4 Players Who Must Step Up for Team USA at 2014 FIBA World Cup
The refrain heard so often at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil will be more accurate if it's chanted during the 2014 FIBA World Cup, even if this is a different Team USA we're believing in.
"I believe that we will win."
While the soccer squad advanced past the Group of Death—which included eventual champions Germany—and played Belgium tough in a knockout-stage loss, basketball's version of Team USA is bound to experience even more success. This time, the belief that victory is the end result is one more grounded in fact, realistic expectations and prior success.
That said, the American squad isn't going to enjoy a cakewalk en route to a gold medal; it will actually have to be earned by a roster that's devoid of so many names that populated the roster during the 2012 Olympics. LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and other All-Stars will be sitting out this time around.
Nonetheless, the stars will be out in full force both during the camps in Las Vegas, Chicago and New York and during the tournament itself, when games will be played in the Canary Islands, Bilbao and Barcelona.
Team USA may be the prohibitive favorites to win the FIBA World Cup, but it isn't a shoo-in. For that status to be achieved, a quartet of players must step up throughout the festivities.
International basketball can be tough on big men who star in the NBA.
Not only do they have to adjust to new rules, accounting for the goaltending changes as well as the widened lane, but they typically have to figure out how to guard more versatile players. Physical centers like DeMarcus Cousins aren't as easy to find, but Boogie will have his hands full with plenty of stretch bigs, ones who can step outside the lane and knock down open jumpers.
But that's not what makes him so important to the cause.
Cousins' attitude is vital because we've seen him lose his temper far too many times while playing with the Sacramento Kings. If he gets aggravated by missed calls, frustratingly technical excellence from the opposition or something else entirely, he can explode. And if he explodes, he leaves Team USA in a bad spot.
After all, this Sac-Town big man may well be the only true center on the entire roster. Just he and Andre Drummond qualify as such among those who are competing for the final 12 roster spots, and he's likely the only one who will get the nod. Drummond's free-throw shooting and inability to provide floor spacing would both be massive hindrances on the American roster.
If Cousins is out for any reason—or not playing up to snuff—Team USA will inevitably have to go even smaller than it would like. Since it's already an undersized squad, that can't happen.
Anthony Davis is no longer the teenager tagging along for the ride.
During Team USA's run through the 2012 Olympics, "The Brow" was playing international ball before suiting up in a single NBA game, and anything he brought to the table was just gravy. The roster was already ridiculously strong, and his athleticism gave it a new dimension, though it wasn't exactly needed to crush most opponents.
Now, that's no longer the case.
"I think without that experience of being around all those elite talent guys, I wouldn't have never known as much as I know now or developed as quickly as I have," the combo big man told Jimmy Smith of NOLA.com about his time with Team USA. "They taught me so much about the game.
Davis is now a seasoned player even if he has only two years of professional experience under his belt. Although he's just 21 years old, he's already developed into one of the 10 best players in the NBA (and the world). During this go-round, the New Orleans Pelicans standout is going to be one of the team's leaders, as he's one of the few with Olympic experience under his belt.
This is his chance to shine, as he'll be a key player whenever the team goes small with him at center or allows him to take the court at his more natural power forward position. Either way, he'll get to show off his burgeoning mid-range game while terrorizing opponents with his defensive abilities.
As the stretchiest of the true bigs on the Team USA roster, Davis is just about as key as it gets.
This is Kevin Durant's team.
LeBron James is not on this Team USA roster. Neither are Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and all the other faces you've come to expect whenever the Americans suit up for international competition. In fact, of the select group competing for the 12 roster spots, only Durant, Davis and James Harden have Olympic experience.
The Oklahoma City Thunder standout—and reigning NBA MVP—is the player on the Team USA squad. As talented as it will end up being from top to bottom, he's still the fulcrum, especially during the seemingly inevitable matchup against Spain.
As Sam Amick wrote for USA Today, the roster is getting weaker as the summer progresses:
Team USA is getting more vulnerable by the day.
With the Saturday announcement that Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love won't take part in the FIBA Basketball World Cup tournament in Spain, the task of securing an automatic bid for the 2016 Olympics and defending its gold medal gets a whole lot harder yet again, as LaMarcus Aldridge (Portland Trailblazers), Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs), Blake Griffin (Los Angeles Clippers) also bowed out recently and left Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo lamenting the unwelcome challenge of reworking his shrinking roster.
What do the subtractions of LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love have to do with Durant? Well, each established star who drops out of contention for the spots just puts more pressure on Durant as the field catches up with Team USA slowly but surely.
"Even if a depleted USA roster lacking in A-list big men must win on Spanish soil, in front of what will surely be hostile crowds, any result besides gold would be a disappointment," posits Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver.
Disappointment usually rests on the shoulders of the team's leader.
With Love, Griffin and Aldridge—the NBA's best power forwards—dropping out of the running for the 12 roster spots, the pressure is resting squarely on Kenneth Faried.
Even if Team USA largely uses unconventional lineups—playing Durant at the 4 and Davis at the 5, for example—it's nice to have at least one player who can naturally line up at each position. Faried and Paul Millsap are the only natural 4s who will be attending camp, and it's the former who possesses a distinct advantage due to his rebounding.
Millsap's floor-spacing abilities and knack for handling the ball are nice, but Team USA doesn't exactly need more offense. The rebounding is what's necessary, especially given the undersized nature of the squad.
That said, should Millsap win the job, he'll be one of the four players who must step up during the World Cup.
Continuing with the Faried assumption, though, his rebounding is of paramount importance whenever he's on the court. He has to make that immediate transition to the FIBA style, as he'll be one of the few paint-bound presences on the roster, giving him untempered access to shots that stagnate on the rim.
If Faried exceeds expectations and thrives on the glass, earning more playing time than a player of his caliber should while surrounded by the type of stars filling up the other roster spots, it'll be awfully difficult to find a glaring weakness for the Americans.