Of the five players who made the All-NBA First Team this year, only one made the trip to Rio. So why is he the one coming off the bench?
Team USA hasn’t quite lived up to what many people expected. They’ve looked shockingly mortal in their last few games, although they’ve eked out narrow wins in all three. While they’ve had far and away the best offense among all qualifying teams, their defense has been extremely suspect. The starting lineup (Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, and DeMarcus Cousins) in particular look like NBA rookies on that end, continuously falling victim to simple back cuts and miscommunication on screens.
Right now, Cousins is one of the bigger weak spots on the team. He’s had issues with fouls limiting him in several games, but even when he’s been on the floor he hasn’t had much of a positive impact. He’s not a bad defender in the NBA when trying, but in the Olympics he’s had major struggles even though the effort is clearly there.
His fit in the starting lineup is also an issue. He’s unable to protect the rim (important when Durant and Anthony are his frontcourt partners, and when they’ve also been bad defensively), and on offense he’s unable to get as many touches as he should due to playing with three ball-dominant scorers. With little ball movement, the starters have isolated a lot and taking turns going at the defense.
Much of the blame falls on Coach K for not doing anything to address these issues, especially when the solution is staring at him from his bench — the guy who made All-Defensive First Team the last two years, and has more experience than anyone thriving alongside ball-dominant offensive stars.
DeAndre has struggled on defense at times too, but overall he’s been better than Cousins or Draymond Green (having a pretty poor Olympics of his own) on that end. But it’s on offense where his impact has been seen the most. As soon as Jordan enters the game, he sets screens and rolls to the rim — something no else is bringing to the team right now.
His presence and vertical gravity allows for ballhandlers to get more penetration off the pick-and-roll, collapsing defenses and generating sorely missed ball movement. When guys drive the lane, they’re able to throw the ball to him for easy lobs. He’s also shown off some nifty passing at times, surprising many fans unaware of his high BBIQ. He’s been one of the best players on the team so far this Olympics.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to Clippers fans that he’s thrived in his role. He’s a star, but an elite role-playing one. On a team full of stars, guys are needed who are willing to do the dirty work and make great team plays without the ball. Jordan’s more than capable of that; it’s what he’s done his entire career with the Clippers.
DeAndre has arguably outplayed Boogie in every game except the opener against China. In their last game against France, Jordan finished with a team-high +12 plus-minus, while Cousins ended with a team-worst -5. Jordan’s scored more efficiently, played better defense, and hasn’t had problems with fouls or turnovers like Cousins has.
He makes a lot more sense for a starting lineup desperate for ball movement and defense. With DeAndre on the floor setting screens and creating space, the starters will be less likely to revert to taking jumpers and more likely to find driving lanes to the rim. Thompson can run around Jordan screens for open jumpers much like J.J. Redick does in the regular season. And if the defense cheats off DAJ even a small bit, he’s there to throw down thunderous lobs from his teammates. Meanwhile, putting Cousins in the second unit allows him to play with more plus defenders, and lets him become more a featured option offensively if his play improves.
The solution is obvious, should Coach K choose to see it. Do the right thing and play the First Team center with your starters, and the Second Team center with your reserves.