CHICAGO—For the first time in a decade, the USA men’s basketball team is searching for an identity.
The national team goes through changes with every international tournament, but the sheer number of generation-defining players sitting this year out is impossible to ignore. The last two Olympic gold-medal teams were headlined by LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant. They're all gone now, aged out of the grind of international play. Kevin Durant and Kevin Love starred on 2010's World Championship team; they both recently withdrew from the upcoming tournament.
Other than a handful of holdovers, it's mostly new blood now. Saturday’s exhibition game against Brazil at the United Center will mark an important step in the forming of that identity ahead of September’s FIBA World Cup tournament.
The current iteration of Team USA is starting to take shape, but the program is still very much in a period of transition. The veterans are being phased out in favor of emerging talents like Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond and DeMarcus Cousins. Other than 33-year-old Kyle Korver, Rudy Gay is the oldest player on the roster at 27.
The Brazilian squad they face on Saturday is full of stalwarts—names like Anderson Varejao, Leandro Barbosa and Nene, NBA veterans in their 30s who have been with the national team for years. The players that make up this USA roster are the ones that will likely define it in the coming decade, but at the beginning of that life cycle, there's still a lot of uncertainty.
“The international community has so many veteran teams,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Team USA’s practice on Thursday. “Our major concern is developing continuity and familiarity with the group we have. Spain or Brazil for instance, they pretty much have the same teams that they had in London. In Spain, they’ve played together for years. They get accustomed to playing with one another.
“With us, there’s more turnover, and so you don’t have the same continuity. You have to develop that in a shorter period of time.”
Of the 16 players left in contention for the 12-man World Cup roster, 11 have never played for Team USA in international competition. One of the five that has is Derrick Rose, who sat out the London Olympics while recovering from a torn ACL. Another is Gay, who was a late add last week after Durant’s withdrawal and Paul George’s leg injury.
With so many moving parts, the picture of the team’s needs and potential roster makeup is constantly changing. And with DeMarcus Cousins suffering a knee injury on Thursday that will likely keep him out of Saturday’s exhibition game, Krzyzewski may still not get a full look at the talent he has to work with.
The two major puzzles Krzyzewski and the coaching staff need to solve by the tournament’s kickoff are the point guard and wing positions. There are four point guards still in camp, with Team USA veterans Rose and Stephen Curry virtual locks to make the roster.
First-timers Lillard and Kyrie Irving are also in the running, and given the shooting ability of all four point guards, expect Krzyzewski to experiment with some lineups that see one of them playing off the ball.
“Everybody who's on this team is here because they have a certain skill set,” said Curry. “It might be different than what I bring to the table.”
Still, given Team USA’s needs at other positions, it would be a surprise to see Rose, Curry, Lillard and Irving all make the roster.
The losses of Durant and George make the small forward-position group murkier. There’s no singular dominant scoring threat in the group that includes Gay, Korver, DeMar DeRozan, Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons.
“Picking up Rudy is another scoring option,” said Team USA assistant coach Tom Thibodeau. “Just with the quality of the depth, we have a lot of scorers on this team.”
With that depth, however, comes a set of tough choices to be made. With Rose, Curry, Anthony Davis and James Harden all but guaranteed to make the roster, there are eight spots available for the other 12 players. There's virtually no frontcourt depth beyond Davis, so Cousins (assuming he's healthy, and Yahoo! reported that Thursday's MRI showed no structural damage to the knee) and Mason Plumlee are likely in. At least one of Lillard and Irving will make it.
That leaves Gay, Korver, DeRozan, Hayward, Parsons, Drummond, Kenneth Faried and Klay Thompson to fight over the remaining spots. Gay has international experience, but he was a late add to the camp. Faried could sneak in if Cousins can't play. Korver and Thompson have an edge because of their size and deadly outside-shooting strokes. Hayward, DeRozan and Parsons will have to claw their way into the discussion, and they face long odds.
There’s more than enough talent on the 16-man roster to build a team that will contend for a gold medal in Spain. It’s how the coaching staff will put it together that remains to be seen. An end to the roster turnover during training camp would be a start.
“You always want your health,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve had a lot of turnover with guys, because of their contracts or whatever, not being able to play. We’ve had one horrific injury with Paul. You want to be healthy once you get to the medal round.”
After all that turnover, the group of players left standing is formidable no matter who makes the final cut. Saturday’s game against Brazil will go a long way in shaping the group that competes in September.