As is sometimes the case with non-Olympic editions of USA Basketball rosters, the one heading to China for the World Cup in August is defined by its absences.
Only five of the 17 official members have ever made an All-Star game, and Kemba Walker was the lone All-NBA honoree last season. Among those missing: just about every American player you'd normally consider including if the whole league were fair game.
LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Anthony Davis are out. As are Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving. Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Paul George are hurt. This is how you arrive at a point where Mason Plumlee is among the candidates to land one of the final 12 spots and Khris Middleton seems like an unchallenged starter. Those guys are good, but nobody would mistake them for the USA's best.
Team USA will still enter the tournament with more talent than anyone else, and Gregg Popovich is running the show. His charges will assuredly play together and with plenty of effort.
This is probably fine. But let's do better than "fine."
Let's imagine what an optimal version of Team USA would look like—not necessarily by rounding up every superstar and shipping them off to face the world, but by considering fit, playing style, personality and chemistry in building a complete 12-man roster capable of dominating with precision and flair. We want a team that plays both ends with cohesion, not one that jogs around at exhibition speed, relying on talent to get the job done.
Let's construct a team still loaded with stars, but also populated by guys we think would accept the more limited and specific duties normally reserved for role players. We want some "Olympic Melo" subjugations of ego here, and not every megastar is cut out for that. Oh, and health still matters. Durant, George, Thompson and Victor Oladipo lead the group of injured stars we won't consider.
Playmakers and Primary Ball-Handlers
Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, De'Aaron Fox
Spacing is the most important offensive element in basketball, and nothing creates it better than lead guards who command defensive attention well beyond the three-point line. Curry revolutionized the game a half-decade ago with his deep pull-up threes, and he was the most accurate high-volume shooter from 25-29 feet last year, hitting 42.2 percent of his 8.0 attempts per game from that range.
Lillard shot 37.5 percent on attempts of that same distance, and if you know one thing about him, it's that he drills deep threes at critical times. He and Curry finished first and second, respectively, in shots made from between 30 and 40 feet last season.
Both are also deadly off the ball, and Curry is arguably the most dangerous player in the league when he's running around screens and spreading panic among defenders. There are enough playmaking forwards and bigs on the roster to leverage the guards' skills without the rock, but the main reason for starting with these two is the huge advantage their deep shooting creates on offense.
Fox makes the cut because he's faster than anyone in the league on the break, and his relentless pace-pushing will make great use of an athletic roster. The youngest player on a team that skews toward vets, he'll put a jolt into every minute he's on the floor and ensure there'll be no letting up when the reserves enter the game. He'll be an easy-bucket-generating machine.
Defined as much by high character and consistent effort as blazing speed, Fox completes a point guard trio composed entirely of renowned good dudes.
Plus, the Sacramento Kings' leader is poised for stardom in his third season. Naming him to the roster over so many notable guards is partly an acknowledgment of what's ahead for him. If it doesn't seem like he deserves this spot, check back in six months when he's an All-Star and see how you feel then.
Who's Not Here: James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving
Harden's numbers and awards speak for themselves, but does anyone really want to watch Team USA play like the Houston Rockets? Let's move the ball and empower teammates instead.
Westbrook can't shoot, hasn't defended consistently in years and, like Harden, forces an unappealing style of play on every offense he leads.
Team chemistry is a priority. Irving's track record in that regard is...complicated.
Kawhi Leonard, Jayson Tatum, Jrue Holiday, Danny Green
Leonard's game may be a little too iso-dependent for this roster, but it's hard to argue with the results it produced this past season. He's long been an assassin off the ball, too. Over his last three full seasons (excluding 2017-18, during which he played just nine games), he drilled 46.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes in 2015-16, 43.0 percent in 2016-17 and 40.8 percent in 2018-19.
A role player in his early days under Popovich, Leonard doesn't seem like the type to bristle if he isn't getting touches on every possession. His shutdown chops on defense and ace marksmanship off the ball ensure he'll provide tons of value while fitting into a reduced offensive role.
Tatum, like Fox, is a bit of a speculative addition. Everyone thought he'd take a leap in 2018-19, so consider this a bet that it'll arrive a year behind schedule. It's also critical to include more than one young player on the roster to keep things fresh.
An underrated defender who can hold up against guards and all but the heftiest power forwards, the 6'8" Duke product has shot-creation skills and a demonstrated knack for accuracy on the catch. Tatum hit 48.0 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples as a rookie and shot a respectable 39.4 percent on such looks this past season.
Holiday is here for toughness, professionalism and general two-way studliness. He could easily fit into the position group with Curry, Lillard and Fox, but the 29-year-old has no problem checking larger wings on defense. He played 59 percent of his minutes at the 3 in 2017-18 and 28 percent in 2018-19, so this isn't exactly a positional stretch.
Holiday is merely a passable shooter (career 35.5 percent from deep), but we sacrificed some stopping power with our other smaller guards. He and his pair of All-Defensive nods help shore up that area of need.
Green, a former teammate of Leonard's, is the only pure specialist on the roster. He's here because he does two things exceptionally well: defend and hit threes. Nobody will feel more comfortable in a limited role.
Who's Not Here: Bradley Beal, Jimmy Butler
It was close, but Tatum effectively took Beal's spot. The Washington Wizards guard shone as an alpha on a bad team last year, and he has the resume and non-boat-rocking demeanor to warrant a place on the team. In the end, Tatum's size and defensive value won out over Beal, who might need the ball a bit more than is ideal on this roster. Beal also led the NBA in minutes last year. He needs a break.
Butler has a habit of making waves and leaving teams on less-than-amicable terms. He's also best with the ball in his hands, and we want to see it pinging around to players with hockey assists on their minds.
LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Myles Turner, Brook Lopez, Draymond Green
Do we really need to justify including James? Even at 34, he's still the most complete basketball player on the planet. Nobody reads defenses better, nobody manipulates the action more thoroughly, and nobody is a bigger icon to international fans (which is still a small consideration from a grow-the-game perspective).
LeBron's insistence on a high degree of control could subvert the team dynamic we're cultivating, but it seems reasonable to guess he'll relinquish his customary level of authority with Popovich and so many other stars around. He should be willing to accept the "old head" role.
Oh, and it shouldn't be a shock that James belongs in the "bigs" category. He's as strong as they come, and his playmaking from a frontcourt position unlocks innumerable offensive options for the guards and wings with whom he'll share the floor. Curry zipping around as James mind-controls the defense into taking half-steps the wrong way should yield a cascade of open threes.
Davis offers true center size, elite shot-blocking, dominant glasswork, unstoppable scoring (particularly when set up or rolling to the hole), sufficient stretch and substantially improved playmaking. He had a 19.0 percent assist rate from last year, which was right there with more celebrated passing bigs like Al Horford (21.2) and Marc Gasol (22.2).
AD contributes across the board and doesn't need the ball dumped down to him in the post to be effective on offense. He'll get his points efficiently on putbacks, assisted jumpers and duck-ins.
Turner and Lopez are our rim-protecting last lines of defense. The former led the league in blocks per game last year and is more dynamic on D, while the latter excels as a human wall in drop pick-and-roll coverage. Both offer plenty of stretch, as Turner hit 38.8 percent of his threes in 2018-19, while Lopez converted at a 36.5 percent clip on a steady diet of extremely deep attempts.
Green may seem like a controversial selection because he's the only bad shooter on the roster. But he can play point forward (or center) nearly as effectively as James and is second to none in terms of defensive versatility. The Golden State Warriors figured out how to play some decent offense with Green facilitating, so Team USA, laden with even more talent, shouldn't have a problem doing the same.
Finally, every team needs a wild card. We've carefully selected players with placid demeanors and get-along spirits throughout, but you can't entirely ignore the need for some ruckus. Green's intensity is volcanic, but it's generally productive. Teammates can't half-step when he's playing every second like the fate of the universe hangs in the balance.
Complacency is always an issue with a team this good. Green should assure this team keeps its edge.
Who's Not Here: Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, Kevin Love
Griffin isn't the lob threat he once was, and much of his value stems from a ball-dominant style we're trying to avoid.
Drummond is an old-school center who doesn't offer spacing or switchability. He won with Team USA in the 2014 World Cup and can dominate inside with sheer size and strength, but we have guys who can do all of that and more.
Love's defense isn't up to snuff, and with Turner, Lopez and a broadly downsized roster, we have his three-point shooting covered.