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Team USA - Preparing to Take on the Worlds

I'm back from vacation, and there's basically nothing happening in Clipperland.  So it's time to obsess about Team USA and the World Championships for a month or so.

The tournament starts in 18 days, and you know I'm psyched about it.  There's something I love about these international competitions.  The chance to see different players.  The excitement of players competing for their country.  In the absence of J.R. Holden (American who has played for Russia for many years but is skipping the Worlds) and Chris Kaman (starting center for Team Germany in Beijing, who speaks not a word of German), there are relatively few of those 'he's not from there' guys that tend to tarnish the event.  Nick Calathes is playing for Greece.  I can't even think of any others playing for contenders, though there are a handful of the Matt Freije (Lebanon), Jonathan Kale (Ivory Coast) types.

The story for Clipper fans at this point is Eric Gordon.  He is in New York as part of the 15 man roster, fighting for a spot on the final 12 man squad that will compete in Turkey.  Most accounts have him 'on the bubble' and in fact the conventional wisdom would seem to be that he won't make it past the final cut.  The following is a break down of the final 15, with a little bit of that conventional wisdom and a lot of my opinion.  I'm going to try to do the break down by position, but given that Team USA doesn't tend to define positions too rigorously (LeBron James = power forward), these definitions are pretty fluid.

Bigs - JaVale McGee, Tyson Chandler, Lamar Odom, Kevin Love, Jeff Green

I've been critical of Team USA's tendency to play small for the past several years, but the lack of quality bigs in New York is not solely the fault of the leadership.  Eleven other bigs from the full 35 man roster have chosen not to play this year for reasons ranging from the literally lame (Kendrick Perkins tore his ACL) to the just plain lame (Dwight Howard is tired, Chris Bosh is a free agent, only except he's not anymore and hasn't been since July 8).  My personal favorite subplot here is that Chris Kaman, who circumvented the spirit of these competitions by adopting his grandparents' homeland in order to play in the Beijing Olympics, would be the starting center and best low post scorer for this Team USA were he eligible (once you compete internationally for one country, at any level, you forfeit your right to compete for another country).  In 2008, Team Deutschland was Kaman's only entree into big time international hoops.  In 2010, coming off an All Star appearance and with half of the centers in the NBA out for one reason or another, he'd be the obvious choice for this team.  If only someone had thought of the possibility that Kaman might want to preserve his chance to play for Team USA before the 2008 Olympics!  Oh wait, I did:

There is one potential downside for Kaman - if he plays for Germany, he'll never be able to compete internationally for the US.  While that may not seem like a major issue right now, you'd actually be hard-pressed to find many better American true centers beyond Dwight Howard and Greg Oden.  I mean, I like Tyson Chandler fine, but if he's a defensive specialist, and Kaman is a better rebounder and a better shot-blocker this season, than why wouldn't the US want Kaman's offensive game on the team?  Besides, Howard might get tired of international competition (no one seems to play in too many of them).  The current coaching staff wouldn't use Kaman's style of play well - but that's not to say that some future coach wouldn't be interested.  If I were part of USA basketball, I'd be talking to the guy - the international competition has caught up already, even without defections.

I love having every word I've ever written available when it turns out I was prescient.  When it turns out I was dead wrong, not so much.

Back to the list.  McGee was a late call up to Team USA (basically, he was a seven footer who was already in Vegas and he happened to play well in summer league) who was already cut once.  But when Brook Lopez opted out having not fully recovered from a bout of pneumonia, McGee got another phone call.  This is a 22 year old who has started a total of 33 games in his NBA career, and then only because everyone else on the Wizards was hurt.  He's got a lot of physical ability, that much is clear.  But the fact that he's one of only two centers being considered for the team is a joke frankly.  After all, he was at summer league as a third year player for a reason, right?  I'm guessing he'll be cut again.  He's simply not ready.

That makes Chandler more or less a lock for Team USA.  Chandler was on the team that swept through the Tournament of the America's in the run up to Beijing, and would likely have been on the Olympic team save for injuries.  He's a fine defensive and rebounding center when he's healthy, but it's an indication of just how weak the US is in the middle that Jerry Colangelo criticized Chandler's conditioning just two weeks ago, and now he's the likely starter.

Odom is the other lock up front.  He's a veteran presence, a versatile player and a good rebounder.  Given the way Krzyzewski played in Beijing, look for Odom to get the lion's share of the minutes at the center.  No lie.

Love is the only bruiser on the list, not to mention one of the best rebounders in the NBA.  He also has range to the FIBA three point line and would fit the international game well.  He hasn't even been a regular starter for one of the worst teams in the NBA in his two seasons, which again doesn't bode well for this team, but at least he's got talent.  With beasts like Sofoklis Schortsanitis and Nene lurking in this tournament, I think Love provides some essential girth for the team.

Jeff Green is a likely cut according to the conventional wisdom, and if I were in charge he wouldn't have made it this far.  He's wildly overrated as far as I'm concerned, and no one would be talking about him if he hadn't come into the league at the same time and place as Kevin Durant.  He doesn't seem to do anything particularly well at the NBA level, least of all rebound.  His 5.8 boards per 36 minutes ranked him 45th out of 62 forwards who played at least 2000 minutes last season.  He's also a poor shooter, making just 44% of his shots on his career, which is a disaster for a power forward. 

Wings - Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Rudy Gay, Danny Granger.

In a normal NBA world, I'd discuss the shooting guards and the small forwards together and leave the point guards in their own category.   But this team has a pretty clear break between these players with some size, and a bunch of smaller guards.  It's also pretty clear that they're going to play some guys who are normally point guards at the two, so it makes sense to talk about all the guards as a group.  Not to mention that in the small ball approach of Team USA, these guys are likely to play as much at the four as at the three (like Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Tayshaun Prince in Beijing).  That leaves these four as a group.

Durant is a lock and will be the star and leading scorer of the team.  He'll be on the floor most of the time against good competition, and if the US is going to win a gold medal, it will be on Durant's back.  He is the only go to player on the team - period.  Don't be surprised if he's the second biggest player on the court for Team USA most of the time. Does that mean he's playing power forward?  It's a matter of opinion I guess.

The other three players on this list are a mixed bag.  Gay is another overrated player.  He's an inefficient scorer, a terrible defender and a poor rebounder (one of the few guys behind Green on that earlier list).  He's straight from central casting as 'the high scorer on a bad team'.  Let's hope that isn't descriptive of Team USA in Turkey.

Iguodala is a nice all around player, but happens to be the kind of guy who has struggled for Team USA in international competitions (think Shawn Marion in Athens in 2004).  The biggest single difference in the FIBA rules is the absence of a defensive three second rule, allowing teams to play a true zone.  Without driving lanes to the basket, Iggy becomes a jump shooter on offense, and as a 32% career shooter from three, if you can turn Iggy into a jump shooter, you've won.  He'll probably make the team - after all, he's one of only a few older than 25, and experience and maturity count for something - but he doesn't give me a warm and fuzzy feeling.  At least he'll play good defense (let's see how he does defending the four against a 260 pound Lithuanian).

Granger, on the other hand, is probably necessary on the team, for the same reason that Iggy worries me.  Granger and Durant are the most reliable outside shooters on the wing, and because of the aforementioned zone defenses, outside shooting is of paramount importance.  Although he's not a great all around player, as a designated corner shooter, he could be a valuable asset.

Guards - Chauncey Billups, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, Stephen Curry

With four (arguably five, since Curry played mostly point for the Warriors this season) of the fifteen players in New York being point guards, it's fairly obvious that this is a guard heavy team.  Gordon is the only player in camp who played the majority of his NBA minutes last season at shooting guard.  That would seem to bode well for him if the coaching staff has any eye on convention.  But they probably don't.

The question of position always has two primary components: offense and defense.  Westbrook and Billups and Rondo each have the size to defend the shooting guard, especially in an international competition where there are no Kobe Bryant's or Brandon Roy's, or even Manu Ginobili's for that matter.  However, Gordon clearly has the best size in that regard - he's no taller than many of the point guards on the roster, but his solid build and sheer strength definitely allow him to play bigger than any one else.  Again, let me emphasize, NONE of the other players on the roster played the majority of their NBA minutes at the two last year, and Gordon outweighs the other guards by about 30 pounds each.  He's the closest thing to a two that they've got, and the only guy who could slide up to defend the three if they want to go with a three guard offense.

Of course, EJ has never used that size to be a good rebounder.  Or even a mediocre rebounder.  In fact, he's an awful rebounder, and that may keep him off the team, and I wouldn't argue it if that were the decision.

The conventional wisdom holds that Curry has the inside track as the designated shooter on this team, and I think that's a great choice.  He's an amazing shooter, probably the best on the roster if not the best in the league, and I've already pointed out the importance of shooting.  I have no problem with Curry making the team - I do have a problem with the idea that Gordon and Curry are an either/or, which seems to be how it is being couched at present.

Here's the thing - Billups is a lock as the veteran leader of the team as he should be.  But he also happens to be the only one of the remaining guards who is even a decent shooter.  Everyone in the NBA knows that the book on Rose, Westbrook and Rondo is to keep them out of the lane and dare them to make jumpers, which frankly, they can't.  (Rondo and Westbrook are such incredibly bad shooters, it's difficult to imagine that they're such good NBA players, but the rules in the NBA have a lot to do with that.  And Rose is statistically no better than Rondo and Westbrook, at least not from three, where all three of them shoot around 25%.)  If they decide to keep all three of Rose, Westbrook and Rondo, I shudder to think of what would happen if they played two of them together.  We'd see five Croats standing in the lane, with Rondo afraid to shoot a 12 footer.  

The international game is not that different than the NBA game when you get right down to it, and in both of them you want great shooters.  But if there is a significant difference, it's that shooting is even more important in FIBA than it is in the NBA.  It would be a MASSIVE mistake to keep three such similar guards as Rose, Westbrook and Rondo - that's a quarter of the roster dedicated to non shooting penetrators - but I feat that they'll keep them nonetheless.

Part of the problem is that the leaders of Team USA are not anxious to burn any bridges.  I've pointed out in numerous prior rants the importance of point guard play in these competitions, where teams have little practice time and the point guard becomes an extension of the coach on the floor.  It's no coincidence that Team USA was undefeated with Jason Kidd playing the point from 1998 to 2008, while failing to win a gold medal in any major competition which Kidd missed during the same years.  Chris Paul and Deron Williams are more than capable of stepping into that role if they choose to play for Team USA, but Colangelo et al need to be thinking about the future also.  Might Rose or Rondo or Westbrook be the point guard of the future for the team?  Might the selectors be willing to take all three of them to Turkey, as an audition for future competitions?  Rose is probably a lock, as the purest point of the three.  I personally wouldn't take both Rondo and Westbrook, but they probably will.


So where does this leave us?  Looking back over the list, there are three players (McGee, Green and Gay) I'd happily cut, and since we're trying to get down to twelve from fifteen, case closed, right?  Well, not so fast.  If they keep all of the guards they have in camp, that would make six players 6'3" or smaller on the USA roster - yes, they've been playing small, but that's a little ridiculous.  I wouldn't do it, and I don't think they will either.  So while I wish I had some better forwards to choose from, I'd probably feel compelled to keep Gay as the least of three evils.

If it were up to me, I'd leave Westbrook home on the assumption that he'll be willing to give it another shot in the future, and he's redundant with Rose and Rondo.  I think the team needs a couple of choices at shooting guard who can, you know, shoot.  For instance, what happens if Curry is your designated shooter and he gets hurt?  You're left with Billups on the floor at all times or no outside threats in the backcourt. 

Having said that, I have a bad feeling that the final three cuts are going to be McGee, Green and Gordon.  Every indication so far has been that Coach K and his staff are enamored of Rose, Westbrook and Rondo, and Curry absolutely needs to make the team.  That leaves Gordon as the odd man out, assuming they don't want to have half there team under 6'4".

The bottom line of course is that Gordon is in the process of making his case right now.  If he makes the team, it will be on the strength of his defense and as an all around scorer, who is capable of hitting from deep or taking the ball to the rack.  It wouldn't hurt if he would focus on rebounding a bit this week.