Biggest Potential Challenges Team USA Will Face During 2014 FIBA World Cup
Team USA has left the proving grounds behind them.
There are no more roster calls to make or "friendly" exhibitions to try to get up for. It's wheels-up time as this group heads out to the 2014 FIBA World Cup with the same bull's-eye on its back that it's been wearing for decades.
Although not as heavy on established stars as it has been in the past, this talented team enters the tournament as an obvious favorite.
Still, that doesn't mean a waltz to the championship podium awaits these players in Spain. There are hurdles lining the path ahead, and while some might be larger than others, any one could derail USA Basketball's recent run of international dominance.
The tournament field is sure to throw at least one massive challenge at coach Mike Krzyzewski's team, but most of these are internal obstacles that must be cleared. With a roster loaded like none other in the world, Team USA's tallest tasks will largely come from within.
Leaky Perimeter Defense
With major offensive firepower packed on the perimeter, Team USA could have a hard time giving up more than it gets on the outside.
But some nights it could get a lot closer than it should.
Krzyzewski obviously had something other than defense in mind when he nabbed Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose and James Harden for his perimeter rotation. The offensive investments made in this group bring the promise of yielding significant returns, but defensive breakdowns away from the basket have been an ongoing theme to the exhibition season.
Those aren't always easy to see when the team racks up a 30-point win as it did in its 101-71 triumph over Slovenia on Tuesday. But just because this opponent happened to miss some open shots does not mean that pattern will continue as the competition rises.
"The guards...have to do better in keeping with their marks and scrambling to contest open shots," wrote Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney. "The communication was great in certain spots, yet there were frequent breakdowns in defending the pick-and-roll that stemmed from the two defenders involved failing to work in tandem."
If these guards get beat outside, that makes the interior defenders vulnerable. Anthony Davis may well send back anything that comes his way, but the more drives he's forced to contest, the more opportunities he'll have to pick up foul calls.
Team USA needs Davis more than anyone on this roster. These perimeter players must do a better job of helping him stay on the floor.
Stagnant Half-Court Offense
Out in the open floor, this is a cheat-code-enabled video game offense.
With above-the-rim finishers, off-the-bus shooters and explosive off-the-bounce slashers, this team can blitz an opposing defense in waves. A nightly athletic advantage gives these guys incentive to run, and Coach K isn't one to pull back the green flag.
But games are more than track meets. And when Team USA's points aren't coming in bunches, sometimes they stop coming at all.
Despite an abundance of playmakers, this team has shown a tendency of letting the ball stick. The roster has largely been built around the backcourt—thanks in no small part to Paul George's injury and the withdrawals of Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin—but too often these players have settled for bad shots.
There are far too many isolations or single-pass possessions. In their four exhibition wins, Team USA had 149 field goals and only 74 assists. Only the Phoenix Suns had a lower assist percentage than this team's 49.7-percent mark last season, via NBA.com.
This might not be the easiest problem to solve. Most of the top scorers on this roster are also among its best distributors. Finding a balance between both roles could be an ongoing struggle.
Given the number of both willing passers and capable scorers, though, this shouldn't be impossible to correct. Patience will be key in figuring it out, but the reward for solving this puzzle is extremely rich.
USA Basketball has done a much better job of bringing players up through its program, but for a majority of this team, this will be their first taste of the international game's biggest stage.
Of the 12 players who captured Olympic gold in 2012, only two remain on this roster: Anthony Davis and James Harden. Stephen Curry, Rudy Gay and Derrick Rose are the only ones left who played in the 2010 FIBA World Championship.
Even when widening the lens from international experience, this group is pretty green. According to FIBA.com, USA's roster has an average age of just 24. That's seven years younger than Brazil, which pushed them at the United Center earlier this month, and three years shy of the host nation, Spain.
Talent can overcome a lot of things, and this lack of experience hasn't stripped the U.S. of its status as tournament favorites.
But talent can't manufacture the chemistry that comes from sharing the same floor in the same system for a number of years. It can't recreate the benefits of knowing where teammates are at their best or leaders understanding which buttons can be pressed with each player on the team.
The basketball side will be much easier to handle. At the end of the day, they're all playing a sport in which they've cemented their spot among the world's greatest.
However, the leadership void is a tricky predicament. It's the overlooked aspect of the double-edged sword that was Durant's surprise departure.
"Durant was Team's USA most fearsome matchup nightmare," noted ESPN.com's Marc Stein. "Among this assemblage of the internationally untested, Durant was the squad's most vocal behind-the-scenes leader, too."
With KD out, it's hard to say who will take on that leadership role. But someone obviously needs to fill it.
Derrick Rose's Durability
Depending on the day, Derrick Rose has either been Team USA's most powerful weapon or its biggest liability.
It just comes down to how much his surgically repaired knees are willing to take.
After being held to 10 disappointing games over the past two seasons, he hit the ground running this summer. Rave reviews raced out of the Las Vegas-based training camp, including Coach K telling reporters Rose was back to being "elite" again.
Then, knee soreness kept Rose out of a few practices. Despite being projected to play, he was a late scratch from an exhibition run with the Dominican Republic.
He has tried keeping the attention off his knees, blaming his absences on "body fatigue." The fact that he participated in each of the last two exhibition games might support his claim.
But it doesn't erase the concern surrounding his health. Medical flags have flown around him for so long, they won't stop regardless of how he looks in this tournament.
And his struggles, like his dud against Slovenia (three points, three turnovers and one assist in 20 minutes), will be magnified.
"He was a pedestrian 3-for-6 from the free-throw line, missed an uncontested layup and seemed passive on offense (0-for-3) and inconsistent on defense (minus-4 in the plus/minus category)," wrote Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times. "He wasn’t the player who first showed up to Las Vegas last month."
After leaving All-Star point guards John Wall and Damian Lillard behind, Team USA has to hope Rose finds consistency soon. That starts with staying healthy, but he has to maximize his opportunity every time he can make it inside the lines.
Spain's Size, Savvy
Team USA might not be looking ahead to a possible championship meeting with Spain, but that hasn't stopped others from doing it for them.
Rather than discussing the team's success against Slovenia, Coach K was asked Tuesday about how the U.S. will handle Spain's super-sized frontcourt. He didn't take the bait.
"I'm not going to compare. I haven't seen Spain play," Krzyzewski told reporters. "If we play Spain, it's a long way away. So I'm just concentrating on U.S. and trying to get better."
Those questions aren't likely to go away, and neither is the host country.
Spain has squared off with USA Basketball in each of the last two Olympic gold-medal games. It very well could be waiting on the championship stage once again.
The Spanish team packs a potent blend of size, skill, smarts and experience. The Gasol brothers (Pau and Marc) man the middle with shot-blocker Serge Ibaka. The perimeter features a number of crafty, creative players like Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez and Juan Carlos Navarro, who are all capable of giving opposing defenses fits.
An upset could happen at any time if Team USA isn't properly prepared, but Spain is the best equipped to hand them a loss without any help.
"Size, experience and the world's second-best collection of talent doesn't guarantee Spain will knock off the U.S," wrote Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes. "In fact, it doesn't even make an upset likely. But it does make the Spaniards, without question, the most problematic World Cup opponent Team USA will face."
Team USA's roster is bigger than it has been in years, and it's hard to imagine this potential matchup didn't impact the way it was built. Even if the U.S. isn't discussing Spain, Krzyzewski and Co. are certainly thinking of the problems they could present.