CHICAGO — Team USA is as young as it's been in quite some time. After a string of opt-outs and injuries, the squad is left with few veterans, reminding us of a concept floated years ago.
Leading up to the 2012 London Olympics, then-NBA commissioner David Stern said that Team USA should consider a reverse age limit, restricting players older than 23 from participating. The idea didn't gain much steam, but recent events for the Americans suggest the thought is worth another look.
Any time a superstar takes the floor, he risks injury. The NBA, understandably, would prefer such bodily gambles be taken on their own time and dime. Paul George's horrific leg injury is the latest reminder.
"I talked about it with my family and some guys in the [Golden State] Warriors front office," point guard Stephen Curry said at a Team USA practice on Thursday when asked if he considered pulling out of the FIBA World Cup tournament. "That reaction to Paul [George]'s injury is natural."
Kevin Durant left Team USA shortly after the Indiana Pacers star forward suffered the accident during a televised scrimmage in Las Vegas during early August.
Kevin Love excused himself so he could stay healthy for a potential championship run with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers this year following a reported trade agreement, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, and to avoid more gossip about his uncertain trade status. James, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and several other gold medalists from the 2012 team never even showed up.
Team USA lacks continuity. That will always be the case for a country whose top talents are stretched out over multitudes of career opportunity and whose bodies represent industries unto themselves. The glory of international play is alluring, but it will ultimately always take a back seat to maintaining good health to perform for the teams and companies paying them millions and millions of dollars.
With such a revolving door of talent, it may make more sense for Team USA President Jerry Colangelo to think about only fielding younger players. Business concerns have already hedged the team in that direction, as the 26-year-old Curry suddenly finds himself in the role of elder.
"I'm a younger player," he said laughing when asked if he was taking on a mentor's position for the less experienced members of the roster.
The Americans relied almost entirely on superior athleticism to take down Brazil in their first exhibition game Saturday night at the United Center. With a team of players only 23 years old or younger, it would still have that advantage. Anthony Davis, the team's top performer against Brazil, is just 21. Dynamic point guard Kyrie Irving is 22.
Upcoming rookies and college freshmen like Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Doug McDermott and Marcus Smart are surely lesser options than who's currently in tow for USA, but one can still easily imagine them taking care of business in the World Cup. It's hard for USA to put any reasonable team together that wouldn't keep an extreme edge in speed, leaping and transition scoring.
Making USA younger would also give the NBA a platform to promote some of its younger stars. Many of them go unnoticed with mediocre, draft lottery-bound teams for years before getting regular time on national TV screens. Davis has barely been seen by most fans, as his New Orleans Pelicans have yet to come close to the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference.
But his showing against Brazil alerted the nation to his rising talents quickly.
"I'm playing comfortable, I'm playing confident," he said after a 20-point, eight-rebound, five-block showing.
"I would've been stupid not to start him," said head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
By the end of the tournament, his reputation will have grown even more from the extra exposure. Giving more younger players that opportunity would be good for the league. And it's not as if Durant, James, Kobe Bryant and the highest tier of NBA fame is getting much more famous and marketable by touring the world. They've established that capital long ago.
An injury like George's becomes all the more likely for someone who's carried his team through consecutive regular seasons and deep playoff runs. He had a freakish moment, but he'd also been pushed beyond his body beyond healthy endurance levels. These extra FIBA minutes would be more valuable to a youngster who's been aching to get his feet into the pool.
If Team USA's dominance is a cinch, why does it need the country's very best players to compete? You don't need a bulldozer to kill a mosquito. Perhaps the Americans would struggle, or even lose, against a Spain team that's loaded in the frontcourt, making the USA look less mighty. Such a result could ensure the current roster patterns to hold.
But if it does what everyone expects it to and trounces its way toward the World Cup title, Team USA should give some hard thought to how it assembles their talent going forward.