6 Things That Have to Happen for Team USA to Win 2014 FIBA World Cup
For the first time in a long time, the focus surrounding Team USA has finally returned to the basketball court.
The discussions surrounding All-Star withdrawals, Paul George's gruesome injury (and its possible ramifications) and multiple rounds of roster cuts have largely quieted. Now, this team has a tournament to go win.
Eyes and ears have shifted back inside the lines, where the U.S. will start its FIBA World Cup journey with Saturday's opener against Finland (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN). That will be the first of a five-game run through the group stage, which this squad should survive with relative ease.
From there, though, the road ahead could become much more treacherous. Even for a star-laden roster deserving of its status as tournament favorites, potential pitfalls exist along the path to the championship podium.
This team doesn't need to play a perfect tourney, but several things have to happen for USA Basketball to once again prove its dominance on the international stage. These are six of the biggest hurdles this group must clear over the coming weeks to emerge as world champs.
Snipers Hitting with Consistency
Last season, 34 different players shot 38 percent or better from three while converting at least 100 triples, via Basketball-Reference.com.
This roster has two of them, brothers in splash Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
It's hard to think of two better shooters to lead a perimeter attack. Curry set the single-season record for most three-point bombs with 272 in 2012-13 and came close to hitting the mark his last time around (261). Thompson is the first player in league history to make 500 threes over the first three seasons of his career (545).
But behind this prolific pair, things get a little dicey.
Kyrie Irving is coming off the worst three-point shooting campaign of his career (35.8 percent). James Harden's three-point percentage dipped to a three-year low (36.6). Rudy Gay has had inconsistency issues beyond the arc (career 34.2 percent), but his track record is better than those of Derrick Rose (31.2) and DeMar DeRozan (26.7).
This team needs the few floor spacers it has to create enough room for its explosive slashers, crashing pick-and-roll screeners and interior scorers to get good looks near the basket. The U.S. has unleashed a circus-style attack in transition, but its half-court offense has left plenty to be desired.
"If anybody is going to beat this USA team...the opponent has to eliminate the Americans’ ability to get easy transition buckets off turnovers and run outs," wrote SheridanHoops.com's Bobby Gonzalez. "Take that away, and the U.S. has to run a half-court offense, and they clearly do not have a lot of offensive sets."
This offense doesn't have enough practice time to be anything more than simple, so it needs to give Mike Krzyzewski optimal spacing for the designs he does draw up.
The Continuation of Anthony Davis' Ascent
The last time Anthony Davis stepped foot on the international stage, he was an unproven commodity without a second of NBA experience to his name. He played a minor role on the 2012 Olympic gold-medal team, compiling his meager per-game marks (3.7 points and 2.7 rebounds) primarily in mop-up duty.
What a difference two years can make.
Back then, he was a long, lean shot-blocking machine with obvious talent but no clearly identified role. Now, he's Mike Krzyzewski's "main guy," via Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune, and the NBA's "next in line," as reigning MVP Kevin Durant put it, via Pelicans.com's Jim Eichenhofer.
Of course, wild two-year transformations are nothing new for Davis. At this point, he's well outside the realm of any reasonable expectations.
But the rapid riser needs to keep trending upward.
He has the tools to be the tournament's best player at both ends of the floor. He put nearly all of them on display during USA's 101-71 thrashing of Slovenia, pacing his team in points (18), rebounds (nine) and blocks (five).
The roster casualties suffered over the summer put pressure on Davis to perform, but Coach K had big plans for the big man regardless.
"Anthony would have had a huge role no matter what," Krzyzewski told reporters. "Anthony's one of the best players in the NBA."
Team USA needs him to play accordingly throughout the tournament.
Collecting on Supersized Investments
This team looks different from the others Krzyzewski has fielded since grabbing the wheel in 2006.
This roster is bigger than normal, but not quite as athletic or versatile as some past incarnations. With the Gasol brothers, Serge Ibaka and Spain potentially looming in a championship matchup, size may be more important than ever.
But with five roster spots reserved for traditional frontcourt players (Davis, Kenneth Faried, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee), the U.S. needs more mileage out of its bigs than just a strong showing against the tournament hosts.
Cousins, who Krzyzewski told ESPN.com's Marc Stein will serve as Davis' primary backup, needs to impose his will on the interior.
His 2-of-8 shooting effort against Slovenia suggests the bone bruise he suffered in his right knee earlier this month might still be bothering him. If his body cooperates, though, he must be a consistent contributor for this frontcourt.
Nearly a 23-point scorer for the Sacramento Kings last season, Cousins has plenty of offensive tricks to choose from. But behind him, Drummond and Plumlee rely on point-blank chances for their scoring.
There's a reason this roster features the size that it does, but these big bodies came with a price. Damian Lillard could have given this group another potent three-point threat, while Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons would have given Coach K more flexibility with his forward spots.
Outside of Davis, this group might not have to put up a lot of points on a nightly basis. But whether setting hard screens, crashing the glass or walling off the defensive interior, this frontcourt will need to maximize its minutes played.
Quickly Creating Chemistry
These players aren't foreign to one another, but this stage is precisely that to a lot of them.
Only five of these 12 have major international experience: Davis and Harden at the 2012 Olympics and Harden, Curry, Rose and Gay at the 2010 world championships. And even these players could have problems trying to draw from their past, because their roles will all likely be bigger than they were before.
It isn't a stretch to call this the most talented team in the field, but the U.S. doesn't have the same continuity as other countries. These players know each others' tendencies largely from reading opposing scouting reports during the regular season.
Even with an embarrassment of riches on Krzyzewski's coaching staff, it's tough manufacturing a close-knit environment in such a short amount of time.
"You're only together for five, six weeks, and you got to put it together quickly," Curry said during an appearance on CBS Sports Radio's The John Feinstein Show. " ... You have to have that ultra-laser focus because one slip up can end the tournament real quick."
The offense should be fine, albeit a tad clunky at times.
But the defense could be a different story. Leaks can spring with frightening regularity on a perimeter featuring Curry, Irving, Rose and Harden, and that could put the frontcourt at risk of foul trouble or overexertion at the defensive end.
That's one of the biggest spots where developing chemistry will be key. Does this roster have a player who will demand defensive commitment and speak up when he hasn't seen it? It definitely needs one.
Embracing the Art of Role-Playing
Despite not having as many notable names as it has in the past, Team USA still fields a 12-man group rife with franchise players.
Six of them led their team in scoring last season: Curry, Irving, Cousins, Harden, DeRozan and Davis. The last time Rose was healthy (2011-12), he did the same.
These are premier talents who have survived and thrived a life under the spotlight. But for the majority of them, that doesn't matter right now. This is all about finding their niche and executing that role to perfection.
That's just the nature of the international game.
At the 2012 Games, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony divvied up the scoring duties, while LeBron James helped Chris Paul and Deron Williams with the playmaking. Kevin Love committed to a rugged rebounding, supportive scoring role, and the rest of the roster filled in wherever else was needed.
On this team, roles should be more easily identified. The U.S. swapped versatility for structure, and USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said that could be a good thing.
"This gives us an opportunity to do some things we haven't had a chance to do in the past," Colangelo told Stein. "It's true that the preferred style of play [in recent years] has been going small, but you have to ask: Was that by choice or by necessity?"
The frontcourt positions should be easily split—Davis and Cousins for scoring, Plumlee and Drummond for energy, Faried for a little of both—but the backcourt will require more of a balancing act.
Curry will be more of a shooter than setup man. Ditto for Harden. Irving and Rose could be the opposite, while Thompson and DeRozan may need to focus their efforts at the defensive end.
Avoiding the Injury Bug
This is always the biggest hurdle, isn't it? Regardless of sport, season or situation, health is always the key.
Of course, given Rose's recent bouts with the injury bug, there are red flags swirling around this team. His recent absences from practice and an exhibition won't let those come down, no matter how good he says he feels.
"I asked him today, and he said, 'I feel great,'" Krzyzewski said of Rose, via Stein. "He did everything. He's full go. I think there's a part of him that's like: 'Quit asking me how I feel. I'm good.' So I'm not going to ask him anymore."
That won't stop us from asking the questions, but as long as those questions are coming, that means Rose is still a part of the picture. Considering the risk Team USA took by keeping him and cutting Lillard, that would obviously be huge.
But the shape of this roster would make any injury a crushing blow.
The forward spot is thin, and the collection of three-point marksmen is light. The main backup at the deepest spot on this roster (in terms of numbers) is already dealing with a knee problem.
Plenty of things could derail Team USA's climb to the top, but none would bring it crashing down quicker than an injury.
It's the one item on this list the team really can't control, but it's the same battle every other team in this field will be fighting.
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