What's in a lineup?
For Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski, there are almost too many good answers to that question. That would seem to be the natural order of things for a man whose roster consists of 11 NBA All-Stars and another (Anthony Davis) who seems destined for greatness after being the first player taken in the June draft.
Figuring out which five-man combination is best, though, depends as much on the players involved as it does on Coach K's on-court aims.
Any attempt to determine the top quintet must begin with LeBron James and Kevin Durant. They're the two best players on the planet right now and, surprisingly enough, seem to mesh remarkably well on the court, even though they play the same position in the NBA (small forward) and clashed in the most recent Finals. Durant's dead-eye shooting and athleticism in transition have made him a pitch-perfect target for LeBron's clairvoyant passes.
None better than this gem from Sunday's 98-71 win over France:
Granted, any lineup that features LeBron in the jack-of-all-trades role he filled against Les Bleus will be among the best in international basketball. He's been magnificent in the point-forward role so far, using his size and vision, be it in the post or on the perimeter, to deliver the ball to his teammates in spots they're most likely to succeed.
Most remarkable, though, is the fact that he hasn't needed to dominate the ball to do so and, perhaps, has been better off leaving the ball-handling to someone else.
That best someone? Chris Paul, whose statistical output on Sunday (five points, one rebound, two assists and two steals) belied the impact he had in the grand scheme of things for Team USA. As the best point guard on the planet, Paul is fully capable of running an entire offense himself, but, with USA Basketball, is best suited to initiating the offense and making himself available as a perimeter shooter (at least in the half-court).
Deron Williams is entirely capable of fulfilling those duties as well, but can't quite measure up to Paul defensively. CP3's quick hands and impeccable timing make him an ideal candidate to force turnovers that can, in turn, fuel Team USA's breathtaking fast break for easy baskets.
The give-and-take between defense and offense is even more prominent when deciding with whom to fill the front court. Tyson Chandler has earned the nod from Coach K so far, thanks to his length, defensive prowess and (in part) Kevin Love's largely lackluster performance to this point.
Love, though, appeared to turn a corner against France, scoring 14 points in 14 minutes. His rebounding (three on Sunday) remains well behind the pace to which Minnesota Timberwolves fans have become accustomed, though there's no denying that the ability to do so is still there.
Neither is there any argument against the notion that Love is a far superior offensive player to Chandler, and that the former should, in theory, be a perfect fit for the international game. He's equally adept from three as he is operating with his back to the basket in the paint.
It'd be possible, then, to put Love and Chandler on the floor at the same time, if Coach K were so inclined. Chandler would serve as a prime pick-and-roll partner and offensive rebounder (along with his Defensive-Player-of-the-Year presence on the other end), while Love could shuttle between the high post and the shorter three-point line when he's not busy cleaning up the boards defensively.
Chances are, Coach K won't have his two best bigs on the floor at the same time for long, if ever; especially not with the way they've been prone to picking up fouls in the post.
In that case, Love, not Chandler, might actually be the best choice to partner with LeBron, Durant and CP3. As Elena Bergeron of ESPN The Magazine noted recently, Chandler's talents as an offensive rebounder might actually go to waste with the current starting five, since James, Durant and Paul are so accurate from the perimeter.
And, as such, there are fewer misses for Chandler to clean up.
Love is no slouch on the offensive boards, but does his best work on the defensive glass, from which point he can put his skills as an outlet passer to use most effectively. His proficiency on the block also allows Team USA to do something other than float five players around the perimeter in the half court.
So, if Love and Chandler don't play together, who gets the final spot? Is it Carmelo Anthony, whose game is so well-adapted to FIBA rules, if only because he's been playing for USA Basketball since 2004? Is it Russell Westbrook, whose mind-boggling speed and athleticism make him a threat to light a fire under Team USA at any given moment?
What about D-Will, who probably shouldn't start over Chris Paul but can certainly play alongside him?
Any one of those three would be worthy, though the tip ultimately belongs to Kobe Bryant.
Not the Los Angeles Lakers version of Kobe, who needs the ball in his hands to be effective, but rather Team USA Kobe—the elder statesman who defers to his talented teammates that hits timely baskets when needed and provides a dose of veteran leadership on a squad of twenty-somethings.
The Black Mamba was more like a chameleon in Team USA's opener, scoring 10 points—including a three-pointer early in the second quarter as part of a crucial 11-0 run—and playing sticky defense on France's guards.
In essence, Team USA's best lineup isn't all that different from the one Coach K currently employs as his starting five. The only real difference lies up front, where Coach K might consider either starting Love in Chandler's place or putting Love alongside Chandler, with Durant moving to shooting guard and LeBron playing small forward.
That is, if Love's effort in London ever jibes with Coach K's expectations.
In any case, Team USA is still and will remain the favorite to bring home the gold from the 2012 Summer Games, whether or not Krzyzewski continues to tinker with a rotation of the world's best ballers.
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