and they could still walk away world champions in a couple weeks.
Comedian Tommy Johnagin has a bit where he points out that it’s shockingly easy to accidentally have a kid, but if you want a shed, you have to really want to build a shed. “No one’s ever called you after a long weekend,” he says, “and been like, ‘I think I built a shed last night.'”
No one until USA Basketball.
Rose is Risen
As Seth Partnow points out here for Hoop365, one of the major signs that USA Basketball approaches roster construction a little differently from other national teams is that Derrick Rose’s return to high-level basketball is a major sideshow of the World Cup preparations, and nowhere was it bigger than in Chicago.
As they announced the United States’ lineup, Rose was accidentally out of place as the camera panned down the line. He quickly scooted back a few spots, and then farther down the line until he was the last player introduced. The roar in the United Center as soon as he was shown was nothing short of tremendous.
And then each time he touched the ball the roar built again. Some fans tried to get an “MVP” chant going, although the oddness of it meant it never really took. When he got the ball on a breakaway in the second quarter with nothing in front of him, Rose seemed almost too excited as he nearly elevated through the hoop and blew the dunk. When he at last unleashed a left-to-right crossover on Raul Neto in the third quarter and glided effortlessly to the hoop, the entire arena nearly swooned and collapsed in on itself.
So is Rose’s rehabilitation at odds with the larger goal of victory in Spain, as Partnow contends? It’s possible, but in person, it was hard to deny that the swell of emotion accompanying his return to the court – especially in his native Chicago – was a very real thing.