In an announcement that came a couple of days earlier than expected, USA Basketball released the final twelve player roster that will compete for the US in the 2010 World Championships of Basketball in Turkey, which begin on Saturday. The team had previously trimmed the roster to 13, and Rajon Rondo turned out to be the odd man out. In the press release, USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo characterized it as Rondo's decision, saying that he offered to withdraw to take care of some family matters. That was no doubt a cover story to help Rondo save face, as he had fallen out of Coach Mike Krzyzewski's rotation by Sunday's exhibition against Spain. But more on that another time, let's get back to Gordon.
When Eric Gordon joined the broader USA Basketball roster in July 2009, it was an honor for the young player even to be asked. But with Redeem Team veterans Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Michael Redd already on the roster, not to mention Brandon Roy ahead of him in the perceived pecking order, it seemed as if Gordon would have to bide his time before he'd get a chance to play for the red, white and blue, if indeed that chance ever came. That all changed when all of the Redeem Team decided to take the summer off for various reasons, and Roy had to miss the competition while recovering from knee surgery. Suddenly, Gordon appeared to have a path to make the roster as one of the only pure shooting guards in camp, and a player who could stretch the defense against the inevitable FIBA zones.
Still, few in the media gave him much of a chance. At the team's camp in Las Vegas, with 19 bodies competing for 15 spots in the first roster reduction, Chris Sheridan of ESPN listed EJ as the second most likely cut, after only Tyreke Evans who had missed most of the camp with a sprained ankle. Instead Gordon moved on in the process, beating out guards Evans and O.J. Mayo.
The tryout process moved next to New York, and from the moment the remaining 15 condidates reconvened, the conventional wisdom held that Gordon was on the bubble. It was widely assumed that Team USA would keep either Gordon or Stephen Curry as a designated shooter, but would not keep both (a strange assumption from the start - if one shooter is good, isn't two shooters better?)
The next two cuts came on August 15, when bigs Jeff Green and JaVale McGee were sent home. With 13 players competing for a dozen spots on the team, and six players at 6'3" or less still around, it seemed inevitable that the final cut would come from the backcourt. The media continued to repeat that it would be either Gordon or Curry - but no one at USA Basketball seemed to agree. Coach K eventually gave Gordon a strong vote of confidence on August 19, which at least opened up the discussion to include some other guards like Russell Westbrook and Rondo.
I'm trying not to hurt my arm patting myself on the back, but in the end, Coach K's rationale for the final cut sounds very similar to what I've been saying since the process began.
- "It's not so much what Rajon has to show, it's what our team needs... Part of it is to make sure that we try not to have two non-shooters out on the court, and there's the physicality, too." Coach K, August 24
- "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.... 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." Clips Nation, August 10
Indeed, I've felt from the beginning that Rondo and Westbrook were redundant on the team. It was impossible to play both of them together in a game that allowed pure zone defenses to pack the lane. While each are terrific talents, their shortcomings as jump shooters and tendency to get out of control were red flags in international competition. Westbrook played especially well against Lithuania and Spain this weekend, which probably sealed Rondo's fate.
In the end, Eric Gordon played his way onto this team. He came in less well known than many of the other players, a fact that Coach K acknowledged last week. But his work ethic in practice and his solid play on the court has given Team USA no choice but to keep him. He may be less flashy than the other guards on the team, but coaches tend to covet solid unspectacular play, especially from their role players. EJ plays unrelenting man to man defense, he doesn't need the ball on offense, he moves the ball well, and in the end Coach K and his staff appreciated the little things he was doing. It hasn't hurt that he has lived up to his reputation as a knockdown shooter.
It's great to see EJ get some exposure. His style of play and quiet personal demeanor, coupled with the fact that he plays for the Clippers, have tended to allow some of his draft mates to overshadow him in their two seasons in the league together. It remains a remarkable draft class - as evidenced by the fact that four members are now on Team USA, Derric Rose, Westbrook and Kevin Love joining EJ - and Gordon is right there at the top of it. It's nice to see him be rewarded in this case for 'playing the right way' (shout out to VDN). I'm reminded of the 2009 Rookie Challenge, when Gordon took (and made) open shots, but passed the ball to his teammates as well, while Michael Beasley showboated shamelessly on his way to 29 points and got all the recognition as the team's leading score. Gordon is on Team USA precisely because he's not treating this process like an All Star game - he's doing the little things that the coaching staff wants him to do, because that's the kind of player he is.
It will be interesting to see what impact this experience has on EJ's NBA season, if any. Clipper fans on the whole feel that Gordon is perhaps too deferential, that he should look for his own shot more. Competing with and against the best players in the world, earning a roster spot on Team USA alongside the likes of Kevin Durant and Chauncey Billups, has got to be a tremendous confidence boost. Let's hope that when he gets back to the Clippers, he realizes that he's one of the top options for the team and that he needs to be aggressive and confident out there.
When the Clippers were courting LeBron James this summer, it was fun to imagine him slotting into a lineup where the other four starters were established and accomplished. You could say that Baron Davis and Chris Kaman were All Stars, that Blake Griffin was a number one overall pick. Now you can add to the list that Eric Gordon is a member of Team USA.