With all of the drama of the lockout,Team USA's return to international preeminence in its past two tournaments, and resulting bye from the 2011 Tournament of the Americas, there's been little talk of Team USA with the London Olympics only a few months away. Recently though, there have been some leaks regarding Team USA's preliminary roster, reported to be either 19 or 20 players, and set to be announced today. It's an amalgam of the 2008 and 2010 teams, with the addition of Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge and subtraction of Jason Kidd, Carlos Boozer, Michael Redd, and Tayshaun Prince from the 2008 team.
Out of these 22 players, who should the team be? I'll assume that everyone on this list will want to play, unlike in 2010 and 2004, and suspend any cynical concerns about shoe companies or sponsors wanting to make sure certain players are selected. Also some of these players are free agents, but it's too early to say how that will affect things so I'll remove that from consideration as well. This is a list of who should make it, not a prediction of who will.
A number of candidates are fairly easily eliminated due to recent poor play, injuries, or just not being anywhere near as good as the players above them. I earlier lumped Billups with the shooting guards because he didn't have a prayer of beating out the point guards and there are more wing positions available. He only has slightly more chance of making the team at shooting guard. The two arguments you can make for him is that he can shoot 3s well and that he'll provide leadership. Team USA did just fine without any ace 3 point shooters getting much playing time in 2008, shooting 37.7% from 3-point range. However, that was with the old 20' 6" international line, which probably contributed to guys like Wade (8-17), Anthony (14-37), and James (11-24) shooting much better on threes than their NBA norms. (Bryant was right around his career norms at 17-53.) There is some reason to believe that more deadeye shooters will be needed this year with the international line at 22'. On the other hand, perhaps these players shot better because they were wide open due to playing with other stars and playing largely against non-NBA caliber defenders, rather than because of the closer line. But even if one assumes more shooting will be needed, what's the point of selecting Billups when he clearly won't be playing over Bryant and Wade, and doesn't provide any above-average defensive value?
Although Lamar Odom played better than anyone could have expected as team USA's starting center in 2010, he should not be a serious candidate in 2012. He provides less size than the other candidates and is 32 years old, but most importantly he's been awful this season and looks really out of shape. Given Team USA's affinity for allowing players who are about to be cut to "withdraw from consideration," I would expect Odom to not even show up to training camp so he can "attend to issues related to his NBA free agency."
Danny Granger is probably the least qualified player on the list at this point. He couldn't even get any playing time on the 2010 team that was missing all the Redeem Team stalwarts, and has been playing quite below his usual standards so far this year.
Stephen Curry has been injured, isn't anywhere near as good as the other guys, and outside of Love is probably the player least suited to play the style of pressure defense Coach K will deploy.
Rudy Gay has struggled some this year coming back from a shoulder injury. Aside from that, he does essentially the same things offensively as Anthony, Durant, and James, but he's worse at them. He's also probably the worst defender of that group, outside of Anthony.
That eliminates the low-hanging fruit. At this point, it may be easier to simplify the conversation by stating who the absolute locks are.
None. (More on this in a later post.)
It is likely that Coach K will want to keep at least 3 bigs, as in 2008 and 2010. That leaves two guaranteed spots open for the Love, Aldridge, Griffin, Chandler, Bosh set, with potentially another depending on how things shake out on the wings. The biggest concerns out of this spot for Team USA will be rebounding, pick and roll defense, and protecting the basket. Shooting is much less of a concern assuming Team USA again runs the Coach K/D'Antoni 4 out 1 in offense, in which the big man rarely floats to the perimeter. Post-ups have also been pretty much non-existent in past years, and with the other firepower on the floor it's hard to imagine that many post-ups will be called for anyone in this group.
Ironically, the worst NBA player of this group, Tyson Chandler, would seem to fit these needs the best. He has international experience with the '07 and '10 teams. He's also the only one of these players who has the length to effectively guard postups from the Gasol brothers if Howard gets in foul trouble. While I wouldn't expect to see Chandler get a ton of minutes, I think he should be on the team solely for the matchup with Spain, which to these eyes is the only team with a reasonable ( > 10%) chance of beating Team USA in London. (Sadly, with the demise of Greece and Argentina, who else really provides a threat? France? Brazil? Serbia?)
Griffin is probably the best NBA player on this list, but I don't really see how he adds much to this team, especially with Coach K's proclivity for playing smaller but superior players like James and Durant at the 4. Griffin is generally regarded as a poor defender and is not a good basket protector. Griffin is also a bad foul shooter. It would also be nice if Howard's backup were a reasonable foul shooter to protect against a Hack-a-Dwight strategy. While this strategy is a poor choice in the NBA, the higher offensive efficiencies in international basketball could make it a reasonable strategy in the last few minutes of a close game, especially if an opponent were trailing.
Love suffers from the same defensive limitations as Griffin, and may even be a worse pick and roll defender. I would be more inclined to pick him over Griffin though, as he's good 3 point shooter, and his unparalleled offensive rebounding could provide something nobody else can. He might be an especially effective player against a zone with these two attributes, and he also makes his foul shots.
The only real advantage to Aldridge is he's probably the best post-up scorer of this bunch. But the impact of that skill is muted. Aside from that, he's a poor rebounder for a big, although his pick and roll defense is solid.
That leaves Chris Bosh. Bosh has the advantage of having played this same backup big roll to some acclaim in 2008, when he earned raves for his pick and roll defense from all but the Raptors fans who wondered how this could be the same guy who "anchored" the team's 22nd ranked defense the following year. Since then, he has bulked up and presumably acquired more of a defensive mentality in Miami. He's in.
The hypothetical team now consists of Durant, James, Howard, Bryant, Wade, Chandler, and Bosh, leaving 5 spots to fill in the next post.