Judging by Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s recent rotational strategy, believing the final cuts for Team USA’s FIBA World Cup squad were made days ago would be a forgivable offense.
Watching them dismantle the Dominican Republic Wednesday night in front of a fervent Madison Square Garden crowd, however, made you feel like all the spots were still up for grabs.
With six players finishing in double figures, the Americans steamrolled their hemispheric neighbors, 105-62, in a penultimate tune-up ahead of next Saturday’s tournament opener against Finland in Bilbao, Spain. (The team will take on Puerto Rico Friday night.)
Save for a plucky few minutes from the visitors midway through the first quarter, the outcome was never in doubt. Team USA was simply too fast, too strong and—most important of all—too deep, to let the surprisingly pro-Dominican crowd enjoy an upset for the ages.
After something of a shaky start, James Harden once again asserted himself as one of Team USA’s foremost leaders, tallying 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting to go along with three steals.
Kyrie Irving, meanwhile, finished a perfect 5-of-5 from the floor—most of them on aggressive takes to the tin—en route to 12 of his own (and five assists).
It wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops, of course: The team’s perimeter defense, while aggressive, was at times overly so, allowing the DR’s speedy guards easy access to the paint. Similarly, 12 turnovers—tune-up or not—won’t sit well with Krzyzewski and his staff.
Still, for a team seeking an identity in the wake of Paul George’s devastating injury and Kevin Durant’s last-second withdrawal, Wednesday’s blowout all but confirmed that Team USA’s FIBA hopes hinge on two things: guard play, and its ability to score in transition—preferably off of opponent miscues.
Now the time comes to decide who, exactly, will be asked to execute Krzyzewski’s grand strategy.
On the broadcast, Colangelo asked about when cuts will come, says, "Maybe a little bit tonight, maybe sometime after Friday night.— Aaron Falk (@tribjazz) August 21, 2014
At this point, nine players seem like certain locks: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson, Rudy Gay (Paul’s de-facto replacement), DeMarcus Cousins and Derrick Rose, who sat out Wednesday’s action with minor knee soreness.
With just 10 days before Team USA’s FIBA kickoff, the frontcourt remains by far its biggest conundrum. Unlike his guards, Krzyzewski’s forwards and centers offer vastly different skill sets and strengths depending on the prospective opponent.
Spain and Brazil, for example, boast the kind of size that could give our frontcourt fits, while a team like Lithuania—savvy and pass-happy—would be best matched by more length and athleticism.
So how will the dilemma sort itself out? ESPN’s Kevin Pelton (Insider subscription required) provides the best rationale for why Faried and Lillard in particular might be on the outside looking in come Friday morning:
The other concern for the USA is foul trouble for both starting center Anthony Davis and Plumlee, which would leave Faried as the team's center. Keeping Cousins would give the USA a third true center and more depth inside.
It's certainly possible that the World Cup roster could feature both Cousins and Faried. While cutting Plumlee would create the same problems as cutting Cousins, USA Basketball could go with a bigger roster than anticipated and make one of the forwards or third point guard Damian Lillard the final cut. But if it comes down to Cousins vs. Faried, I would prioritize Spain above any other possible matchup.
Cousins' case is especially compelling. Given the axe his last Team USA go-round, the Sacramento Kings center—fresh off a breakout year in which he averaged 22.7 points and 11.7 rebounds—has emerged as a viable Olympics contender, and earned his coach’s praise in the process:
"All the coaches were really pleased with DeMarcus and how he played," Krzyzewski said during an August 5 teleconference. "Look, his attitude is tremendous because he wouldn't keep coming back to be a part of Team USA if it didn't mean something to him. We recognize that."
Another possible wrinkle: the health of Rose, who after missing the better part of the past two NBA seasons recovering from knee injuries, no doubt has his sight set squarely on the bigger picture.
With so many guards already at his disposal, it’s possible Krzyzewski could compel Rose to pull the plug on his summer comeback, lest assistant coach Tom Thibodeau risk going even longer without his superstar floor general.
Whatever his and Team USA president Jerry Colangelo’s ultimate decision, Krzyzewski is about to face perhaps his biggest international challenge since taking over as head coach in 2006, two years after an epic Athens meltdown that saw the team fail to capture gold for the first time since 1988.
Given the weapons at our disposal, the response should be: No problem. Tempered, that is, by the humble memory of what happened in Greece 10 years ago.
Wednesday’s blowout proved Team USA has more than enough talent to survive. Whether they can thrive enough to capture gold for a fourth straight world competition, however, will depend on how Krzyzewski opts to approach what promises to be a painful final cut.