Technically, not a single American superstar has ruled out playing for Team USA at the 2020 Olympics. That doesn’t guarantee a loaded roster, of course. The yesses Team USA has gotten have been tenuous at best. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have that they for Team USA. Draymond Green’s qualifier was that he “hopes” to. These are soft affirmations, setting circumstance up as the bad guy should they decide to sit out. Many will.
But let’s pretend that they won’t. Let’s imagine a world in which every American basketball player on Earth is willing to play for Team USA in Tokyo next summer. Suddenly, Jerry Colangelo’s job becomes far more difficult. Rather than desperately recruiting players, he needs to be able to turn away the sort of difference-makers that might have been able to win Team USA the World Cup. With nearly an unlimited talent pool to choose from, he would need to be able to discern what actually matters in building an international roster. In this world, what are the traits he should look for?
Cohesion would be a nice place to start. The French team that knocked Team USA out of the World Cup has had the same coach for over a decade and has spent the better part of that time with this core in place. The Spanish team that won the tournament had been together even longer. Its five leaders in minutes during the World Cup have all been on the senior national team since at least the 2012 Olympics.
Stylistic diversity would be nice as well. Team USA didn’t have a true power forward on its roster in the World Cup. Its starting backcourt featured two extremely redundant players in Kemba Walker and Donovan Mitchell. It had only one center it was comfortable turning to, yet assigned nearly equal minutes to its wings as if it were a little league team, making it hard for any of them to find their footing.
And, if possible, rewarding history with the program would be preferable. If American players feel as if they can skip out on World Cups and still play in the Olympics, they will do so. So in a perfect world, this team should include a few members of this World Cup team in order to prove the tournament’s viability as an Olympic feeder. Colangelo said that he wouldn’t forget the players that dropped out of the World Cup, and he shouldn’t.
So with all of that in mind, let’s build the perfect 12-man Team USA roster.
The locks (6)
There are six players that should be considered absolute locks for this roster, short of injury rendering them unable to play. Those players are:
LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard are absolute slam dunks. They are, by many measures the three best players in the NBA. James is a three-time Olympian, so he will serve as the elder statesman of this team, while Curry and Leonard will be making their Olympic debut. Neither will have to do so alone.
In the interest of chemistry, bringing a teammate of each was a priority. Fortunately, they all have worthy cohorts to bring to Tokyo. Anthony Davis is the best big man in the NBA, and his pick-and-roll with James is going to be nearly unstoppable against inferior FIBA defenses. Paul George and Draymond Green both played on the 2016 Olympic team, and both fit in well as role players on this squad, thanks to their excellent defense and versatile offensive games.
These players are the obvious core of this roster. The six of them could be deployed in nearly any alignment and create a virtually unbeatable lineup. Every roster choice made from here on out will be in service of supplementing these six players.
The specialists (3)
The six players above represent more than enough star power to win this tournament. What we need now are the sort of role players that can support them. With only one (offensively-minded) guard in place, we need a defensive-minded backup. We also need a backup center, as Davis is the only big man currently in place. Finally, five of our six players are fairly ball-dominant, so we’ll need a shooter comfortable playing off of the ball. These choices should more than suffice:
Jrue Holiday was the easiest choice here. He makes sense for all of the same reasons that Marcus Smart did for the World Cup team, except he is a far more reliable offensive player. His biggest flaw in the NBA is that he prefers to play off of the ball, but the Pelicans have struggled to find suitable point guards for him. That won’t be an issue here. Imagine a defensive lineup featuring Holiday, George, Leonard, Green and Davis. Good luck scoring on that group.
Joe Harris eked out the shooting slot over JJ Redick because of his strong World Cup, in which he shot 50 percent from behind the arc and came through as a surprisingly clutch rebounder. His performance in that tournament should be rewarded.
Myles Turner earned the backup center slot in the World Cup, yes, but the thin pool of American big men didn’t hurt his chances either. All three All-NBA centers last season were foreign, as were the top two vote-getters who missed the cut. That doesn’t even include Al Horford, Marc Gasol or Kristaps Porzingis. Most of the NBA’s best big men right now aren’t American, so with limited competition, Turner is the clear choice as our backup center.
The wildcards (3)
To be clear, if Kevin Durant and Thompson are healthy enough to play, two of these spots should go to them. We’ll assume for the moment that they aren’t, though, and fill out the roster accordingly. With only limited minutes still available, it comes down to what this roster can actually use. With that, we’ll settle on the following three players:
These were, obviously, the three hardest slots to fill in the tournament. Kemba Walker’s strong World Cup wins him the backup point guard job over a very crowded field. Around half a dozen players made sense for that spot, but the tie goes to seniority.
That played a part in Kevin Love winning the final big man spot, but it was his experience playing off of the ball that really sewed it up for him. Love is happy just to get rebounds and stand behind the 3-point line if it helps his team win. There wasn’t another power forward in consideration that could say the same.
And Malcolm Brogdon? He’s the safe choice for a slot that won’t see much playing time. It also balances a roster that already had four big men and four wings. Another true guard was necessary in case of injury. Brogdon can fit in with a fully loaded American team as a 3-and-D maestro, or he could fill in a bigger role if necessary, as he had for the Milwaukee Bucks.
In no particular order, these were the most difficult snubs from this roster:
- James Harden: This is the obvious name fans will see missing from the team, but the truth is, he would have served no function on this roster. There is more than enough scoring here, and his style discourages the sort of ball movement that FIBA play is predicated on. Russell Westbrook was never strongly considered for the same reasons.
- LaMarcus Aldridge: His experience with Gregg Popovich was a plus, but he lost his spot because Love has so much more history as a role player.
- Damian Lillard: He lost his spot when Aldridge did. Reuniting the two was a strong consideration, but once Love secured the final power forward spot, Walker’s strong World Cup nudged him past Lillard.
- Bradley Beal: There was an element of redundancy here, though not as strong as Harden’s. Beal probably could have functioned within the off-ball shooting role earmarked for Harris, but he has become a far more well-rounded NBA player than that. He is overqualified for that role in ways that Harris, who played it very well in the World Cup, just isn’t.
- Khris Middleton: Three-and-D players are always appreciated, but Leonard and George can function in that role in this setting, and Middleton’s inconsistent World Cup cost him a spot.
- Zion Williamson: Adding him as a transition element was extremely tempting, but until we see him play in the NBA, that leaves far too much to chance.
Team USA could build a gold medal-winning roster using only snubs from this roster, as many of the best players in the world didn’t make the cut here. But as Team USA has learned on several occasions, picking the best players isn’t the goal. The goal is to pick the best team.
The final roster
Here is how our depth chart shakes out:
PG: Stephen Curry | Kemba Walker
SG: Jrue Holiday | Joe Harris | Malcolm Brogdon
SF: Kawhi Leonard | Paul George
PF: LeBron James | Draymond Green | Kevin Love
C: Anthony Davis | Myles Turner
George could theoretically start at shooting guard, but giving the bench a bit of extra firepower in the early going makes sense. He will close games alongside the other four starters. Otherwise, there’s no debating the pecking order here.
Taken as a whole, this roster has everything. It can play small with either James or Green at center. It can play big with James at point guard and Davis sharing the floor with Love or Turner. Green is the only unreliable shooter on the entire roster, but his passing is at a premium in FIBA play. This team can field a starting lineup with five perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidates. It can also go five-out and space opponents to death.
Every player on this roster except for Brogdon and Leonard have played on the senior men’s national team in either the Olympics or a World Cup. Every player on this roster except for Walker will have played with at least one other member of this team in the NBA. It would be easy to ignore the disappointing World Cup team that just finished in seventh, but by including Walker, Harris and Turner, it sends a message that participation in the program is rewarded.
Nobody on this roster would clamor for more shots or minutes. There would be no struggle to establish roles. If Team USA truly fielded this roster, it would waltz to a gold medal no matter who stood in its way.