Though Team USA should still be favored to win at the FIBA World Cup this summer, it isn't exactly a complete lock to take home a gold medal. Between Spain, Argentina, France and all the other basketball-loving nations set to compete throughout the Canary Islands, Bilbao and Barcelona, Spain, the level of competition should be quite high.
So, why aren't the Americans prohibitive favorites? After all, that's the nationality of the vast majority of NBA superstars, and those are the best players in the world.
They're close to earning that status, but the failure to reach it is largely because so many of the studs who usually throw on the red-white-and-blue uniform for Olympic competition are going to be sitting out.
LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and quite a few others will be spectators, having declined to participate in the competition. In fact, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and James Harden are the only players invited to camp who have Olympic experience.
That's the cause for concern, and it's still only a minor one. Even though the depletion of the frontcourt has been generating worried headlines in recent days, that's not a reason for Team USA to panic.
There's always going to be a shortage of international bigs until the center position grows stronger in the NBA. Without Dwight Howard showing interest in suiting up for Team USA, the position is automatically going to be a bit weaker, but it's about as good as it could be with DeMarcus Cousins and Davis leading the charge.
Power forward, though, isn't in the same boat.
After the 2013-14 season, a triumvirate of dominant 4s established themselves as the class of the position. Kevin Love had been there for a while, putting up ridiculous numbers even if he'd been unable to spur the Minnesota Timberwolves on to victory.
LaMarcus Aldridge's leadership, rebounding and offensive prowess sparked a run by the Portland Trail Blazers, leaving no doubt he was on the same level.
And Blake Griffin crashed the party, proving he was a dominant individual, not a dunker dependent on feeds from CP3 when the Los Angeles Clippers point guard missed an extended period with a shoulder injury.
None of them will be playing during the World Cup.
"I'm disappointed he's not going to be with us," said Jerry Colangelo, the Team USA managing director, after Griffin's announcement, as relayed by USA Today's Sam Amick. "It's unfortunate [because] it's been two competitions in a row [that Griffin has missed], but it sounds like a broken record because it happened recently with someone else."
It was later revealed by ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne that Griffin withdrew upon advisement of his doctors, as time off would allow a small fracture in his back to heal. That makes his decision quite a bit more understandable.
That someone else Colangelo referred to, though? That would probably be Aldridge, even if Colangelo didn't mention him by name. Previously, the managing director expressed that disappointment, this time via NBA.com's John Schuhmann:
Colangelo didn't expect the guys with multiple Olympic medals to play this summer. And he understands why [Kawhi] Leonard withdrew after a long NBA season. But it was clear on Monday that he was disappointed with another 'no thanks' from Aldridge.
'We can only offer an opportunity,' Colangelo said, 'and then they can either accept or not. In Aldridge's case, this has happened a couple of times previously. But the bottom line is he advised us that he’s not available.'
To top that off, Love recently withdrew.
Why? Not because of an injury or a lack of desire, but because he didn't want the constant trade rumors involving him, the Wolves, the Cleveland Cavaliers and what feels like virtually every team in the NBA to create a distraction during such an important stage of the World Cup process.
"Love's situation likely would have been a major topic surrounding the team, not just during training camp but heading into the World Cup in Spain next month because it may be weeks before a Love trade will be finalized," reported ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst right after the news broke that Love was dropping out.
So, Team USA is now without the three best natural power forwards in basketball. And yet, the roster is in fine shape.
Even without the trifecta of elite 4s in the running for the 12 spots on the Team USA roster, the Americans still have quite a few remaining frontcourt studs. Yes, the group of big men is quite depleted, but fortunately, depletion for the United States still leaves the country in a position that virtually every other nation involved would envy.
The Brow is an absolute lock for the roster, and he's coming off a season that left little doubt he was a top-10 player in the world. His game is perfectly suited for international play, as he has a solid mid-range jumper, might show off some three-point range and can dominate defensively in all areas of the half-court set.
But who makes it beyond Davis?
The only true power forwards competing for roster spots are Kenneth Faried and Paul Millsap. Chances are, one—and only one—will make the team, given the need for a natural 4 and the wealth of talent at the other positions.
If it's Faried, Team USA will rejoice in his rebounding abilities and athleticism on the interior. If it's Millsap, there will be even more offensive firepower, as the Atlanta Hawks All-Star can capably put the ball on the floor and knock down perimeter jumpers.
Two true centers are also competing—Cousins and Andre Drummond.
The 6'11", 270-pound Cousins may be a lock at this point, given the need for some size on the interior. He might not be a high-quality defender, but Boogie is an offensive powerhouse who would be a massive load for any opposing frontcourt, at least until the seemingly inevitable gold-medal clash with the Spaniards.
Drummond won't fare so well during tryouts, as his free-throw shooting is just too horrific.
"He will be cut. Count on it. If you cannot shoot free throws, you cannot play FIBA basketball," writes Chris Sheridan for SheridanHoops.com. "Drummond is one of the worst free-throw shooters in the NBA, having shot .371 and .418 in his first two NBA seasons after being at 29 percent when he was at UConn."
That leaves Team USA with three true bigs.
The 6'11" Davis can capably play either position without giving up any sort of size, Cousins is a true center and Faried (or Millsap) is a true power forward. Even without Love, Aldridge and Griffin on the roster, that still gives the Americans arguably the second-best frontcourt in the world.
It's hard to top Spain's three-man combination of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, especially during FIBA play, which emphasizes those stretch bigs, but Davis, Faried and Cousins aren't going to be too far behind.
Small Ball Rules the Day
Does Team USA really need the world's best frontcourt?
The strength of this team is never going to be one in the same vein as the NBA powerhouses of the 1990s, an era in which post play and fundamental excellence from the biggest players on the court reigned supreme. Instead, small ball and guard play rule the day.
Just think about the rest of the roster, even if it doesn't feature all the All-Stars who will be sitting out of the festivities.
At small forward, Durant, Chandler Parsons, Gordon Hayward, Paul George and Kyle Korver will be competing for spots. At shooting guard, there's Harden, Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan and Bradley Beal. And somehow, Team USA has to choose to cut some of the point guards—Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, John Wall and Derrick Rose.
My roster predictions? Let's leave the tangential explanations for another day, but here's how I see the 12-man squad playing out:
- Point guard: Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose, Damian Lillard
- Shooting guard: James Harden, Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan
- Small forward: Kevin Durant, Paul George, Chandler Parsons
- Power forward: Kenneth Faried
- Center: Anthony Davis (feel free to list him at the 4 if you so choose), DeMarcus Cousins
Outside of the frontcourt, the roster is stacked beyond belief.
Team USA can easily play Durant at power forward and Davis at center, leaving the team undersized but absolutely unstoppable. Then again, is a lineup with a 6'10" power forward and a 6'11" center—both of whom are insanely athletic and have long arms—really that undersized?
Chances are, this squad could roster only nondescript power forwards and centers in the frontcourt, ones who serve as backups on NBA teams, and still be the favorites to take home a gold medal; the small forwards and guards are just that good.
Just look at the best 1s, 2s and 3s on the other highly competitive nations' rosters.
Spain (No. 2 in the FIBA rankings) has Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon and Rudy Fernandez. Argentina (No. 3) has Carlos Delfino, Manu Ginobili (who might not be playing) and Pablo Prigioni. Lithuania (No. 4) doesn't have a single NBA player in the backcourt. France (No. 8) has Nicolas Batum, Nando De Colo, Tony Parker (who might not be playing) and Evan Fournier.
In fact, you could put together an All-World team, featuring players from every country except the United States, and the American point guards, shooting guards and small forwards would still be head and shoulders above the rest of the field.
Of the players listed above, would anyone but Ginobili, Batum and Parker—two of whom may be sitting out—even be invited to camp to try out for a spot on the 12-man roster?
That's ultimately why the depletion of the frontcourt shouldn't be a cause for even the slightest bit of concern.
While the absence of the All-Star power forward troika does set back Team USA a bit, the slack is more than picked up by the ridiculously stacked nature of the smaller positions, as well as the team's proclivity for playing small ball and raining in three-pointers from all positions.