Rio Semis: Team USA Faces Biggest Challenge Yet

United States basketball enthusiasts took a collective deep breath after Team USA’s convincing win over Argentina in Wednesday’s quarterfinals. But the sense of relief was short-lived. Spain awaits, today at 1:30 pm (Central), a foe that suddenly looks tough as ever. Team USA is undefeated in the Rio Olympics but three straight close calls against Serbia, France and Australia brought about chatter that the Americans are beatable. We were seemingly in desperate need of stars like LeBron James, Steph Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. A better defensive showing and standout scoring performances from Kevin Durant and Paul George quieted those concerns somewhat.

But Argentina is an aging team that lacked the depth to really pose a threat to Team USA. Spain might be different. Fresh off a 92-67 thrashing of France, Spain’s 0-2 Group stage start is a distant memory. The Spaniards lost by seven to Team USA in the 2012 Gold Medal game and much of that team is still here for the rematch this afternoon. Two notable exceptions are Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, leaving Spain measurably weaker in terms of post defense. The United States needs to be able to exploit that weakness. Centers DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan have had uneven performances in Rio, Cousins limited by foul trouble and weak pick-and-roll defense and Jordan by his one-dimensional attack down low. One of the two needs to show out today for the Americans. Cousins in particular should be able to get his against Pau Gasol and Willy Hernangomez.

Coach K’s team fixed many  of its defensive issues against Argentina, after allowing a 120 defensive rating in their three previous games. Nikola Mirotic has been red-hot, especially from three. Team USA needs to throw a relentless combination of George, Durant and Draymond Green at him. That is, if Green even gets meaningful playing time for once, one of the big head scratchers of these Olympics. We can expect Ricky Rubio to be glued to Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry, so the USA’s wing scorers will be key to the team’s scoring. Klay Thompson followed up his 30-point outburst against France with just four points in the Argentina game. He needs to be better today. Thompson, George and Jimmy Butler have an opportunity to go off, as Spain keys in on Durant and doubles in the post.

Much of the concern facing the USA in this game stems from Spain’s demolition of France. It’s important, however, to remember that France is not Team USA. Nicolas Batum no-showed, Tony Parker is on his last legs and Evan Fournier was left off the French roster. The Americans should absolutely win today’s game, if they simply play to their strengths and with the tenacity they showed against Argentina. Oh, and Coach K needs to continue to rely on his transcendent star (Durant), versatile wings (Butler, Thompson, George) and maybe give Draymond a chance.

Prediction: USA 96, Spain 82

Olympic Roster Rapidly Dwindling

Be it due to injury, fears of mosquitoes carrying Zika Virus or just summer vacation, big names continue to drop from the once-astonishing Men’s National Team roster. Just this past week, Russell Westbrook and James Harden have taken their names out of consideration for the 12-player squad looking for another gold medal in Rio this summer.

In January  I mused about the potential this team had to rival the 1992 Dream Team in talent and star power with my proposed final roster. I revised it a couple months later after  Anthony Davis got hurt and Chris Paul pulled out. Just take a look at what could have been, before we get into picking the actual, more watered-down (h/t Tracy McGrady) roster:

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Revised Olympic Roster Predictions (UPDATE)

Since I posted my Olympic roster picks in January two spots have opened up and, though we will all miss Anthony Davis and Chris Paul in Rio, we at least get to revisit this exercise! Davis will be forced to miss the Olympics as he’ll still be recovering from knee surgery and Paul decided to give his aging body a summer vacation – can’t blame him for that. So very quickly, here’s a reminder of who made my team the first time around, plus a list of the final players cut:

PG – Steph Curry

PG -€“ Chris Paul

PG/SG – Russell Westbrook

SG -€“ Jimmy Butler

G/F – Kawhi Leonard

F – LeBron James

F -€“ Carmelo Anthony

F – Paul George

F -€“ Kevin Durant

F – Draymond Green

F/C -€“ Anthony Davis

C – DeMarcus Cousins

Alternates – (F) Blake Griffin, (G) John Wall, (G) James Harden

Final cuts – Kyrie Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan, Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan

The first thought that entered my mind when I heard Paul was bowing out was that Damian Lillard would be jumping into at least an alternate spot if not onto the 12-man roster due to his surreal play since the All-Star Break. But then I looked back at the list of qualifiers, and in a goddamn travesty, Lillard didn’t even make the cut! Really?!? Dame isn’t a top 30 player, Team USA? The only good that can come of this omission is a Dame diss track aimed at Coach K. OK, after some more digging I can be calmed down. Apparently Lillard was added to the pool thanks to his recent exploits. My bad. He takes Paul’s place for me, and playing with the best of the best will hopefully improve his defense.

Replacing Davis is tougher, as he could play center with a small ball lineup of five shooters or slide to the 4 to play next to Cousins in a deadly frontcourt alignment. Normally Blake would be the call, as he is versatile enough to play those same roles. But uncertainty over his health and recent issues off the court make him sort of a wild card. Let’s see how he does in this postseason, where he can easily prove himself worthy of a spot on this team. For now, though, let’s slot in his teammate Jordan, who’s had a phenomenal two-way season and provides our Olympic team much-needed rim protection. So here’s my revised 12-man roster + alternates, as of March 29:

Guards – Curry, Lillard, Westbrook, Butler, Leonard

Forwards – James, Anthony, George, Durant, Green

Centers – Cousins, Jordan (unless Blake is 100%)

Alternates – Harden, Griffin, Thompson

I welcome your debate/scorn in the comments.

 

Projecting the 2016 Olympic Roster

It must be pretty sweet to be Coach K. I think that’s pretty undebatable. I only sympathize with the tough task he has ahead of him, cutting down this roster of 30 NBA stars to a final team of 12. The collection of talent below is truly astounding and it must be hard to tell NBA superstars “thanks, but no thanks…we won’t be needing you”.

Then again, the USA Olympics team is 129-7 with him on the coaching staff, he’s collected two Olympic gold medals and a FIBA gold medal, and he’s won the NCAA tournament five times. Any scorned player needs to get on his level before they’re allowed to pout. Besides, it will be a monumental surprise if the 2016 USA Men’s installment doesn’t roll to another gold medal. It’s good to be the basketball coach king.

Here is the 30-man roster that was announced on Jan. 18, broken down into guards, forwards and centers:

Guards

Bradley Beal, Wizards

Jimmy Butler, Bulls

Mike Conley, Grizzlies

Stephen Curry, Warriors

DeMar DeRozan, Raptors

James Harden, Rockets

Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers

Chris Paul, Clippers

Klay Thompson, Warriors

John Wall, Wizards

Russell Westbrook, Thunder

Forwards

LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs

Harrison Barnes, Warriors

Kevin Durant, Thunder

Kenneth Faried, Nuggets

Rudy Gay, Kings

Paul George, Pacers

Draymond Green, Warriors

Blake Griffin, Clippers

Gordon Hayward, Jazz

Andre Iguodala, Warriors

Kawhi Leonard, Spurs

Kevin Love, Cavaliers

LeBron James, Cavaliers

Carmelo Anthony, Knicks

Centers

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings

Anthony Davis, Pelicans

Andre Drummond, Pistons

Dwight Howard, Rockets

DeAndre Jordan, Clippers

 

I am going to tackle this by making three cuts to get down to the final 12 roster. But first a quick word about snubs. There are a few players I think should have made it to this hallowed 30-man list. The most glaring omission to me is Chris Bosh, who can never get enough respect. A future Hall of Famer in my book, it’s almost criminal to leave him on the outside looking in while Love, Faried, Iguodala, Gay and Barnes make it in as forwards. Bosh is someone who could make a final 12-man roster and it wouldn’t be crazy. Strange omission. Next up is Kyle Lowry, who saw his backcourt mate DeRozan make it, but not himself. Now, Lowry is a casualty of the loaded point guard group and wouldn’t beat out Curry, Westbrook, Irving, Wall, etc. for the final team. But as the leader of a 30-15 Raptors squad who scores, distributes and defends I think he deserves a spot. Knock an extra forward out for Lowry (I’m looking at you Faried). Others with a case to be included are Damian Lillard (again a point guard casualty), Derrick Favors (injuries have hurt his case), Derrick Rose (injuries and declining play) and Paul Millsap. Kobe Bryant mercifully announced he wouldn’t be trying out for the team, so he did not get a legacy spot in the 30-man group.

In 2012, the final roster included 5 guards, 6 forwards and 1 center, for reference, and the alternates were Anthony Davis, Rudy Gay and Eric Gordon. Without further ado…

First Cut – 10 players

Faried; Gay; Iguodala; Hayward; Barnes; Love; Howard; Conley; Beal; Drummond.

I assume Faried and Gay were included because they have Olympic experience. However, they were easy cuts in a crowded group of forwards. Iggy played well for the 2012 team and is an awesome role player for the Warriors but this is as far as I can advance him in 2016. I love Hayward’s shooting and think he’ll be on this team in the future, but he’s not quite ready. I’m scared to see Howard and Drummond miss free throws in crucial moments. Howard is past his prime but Drummond was a more difficult cut. He also has a future on the team I believe. Conley is the first point guard out, as there are just too many stars at the position. Beal hasn’t shown he can stay healthy, while Love and Barnes are additional forward casualties. Love’s game has stagnated in Cleveland and Barnes, while a key cog in the Warriors’ machine, isn’t on the Olympic level at this point.

Second Cut – 5 players

Aldridge; DeRozan; Jordan; Thompson; Irving.

Now it starts getting real hard. Blake and Cousins edge out Aldridge just barely. I had to cut two great shooting guards in DeRozan and Thompson. Klay was especially tough, but Butler and Harden beat him out by the slimmest of margins for me. Jordan is in the midst of his best pro season, but similar to Howard and Drummond, his horrendous free throw shooting cost him. There will be no “Hack-A” against Team USA.

Now a few words about John Wall vs. Kyrie Irving. I went back and forth on these two a hundred times. Whether it’s an All-Star team, an Olympic roster or a friendly argument amongst friends, it always seems to come down to Wall and Irving. Both are electric with the ball in their hands, quicker than just about any other basketball players on Earth. Kyrie gets more spotlight because he plays with LeBron and he’s prone to 50-point scoring outbursts. Wall is a more traditional mold of point guard, though his team’s offense has struggled mightily this season. How much of that can be pinned on him is debatable. Kyrie frustrates because he refuses to get Love involved more in the Cavs offense, seemingly a joint decision with LeBron. Yet Kyrie, when healthy, shows flashes of being a generational talent. I chose Wall for two reasons – I like Wall’s defense much better and I feel he’s more comfortable as a distributor to the many stars he’d be sharing the court with on an Olympic team. Kyrie just is a bit too ball-dominant for these purposes.

Final Cut – 3 players

First, the locks. LeBron, Curry, Durant, Melo, Westbrook, Davis, George, Kawhi and Paul all have to be on my team. No negotiations there – not even with Melo, who is automatic after his previous Olympic heroics. Which doesn’t leave space for any more point guards, but we probably need at least one center, a forward and definitely a shooting guard. Russ can play minutes at the 2, but we need a pure shooting guard to fill out the roster. So I will need to pick three players out of the following pool: Wall, Harden, Butler, Cousins, Green and Griffin.

All of my inner torment over Wall and Irving is moot, because I’m cutting Wall anyway. He’ll be an alternate. I can’t make a case for him over Curry, Paul or Westbrook, nor can I justify carrying four point guards.

As mentioned I need a shooting guard, and Jimmy Buckets is the pick over Harden. He’s earned it with a remarkable year and a half of carrying the Bulls on his back. He can shoot, defend and get to the rim when he wants to; plus he brings a work ethic and competitiveness that will be an asset on the world stage. I know Harden won a gold medal in 2012, but he will have to settle for being an alternate on my team. Am I a Bulls homer? Yes.

That leaves Cousins, Green and Griffin. There is no right answer here. Currently my de facto center is Anthony Davis, which works fine for international play but leaves us very one-dimensional as a small ball attack when Davis sits. For that reason I’m leaning toward including Boogie. But the other two have very strong cases themselves.

No doubt Griffin has hurt his standing with his recent assault of an equipment manager. He’s done damage to his image as well as his shooting hand. But can I really leave off Blake? He is one of the game’s premier stars and a potential juggernaut at the international level, too quick for big men and too powerful for small forwards to deal with. In a vacuum, I’d take him over Boogie, but considering we already have Durant, LeBron, Davis, George and Kawhi – and the roster really needs a true center – I’m leaning towards leaving him off.

That’s because the more I think about it I simply have to include Draymond. His swiss army style lends itself perfectly to Olympic play, as he can play 3-4 positions and defend all five. He will bring Team USA the confidence and swagger it deserves, while not worrying about lack of shots or playing time. His last two NBA seasons are nuts. Nobody knows how to defend his unique blend of passing, decision-making and shooting. Put him on the floor with Kawhi and George, and neither France nor Spain nor Serbia will be able to get off a good shot. Draymond’s in and I can’t wait.

Which leaves me with Boogie or Blake. Screw it, I’m taking Boogie. The downside is his propensity for being a malcontent that bitches at refs, coaches and teammates. You’re risking an international incident if he choke-slams a Turk or something. I am fully aware of this. But he’s a monster in the paint that no country will have an answer for, and if need be, Jerry Colangelo can orchestrate an “undisclosed injury” and swap in Blake.

So here is Down on the Block’s vote for the final 12-man Olympic roster. I’m salivating.

PG – Steph Curry

PG – Chris Paul

PG/SG – Russell Westbrook

SG – Jimmy Butler

G/F – Kawhi Leonard

F – LeBron James

F – Carmelo Anthony

F – Paul George

F – Kevin Durant

F – Draymond Green

F/C – Anthony Davis

C – DeMarcus Cousins

Alternates – (F) Blake Griffin, (G) John Wall, (G) James Harden

If that’s not a gold medal team, I don’t know what is. I fully reserve the right to make changes as the rest of the regular season and playoffs play out. You may think I need another 2-guard / shooter, and I’m willing to listen. But I think we can get by with the shooting of Curry, Leonard, Butler, George, Durant, Carmelo and Green. It will be up to Coach K to determine minutes, ideal lineups and rotations, which will be tough especially among the forwards. But THOSE FORWARDS…my God. I need to go take a cold shower…