Team USA : Who steps up?

2010 : A Turkish Odyssey. Less than a year from now, the FIBA World Championship of Basketball will tip off in Turkey — with Team USA looking to continue their dominance that they displayed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics where they ultimately knocked off closest rival, Spain in the Gold Medal game.

The Beijing team represented the best collection of players that Team USA has been able to put together for a long time, with the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade headlining an athletic outfit. Come 2010, the question arises as to how many of those players will be retained by the program and how many new faces will we see?

The common perception is that Jason Kidd and Michael Redd are the two players that will need replacing, however the equation may not be that simple. Looking at the 2008 Olympics team on a player-by-player basis, we have:

Players that have verbally committed to USA Basketball MD Jerry Colangelo:

Dwyane Wade*
LeBron James*
Dwight Howard^
Carmelo Anthony^
Deron Williams^
Chris Bosh
Kobe Bryant
Chris Paul
* as per this article Wade and James have publicly wavered on this commitment, whilst ^ Howard, Anthony and Williams have reaffirmed their commitment to the team for 2010

Players that Colangelo has noted as having competition for their positions:

Tayshaun Prince
Michael Redd
Carlos Boozer

Players that will likely be enjoying the tourney from the comfort of home:

Jason Kidd

Although JKidd definitely still has it in him, he has stated his desire to move on previously and this will likely be the best scenario given his advancing age — regardless of LeBron’s (half-coy?) claim that he would not play unless Kidd did. Plus, keeping his 56-game undefeated streak intact would be a nice way to end it.

This leaves the team with as many as four positions up for grabs, assuming that the aforementioned uncontested eight will turn up for duty. Who are the key candidates on the radar to take up those positions?

Brandon Roy: The Blazers shooting guard has proven himself as one of the elite forces in the NBA and has a choir boy, school prefect reputation to boot. In short, he is the perfect candidate to become a Team USA mainstay for the next decade. Colangelo & Co have made it known that they are interested in B-Roy, through invitations to USA Select squads and the like. The question is, does Roy want to make the commitment?

According to the man himself, his number one priority right now lies with a Blazers team that is on the rise and needs a healthy leader to succeed. Already in his young career, Roy has seen enough signs to indicate that wear and tear could be an issue for him down the track, as he places a lot of strain on his body as it carries the weight of expectations of a franchise on his shoulders. He states that (see video on the link) he has had to cut back the amount of basketball a year he plays and this may hold back his decision to commit to as big an undertaking as Team USA.

The fact remains that Roy would be a great addition to the team, BUT it must be remembered that he would be entering a position where the team is at its most stacked. Wade and Bryant, two of the team’s most talented stars, dominate the shooting guard roles. Does this make Roy’s decision even harder? Why commit to a team that he may not even play a significant role on? Add the likes of Melo and LeBron at small forward and a sometimes-small-ball backcourt of Deron and CP3 and it would have to make Roy wonder about how many minutes he would be afforded in Turkey and London 2012.

Kevin Durant: Everyone’s darling for a Team USA berth has expressed his keen desire to join the squad and has paid his dues in attending Team USA Select mini-camps and scrimmages. KD is as promising as young stars in the NBA come and it would be nothing short of a fait accompli to assume that he will be a big part of the National program in the future.

As scorers go, Durant is super-slick. He may have his short-comings as a young player (see this fine analysis by Henry Abbott of Truehoop), but these will no doubt be addressed as he matures. Arguably one thing that the team needs is role players (that which KD is not), with a glut of stars already on hand, however Durant is one player that you do not exclude at the expense of bringing in the Shane Battiers and Tayshaun Princes of this world.

Al Jefferson: The 2008 big man department in the red-white-and-blue was the area that most pundits nominate as that in need of attention. Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh have cemented themselves as the anchors in the paint for a team that has hasn’t minded (or perhaps has been forced into) playing Melo and LeBron at power forward in international play. Outside these guys, it gets thin. Boozer has not proven a popular option, despite being only the third legitimate power player on the squad (whilst also having his own contract issues in 2010) and the American big man ranks in general are quite lacking. Enter Al Jefferson.

Jefferson is one of the most polished bigs in the NBA — he dominates the paint and can score and rebound at will. What is more, the 24-year old is a keen participant — a characteristic often lacking in potential Team USA members. “I would love to play for USA Basketball,” Jefferson said recently in an interview with FanHouse. “I would love to play. Two summers ago (2007), I was in (Las) Vegas helping the team practice and they go off and wind up winning the (Olympic) gold medal the following year (in Beijing).

“So I already have been part of it. Then I got hurt last year, and I couldn’t do much. But I would love to play with my country if they invite me.” To me that sounds like an almost automatic entry to the World Championships.

The others in brief:

Greg Oden: a true big man who can block shots and snare boards and who will be happy to play a role. Health record and inexperience may interfere with his dream.

David Lee: what he lacks in pure talent, he makes up in heart and hustle. He can rebound with the best of them and would be the perfect role player should other big man options dry up.

LaMarcus Aldridge: contract issues have held him back of late. Has all of the potential to be a perennial all-star in the NBA and just needs to put it all together this season to prove his mettle. Could come into play should injuries pop up in the squad.

Blake Griffin: he is young, but calling him raw is far from fair. The 2009 numero uno draft pick has all of the tools to be a Team USA member down the track — his selection would herald a view toward building the future of the program.

Derrick Rose: this guy is the complete package with all of the tremendous upside potential that you could ask for. His big problem will be finding a spot on a roster that already has two fine young point guards in Deron and Paul.

Russell Westbrook: as with Rose, this young floor general has it all ahead of him and looks likely to have a huge soph season with the Thunder. Depth on the squad could also be his downfall.

OJ Mayo: he entered the NBA as a polished scorer with the confidence, the body and the name to succeed. Should the likes of Wade, Roy etc say no, he could see his services called upon.

Joe Johnson: a legitimate star in the NBA who is often forgotten, he can lead a squad and score with the best of them. Many Hawks fans would ask why he was not on the squad already ahead of Redd (answer: he’s not the same pure shooter that Redd is).

Kevin Love: throws a mean outlet pass, has served his dues at mini-camps and rebounds as good as any guy his age. Has to be considered in the mix for a long-term role as a Team USA benchie.

Rajon Rondo: if anyone needed confirmation that the Celtics’ floor general is a serious player, take a look at last season’s playoffs. If Roy (with his ability to slide into the third point guard role) says no, Rondo will likely have a fight with Rose and Westbrook for a spot.

Amar’e Stoudemire: injuries, attitude… these two factors have made the self-designated Sun Tzu a dicey option in the past, but he has the raw (now polished?) talent that few can claim to have. Wipe the rehab concerns out of the way and he should be on this squad.

Kevin Martin: everyone always forgets about this guy. He is a flat-out scorer. He doesn’t cause trouble. He deserves a look if only for the bench shooter role, replacing Redd.

Andre Iguodala: Iggy’s only downfall may be that he is too similar to the star small forwards already on the squad, albeit a slightly downgraded version. He’s been involved with the program and would be in the mix to challenge Prince and this next guy (see below) for a bench small forward role).

Danny Granger: the Platypus is a jack of all trades — and that is the type of ability that comes in handy in international tournaments when unexpected injuries and various matchup problems can play havoc with a squad’s chances. His rise and rise in the past two years and versatility has to make him a key man on Colangelo’s radar.

Devin Harris: as long as he stays off the streetball courts of the UK, this combo-guard has proven himself to be a rising force as a scorer and floor leader. He will probably be left out of the mix in the short term, but by 2012 he may well be coming into consideration for a triumphant return to London (and perhaps even the blacktop there).

Where does this leave us?

There is a whole bevy of variables that could arise here, predominately centred around the decisions to play by existing members of the squad. For whatever reason, the World Championships have long been ignored in the USA as a tournament inferior to the Olympics (and the NBA Championship), whilst the rest of the world regards this as the pinnacle of the sport. So the number of no-shows will have an impact here. However, assuming that everyone makes themselves available, my predictions are as follows:

  • Brandon Roy will be offered a position as the third option at point guard, whilst also being able to play minutes at his natural two position. His talent alone dictates that he should be offered a position — whether he makes his battered body available is the only concern. He would replace Kidd.
  • Kevin Durant is all but a certainty to make the squad, given his endless scoring ability. He replaces Redd.
  • Al Jefferson makes the most sense to add to the big man ranks — replacing Boozer.
  • Tayshaun Prince, due to his previous commitment to the squad, experience at the highest level and ridiculous defensive versatility, should retain his role as one of the few non-“me-first” players on the team.