Team USA's Real Advantage Is in the Power of Choice
Now that Team USA has completed its pre-Olympic exhibition tour, we can begin to put together the faintest assumptions of how Mike Krzyzewski's actual rotation might operate, and what elements of this team's play might prove most conducive to success.
That—in conjunction with the very natural worry about the Americans' lack of size relative to that of the imposing Spanish national team—has already fostered a pretty spirited discussion over which lineups mitigate the lack of conventional bigs and give Team USA the best chance to win.
That discussion has its place on a larger scale. The more important fact is that we're able to have such conversations at all. Team USA is accustomed to a certain level of basketball domination, but we shouldn't take the depth and flexibility of this team for granted.
Four of the top American big men (Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin) were ruled out for the Olympics due to injury, and yet this team is still positioned to take the gold on its own unique terms. Tyson Chandler and Kevin Love—the only true bigs on the roster—will undoubtedly be crucial in that effort, but it's the Americans incredible versatility and depth that makes them such a compelling favorites.
They may not be stacked with traditional centers, but LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony can each play the part of a convincing—and dangerous—big. That doesn't erase the need for players like Chandler and Love, but it successfully marries the available personnel with USA Basketball's contemporary philosophy.
Since the reinvention of the program prior to the 2006 FIBA World Championships, Team USA has relied on heavy ball pressure and pure speed. Both of those ideals are extended fully when the Americans choose to go completely "small" with James, Durant or Anthony as the nominal center, but also integral when relying on Chandler's athleticism or Love's outside shooting.
The early statistical results certainly suggest that Team USA performs better with at least one big on the floor, but that isn't the case in all specific matchups nor is it a strategy that Mike Krzyzewski is in anyway limited to. This particular outfit can be as conventional or avant garde as it needs to be, and has the size and speed to adjust and compensate in a variety of contexts.
That, more than anything, is what separates Team USA from every other national team in existence. Teams like Spain, Argentina, Lithuania and even Russia have NBA-caliber talent, but none of those teams have unique and high-level players in such droves.
Even if the top seven players in Krzyzewski's rotation get a lion's share of the minutes over the course of the Olympic run, the remaining five give him a luxury that few other coaches have. Love can help to manipulate opposing defense by stretching the floor and doesn't concede anything on the glass. Andre Iguodala can step in to lock down an opponent or facilitate offensive flow. Russell Westbrook is a change of pace incarnate. James Harden can shoot, handle and stabilize. Anthony Davis can alleviate foul trouble and offer Team USA's defense an unconventional talent posing in a conventional role.
Whether Team USA goes big or small against particular opponents is certainly important, but not nearly as much as the fact that such choices exist. The talents of James, Anthony and Durant—among others—open up all kinds of possibilities, and at the very least give Krzyzewski and his staff alternatives worth entertaining.
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