For all the talk of the rejuvenation of USA Basketball after some non-Gold finishes in the early part of the new century, the formula wasn't really all that complex. Jerry Colangelo spoke of three year commitments and role players, but really there was one thing that put the Americans back on the top podium step -- the best players were playing.
Even in 2010 in the World Cup in Turkey, when LeBron James and Dwight Howard and Chris Paul and other Olympians took the summer off, Team USA had two future NBA MVPs to carry the team in Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose. It's not really all that complex -- the team with the most talent usually wins.
In 2014 in Spain, Team USA's talent advantage is dwindling by the day.
Look at the 15 players chosen on either the first, second or third team All NBA last season. Those players break down as follows:
Two of them (Joakim Noah and Tony Parker) are French and obviously ineligible to play for the US.
Goran Dragic is Slovenian.
Al Jefferson was never a part of the selection pool.
Three players in the Team USA pool opted out of the 2014 selection process in advance (James, Paul and Howard).
LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin (injured back) declined invitations.
Kevin Love opted out because of his uncertain trade status.
Paul George was injured in a Team USA scrimmage.
And today, Durant pulled out due to "physical and mental fatigue".
That's 12 of 15 All NBA players, nine of them American, who will NOT be playing for the US in Spain. That's to say nothing of 2013 All NBA players Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, David Lee and Dwyane Wade. Adding those six names into the mix, that's 15 American All NBA players since the last Olympics that will not be playing in Spain.
Who will be playing? James Harden, Stephen Curry (both locks to make the team) and Damian Lillard (the fourth point guard if he does make the final cut) are the only three All NBA players who could represent the US in Spain at the end of August. And then there's Rose, who has barely played basketball over the past two years due to multiple injuries. Coach Mike Krzyzewski had better be correct about Rose returning to full health if he plans to rely on superstars the way he has in recent years.
The US is lucky that Parker has decided to rest this summer rather than playing for France, or they might be at an actual talent deficit, at least as measured by NBA accolades. As it is, they will be facing a Spain team that is loaded with front court talent (Marc Gasol, 2013 All NBA second team and Pau Gasol, 2011 All NBA second team), precisely where Team USA lacks elite talent.
All of which raises questions about this edition of Team USA. Coach K has played progressively smaller and smaller in his tenure as the US coach, but 2014 may set the bar even lower, as it were. It now seems likely that Rose, Curry, Lillard and Kyrie Irving could all make the team and represent a significant portion of the elite scoring talent, raising the prospect of a three point guard lineup with Rose at small forward. Durant (a small forward most of the time in the NBA but a power forward to Coach K) is the fourth power forward to defect, and George figured to play some four in Coach K's small ball lineups as well. So who plays the four now? Kenneth Faried is the only true four left, but it would not surprise me to see Chandler Parsons or Gordon Hayward or Kyle Korver as the second biggest player on the court for Krzyzewski. Or maybe James Harden will be Krzyzewski's power forward -- honestly, it could happen.
Anthony Davis is another player with superstar potential on the roster, and the mass exodus of bigs leaves a huge load for Davis to shoulder. He's a beast -- but is he ready to single handedly grab every rebound and clog the lane against the likes of the Gasol brothers and Nikola Pekovic and Jonas Valunciunas?
Consider also DeMarcus Cousins. When Colangelo took over the reigns at Team USA, there was a lot of talk about choosing only players who would represent their country with the utmost decorum -- while Cousins is the poster child for talented but immature NBA players. Team USA needs Cousins -- but can they afford to have him there? Bear in mind also that five fouls is a disqualification in FIBA play and technical fouls count towards that total. How long can Cousins even stay on the floor in Spain?
And what of Harden? He's loved taking every shot in Houston, but it didn't exactly help the Rockets win in the playoffs. He's going to have a massive role in Team USA's offense, which relies heavily on isolation if they can't get transition baskets. Get ready for a LOT of Harden jab steps and step back threes, which may not exactly be a great thing for Team USA.
A lineup of Rose, Curry, Irving, Harden and Davis is arguably the most talented group that Team USA can put on the floor. It seems ridiculous, but honestly it's really just a logical progression of what Krzyzewski has already been doing with Team USA. It might actually work -- depending on if Curry and Irving and Harden can find the will to play pressure defense, which is a big difference between this group and the 2010 team that featured Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon.
The various withdrawals and the injury to George have suddenly made this a wide open World Cup tournament. The US will certainly have the most talented group, as they always have since the inclusion of NBA players, but most of their talent will be on the perimeter. The team certainly has shooting -- Curry, Korver, Harden, Klay Thompson -- and they will almost certainly shoot more threes than any team in history, given the roster and the way Krzyzewski has been trending lately both with Team USA and with Duke.
It will probably be enough to win the Gold medal -- but a massive Spain front court and challenges from several other fronts will push this suddenly vulnerable team at every turn.