Stars Who Must Step Up for Team USA at 2014 FIBA World Cup
If you're expecting Team USA to sleepwalk its way to a gold medal at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain, don't.
That would be a mistake.
Though the Americans should still be considered favorites for top honors, the competition is going to play the Olympic champions significantly closer now that the roster has a distinctly depleted flavor. Not only have notable players declined invites and withdrawn from early consideration, but Paul George's brutal injury has been followed by another withdrawal, this time from Kevin Durant.
Team USA lost its leader and best player, a man who just happened to be coming off a season in which he was named the NBA's MVP. Now, Mike Krzyzewski and the rest of the coaching staff is down to just two players with Olympic experience, left scrambling to find a way to live up to the expectations of dominance.
Fortunately, the American roster—even in its incomplete form—is replete with star power. To use a cliche phrase, there are plenty of prominent players who can step up, though they won't necessarily do so by filling the massive void let behind by KD.
It's time for Anthony Davis to become a leader.
He entered camp as one of Team USA's most experienced players, given his pre-rookie-season adventure during the 2012 London Olympics. It's strange to think about, as the New Orleans Pelicans standout is just 21 years old and only has two NBA campaigns under his belt, but this ability to serve as a leader was something that USA basketball's official website highlighted early on:
Fast forward two years and Davis is now one of the veterans at training camp for the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain next month. As the team continues practices on UNLV’s campus, Davis joins Kevin Durant and James Harden as the only players on the roster with an Olympic gold. In a very short time Davis has gone from a player just enjoying the ride to one of the organization's leaders.
'When I talk to guys about different situations they definitely listen,' Davis said.
Durant is gone and serving as the impetus for this entire article, which puts the onus on Davis more so than ever before.
Not only is he arguably the best remaining player on the roster (Stephen Curry is the one who has a convincing argument against that claim), but he's an experienced veteran whose work ethic should and will rub off on his teammates.
Unlike the other players featured throughout this piece, Davis doesn't have to take the proverbial step up on the court. It's already a safe assumption that he'll thrive while playing international ball, as the stretchiness of the bigs plays right into his hand. It's off the court and in the locker room that he must thrive more than ever before.
With Durant and George on the roster, it was easy to assume the Americans would waltz into a gold-medal game with the Spanish national team. No longer will the path be that easy, though, making excellent chemistry something of paramount importance.
Team USA is absolutely loaded at point guard. The wing positions aren't filled with as many superstars, but there are plenty of quality players capable of lining up at shooting guard and/or small forward. At the biggest position on the court, Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee are all competing for spots on Mike Krzyzewski's squad.
But power forward? That's the weakness.
With Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge declining invitations, the position was already going to be weak, and it figured to feature two players shifting over to the 4 on a regular basis. "The Brow" was one, but Durant was the other.
Now, the latter isn't an option, and Team USA may be regretting its decision to cut Paul Millsap, who could've served as a makeshift stretch 4. Kenneth Faried is now literally the only true power forward on the roster, and given the generous rotations usually used by the Americans in international competition, he's inevitably going to spend some time on the court.
Stars don't play 35 minutes during international competitions. They suit up for 20 or so while every man—or nearly every man—receives significant playing time. So not only is Faried now virtually guaranteed a roster spot, but he's going to get run in Spain.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Manimal spent 87 percent of his time on the court during the 2013-14 season at the 4. 82games.com shows that he played 77 percent of the Denver Nuggets' available minutes at power forward, and he was much better there than against centers.
Faried is simply a true power forward, which makes him inherently valuable to this depleted squad.
A late addition to the Team USA roster competition, Rudy Gay now has some pretty big shoes to fill. I suppose you can take that literally and figuratively, as he's basically attempting to fill the void left by Kevin Durant.
Gay developed a rather poor reputation over the past few seasons, particularly during his time with the Toronto Raptors, but he played excellent basketball after a midseason trade. Once he joined the Sacramento Kings, he averaged 20.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, shooting 48.2 percent from the field after making a conscious decision to avoid firing away with reckless abandon from beyond the three-point arc.
Basketball-Reference.com even shows that Gay earned a player efficiency rating of 19.6 during his time with the Kings, which obviously isn't too shabby.
The forward is by no means a lock to make the roster, especially after entering the proceedings so late, but he's certainly in the competition. And it would greatly behoove the Americans if he were able to play well enough to be one of the 12 sent to Spain, as he offers something no other forwards remaining can.
"He's not going to replace George and Kevin Durant," explains Kurt Helin for NBC Sports, "But he's a guy who could fill a real need on this roster."
That need? Scoring and shot creation from the forward spots.
Kyle Korver is a shooting specialist, not a player who can create looks for himself off the bounce. Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons are vaunted more for their versatility than their abilities to function as go-to scorers. And while DeMar DeRozan qualifies as such, he's just a single player.
Only 34.1 percent of Gay's makes in 2013-14 came off assists, per Basketball-Reference.com. There's plenty of value in that, especially with DeRozan (50.5 percent), Klay Thompson (75.1), Parsons (64.4), Hayward (50) and Korver (94.5) paling in comparison.
For posterity's sake, even Durant needed assists on 47.2 percent of his makes from the field, and George checked in at 49.3 percent.
Let's keep talking about these wing players.
Faried is the only true power forward, but Rudy Gay is big enough to slide over to the 4 when a need arises, assuming he makes the roster in the first place. Davis can move down to power forward in a bigger lineup, though his stretchiness at the 5 is awfully appealing.
Can anyone else capably play power forward?
Below, you can see every wing player's minute percentages at each forward spot in the lineup during the 2013-14 season, per Basketball-Reference.com. When the percentages don't add up to 100, that's because time was also spent at shooting guard:
We can immediately rule out DeRozan (more of a small forward than anything else, but more swingman than combo forward), Korver (a pure swingman), Hayward (a natural small forward) and Thompson (a true 2).
That leaves only Gay and Parsons.
The former Houston Rocket and current Dallas Maverick has the most size of any player listed above, checking in at a convincing 6'9". Plus, he's the best candidate to fill Durant's role—playing stretch 4 in an undersized lineup—as he's a solid three-point shooter.
During his final season with the Rockets, Parsons made 37 percent of his looks from downtown, which came 4.7 times per game. His season was highlighted by an incredible 10-of-14 performance from deep against the Memphis Grizzlies, as well as a perfect 6-of-6 spell against the Brooklyn Nets.
Parsons' versatility is what makes him special, and it's also what gives him the ability to take on a much bigger role in the post-Durant era of Team USA basketball at the 2014 World Cup.
All the Point Guards
Point guard has always been the strength of the Team USA roster, but that's now more important without Durant there to spark the offense.
With the NBA's reigning MVP on the squad, functioning as the leading scorer and an undeniable offensive hub, the wealth of floor generals was more of a luxury than anything else. Now, it's a necessity, as most of the scorers at other positions need to be set up for their shots.
Relying on Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan to create offense possession after possession is a recipe for disaster. The burden rests in the hands—and distribution skills—of the point guards who call the United States home.
Fortunately, that's a rather stacked bunch.
Before Durant went down, it seemed highly likely that Coach K would end up cutting either Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving or Derrick Rose, just as he let go of John Wall earlier in the proceedings. Given Irving's Duke ties and the redundancy of Lillard's game next to Rose's, it was the Portland Trail Blazers star who seemed like the most likely player to get the axe, but now it's a distinct possibility that all four 1-guards could be retained throughout the World Cup.
After all, this position is incredibly valuable, and keeping everyone as fresh and effective as possible is vital to Team USA's golden hopes and dreams.
There's no one point guard who has to step up.
Rose must play like he deserves the compliments he's been racking up throughout camp, slashing and dicing defenses to pieces while playing with ridiculous levels of hustle on defense. Curry must shoot the lights out of every gym he enters, while Irving breaks down defenders and Lillard finds numerous ways to put up points.
Everyone must do his part.