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…

 

 

It’s All Star Time

Welcome to the halfway point of the 2015-16 NBA season! We have two teams playing at historic levels in the Warriors and Spurs, an oddly desperate conference champion favorite in Cleveland and two surging teams in OKC and LAC. In other words, order has been somewhat restored on the West vs. East Conference front. There is still a giant middle class of good-not great teams out East but, as we will see with the All Star rosters and later with our Olympic picks, most of the top talent and thus upper crust dwells in the West.

The Fan Voting is in for All-Star, but this space will ignore that fact. These picks are based on who has played the best in the first half of the season, pretty novel idea, right? Like everything, we tend to overthink these rosters. Here is my effort to make sense of what I’ve watched this year. The starting lineups are based on two guards and three front court players, with the reserves sort of organized along positional lines. Without further ado:

DotB Eastern Conference All-Stars

Starters

G – Kyle Lowry, Raptors

G – Jimmy Butler, Bulls

FC – LeBron James, Cavaliers

FC – Paul George, Pacers

FC – Andre Drummond, Pistons

The only one here I needed to think twice about was Drummond, the other four were locks for me as starters. Hurting his case the most is his horrid free throw shooting, but I couldn’t ignore the massive rebounding numbers (15.5 per game, 5.5 offensive rebounds, whopping 33% defensive rebounding rate). Drummond has anchored Detroit’s resurgence, still getting better as a post scorer and can protect the rim when energized. Drummond gets extra love in this space as an old-school post force down on the block.

Skinny Kyle Lowry has been an offensive technician and leader for the Raptors, helping them stay in the upper half of the East playoff race much of the year. His weight loss hasn’t hurt his ability to compete on defense and if anything has given him more stamina on that end.

Butler is having a stunning season for the wildly inconsistent Bulls. He’s been their rock and one of their only constants. The 40-point second half against Toronto and the 50-point effort against Philly carved his spot in stone and made the league take notice. He’s jumped up a level this season and is earning his new contract in a big way.

LeBron and George are no-brainers, two of the top 10 players in the sport. A lot has been made of James’ supposed slippage this season and it’s sort of fair. Still 80 percent of LeBron is one of the best basketball players in the world. He’s carrying Cleveland to a runaway top seed even without Kyrie Irving for much of the season and an up and down Kevin Love performance. James is averaging 25 points, seven rebounds and six assists per 36 minutes – another master stroke in his 13th NBA season. George, meanwhile, has carried the surprising Pacers in a monster comeback season after a terrible leg injury. He’s tailed off a bit since his white-hot start but is still putting up 24, 7.5 and 4 per 36 minutes and a 20.8 PER.

Reserves

John Wall, Wizards

DeMar DeRozan, Raptors

Carmelo Anthony, Knicks

Pau Gasol, Bulls

Chris Bosh, Heat

Reggie Jackson, Pistons

Paul Millsap, Hawks

The perennially underrated Bosh was a lock, as were Wall, DeRozan and Gasol. Wall is single-handedly keeping the Wizards afloat and has overcome a slowish start nicely. DeRozan is getting to the rim with abandon and gets to the line eight times a game. In an era of jump shooters, he’s playing like a Clyde Drexler throwback slasher and I love it. Gasol is the other constant on the Bulls, he gets in even though his defense drives me nuts. Sure he’s getting blocks but he turns his nose up at pick-and-roll defense and is allergic to rotating. However, his 19 and 12 per 36 is too hard to ignore.

Carmelo has exited his prime as a pure scorer but is transitioning nicely to more of a facilitator role and stepped up his defense this season. The Knicks are actually a feel-good story and it’s not all Porzingis…Melo is still the engine in New York. I had to get a Hawk on the team and Millsap edges out Al Horford just barely. Jackson edges out Isaiah Thomas because of the huge responsibility he has shouldered as the key-turner in Detroit’s pick-and-roll heavy attack. He has a 29.0 usage rate, and he and Drummond’s rapid chemistry is one of the stories of the season.

East Breakdown – I’ve got just one Cav (James), since Kyrie has been hurt; two Raptors, two Bulls, two Pistons, a Hawk, a Knick, a Pacer, a Wizard and a Heat. Only the Wizards and Knicks are outside the top-8 in the standings.

 

Western Conference

Starters

G – Stephen Curry, Warriors

G – Russell Westbrook, Thunder

FC – Kevin Durant, Thunder

FC – Kawhi Leonard, Spurs

FC – Draymond Green, Warriors

Notice a theme here? The top three teams in the West are so far above everyone else and it becomes self-evident in the All-Star Starters. This devastating small-ball lineup would wipe the floor with the East starting five. We won’t have this starting five in real life since Kobe was voted a starter by the fans, but here’s hoping this group gets some minutes together. Draymond and Kawhi will play lockdown, versatile defense, while the other three light up the scoreboard. I can’t wait.

Curry is proving he’s the greatest shooter of all time and figures to repeat as MVP. The fact Kawhi is in the conversation for MVP is remarkable, given how transcendent Curry has been. Kawhi is the best defender in the league and has been among the league percentage leaders in three point shooting, drives to the rim and midrange shooting. There’s nothing he can’t do at an expert level. Durant and Westbrook are generational talents that happen to play on the same team. Durant’s comeback from foot injury has been a blessing to basketball fans and a reminder of his brilliance. Westbrook is the human highlight reel. His shoes should be checked for bottle rocket implants. I’ve talked about Draymond a lot in this space before, but it bears repeating – the Warriors are not the Warriors without him. His ability to guard five positions, while running the “read option” off Curry pick-and-rolls and filling up the stat sheet (including three straight triple-doubles) makes him a new category of NBA player.

I love this starting five so much.

Reserves

Chris Paul, Clippers

Klay Thompson, Warriors

Blake Griffin, Clippers

LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs

Anthony Davis, Pelicans

James Harden, Rockets

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings

I tussled with the decision between Cousins and Dirk Nowitzki more than any other in this whole exercise. At first glance it seems like a classic stats vs. team success conflict. Cousins’ numbers are gaudy and much higher than Dirk’s (26 to 18 points per game; 11.4 to 6.1 rebounds; 23.8 to 19.9 PER). Yet Dirk’s Mavs have been a pleasant surprise this season, at 25-19 led by its German star, brilliant coach and smoke and mirrors. Meanwhile the Kings are under .500 and may earn the dubious prize of sneaking into the 8th seed in the West. But when Boogie hasn’t played, due to injury or suspension, his below-average team becomes horrid. The Kings are 18-16 with Boogie in the starting lineup, and just 1-7 without him, losing those seven games by an average of 12 points. They crater without their star big man. Hurting Boogie’s case is his 44% shooting from the floor and the fact that Dirk has slightly more win shares; again due to his team being higher in the standings. It hurts to leave Dirk out, especially the way he’s stepped up in clutch situations and led his team in his 18th season. But I can’t ignore Boogie’s production.

Similarly, cases can be made against Harden and Davis but come on, they’re All Stars. Both have led their teams to massively disappointing seasons, and Harden in particular has been frustrating with his regression on defense and overall lackadaisical approach. But he’s putting up 28, 6 and 7 and the Rockets have gotten mildly better since a disaster start. Davis hasn’t met the astronomical expectations this year but is still probably the first or second player I’d pick to start a franchise. He’s 22 years old and putting up 23 and 10, with 2. blocks and 1.3 steals a game. I can’t hold him out just because his team is poorly constructed and devastated by injury.

Thompson is the Warriors’ third All-Star – I have a rule that any 39-4 team gets at least three All-Stars. He’s been great. Paul and Griffin are locks. While Aldridge has adjusted seamlessly to his new team, giving the Spurs a devastating front court on both ends, leading to one of the best team defensive seasons of all time.

Last ones out – Damian Lillard, Karl Anthony-Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, CJ McCollum

West Breakdown – Three Warriors, two Spurs, two Thunder, two Clippers, a Pelican, a Rocket and a King.

I’ll be at the Mavericks-Thunder game tonight, where hopefully Dirk makes me look foolish for leaving him off my roster. Looking forward to seeing him do battle with Westbrook and Durant. Pics to follow!