USA Basketball announced its 12-man roster for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last week. The group is missing a few megastars that were expected to be roster locks – guys like reigning two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry, reigning NBA champion and best basketball player alive LeBron James, human foul-drawing machine James Harden, NBA Jam avatar come to life Russell Westbrook and more decided not to make the trip, for reasons ranging from “I’m injured” to “I’m concerned about the Zika virus” and “I want to hang out with the Larry O’Brien trophy all summer.”
Still, the US will enter the tournament as the overwhelming favorite to take home the Gold Medal. That’s what happens when 10 of the 12 players on your roster have made at least one All-Star team (Carmelo Anthony, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Draymond Green, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry and Klay Thompson), and nine of those 10 (all but Irving) made it this year. At first glance, it may seem tough to fit so much star talent into neatly defined roles, but Coach K makes this all work by clearly delineating everything right from the jump.
So what will Team USA actually look like on the floor? Let’s walk through a few potential lineup combinations – ranging from rational to ridiculous – to see how they’d work together.
Irving – Thompson – George – Durant – Cousins
This is the group most observers have penciled in as the probable starters. It’s possible Anthony could take the place of one of Thompson, George, or Cousins, because USA Basketball values seniority and Anthony is, along with Durant, one of two players on the team with prior Olympics experience, but this seems like the way they’ll likely lean. Anthony and/or Durant will almost definitely see some time at center during the tournament, but Coach K likes to start games with a big lineup before moving into small-ball later on, Warriors style. (Durant and James started with Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and Tyson Chandler in 2012.) Cousins is a better fit as the lone true big man than DeAndre Jordan.
There’s only one Warrior (Thompson) in this group, but it’s somewhat helpful to think of lineups in terms of that team, because the way Team USA moves the ball is very similar. Irving slides neatly into the Curry role here, while Thompson plays himself, Durant can do a heck of a Draymond Green impersonation (and a whole lot more), Cousins becomes an angrier version of Andrew Bogut, and George is the most overqualified Harrison Barnes there could possibly be.
Lowry – Butler – DeRozan – Anthony – Green
The bench mob. Anthony is one of the great players in the history of international basketball, and pairing him with Green in the frontcourt seems like a natural fit. Draymond can play the role he normally does on the Warriors, with his kickouts out of the pick and roll setting Anthony up for endless catch-and-shoot opportunities. We’ve all seen what happens when Melo has time to lock, set, rise and fire. It also helps to have a space-eating big man behind Anthony to cover up any defensive lapses.
Using this group also lets Lowry and DeRozan play together; it’s always nice when Team USA gets NBA teammates out there at the same time because they have easy chemistry. A Lowry-Butler backcourt with Green out there to switch any opposing pick and rolls also gives this group a defensive bent, even with DeRozan and Anthony on the floor as well.
Irving – Thompson – Durant – Anthony – Green
It’s not quite the dream version of Golden State’s Death Lineup that would have given opponents heart attacks the moment it stepped on the court (Curry, Thompson, Durant, LeBron, Green) but it’s pretty damn close. It would not at all be a surprise if this were the group that Team USA ended any close games with. The sheer amount of shooting on the floor with this group would stretch defenses wire thin, and between the off-dribble capabilities of Irving, Durant and Anthony in particular, there would really be no good way to defend them. Plus it would allow Irving to continually troll the two star Warriors (as he plans to do) even while they’re in the game together.
Lowry – Butler – George – Green – Jordan
It’s the lockdown defense crew! Lowry is one of the NBA’s best defensive point guards, while Butler and George are annually in contention for All-Defense nods themselves. Green has quickly the NBA’s premier defensive big man, able to switch across five positions against pick and rolls and cover more space than anybody in the league. Using Jordan – one of the world’s best shot-blockers – behind them would only make the group even tougher to score against. Good luck to any team that tries.
Thompson – DeRozan – Butler – George – Durant
No point guards. No big men. Who cares? Why not just give it a shot, right? The US can throw at a lineup that consists entirely of shooting guards and small forwards listed between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9, and still have enough shooting, ball-handling and defense out there to make it credible. When games get out of hand (which they will), Coach K could throw it out there just to see what happens.
Durant – Anthony – Green – Cousins – Jordan
Get just as weird with pretty much all big guys. Carmelo would be the shortest guy in this lineup. With KD, Draymond and Boogie Cousins, there’s enough playmaking out there to make it somewhat workable on offense. There’s a question of how it’d work defensively, but you could theoretically just stick Draymond on the point guard and Carmelo on the least threatening wing and get away with it.
Lowry – Butler – Anthony – Green – Cousins
Team USA typically plays a very smooth, flowing style of basketball. Using this group together would be almost the exact opposite of that. It’s basically a bully-ball guy at every position. Throwing them on the floor together and telling them to just attack the hell out of whoever is in front of them on either end would be quite a sight to see.
Irving – DeRozan – Barnes – Anthony – Jordan
Make DeAndre prove exactly how good a defender he is by asking him to cover up for the shortcomings of the four worst non-center defensive players on the roster.
Lowry – DeRozan – Barnes – Cousins – Jordan
This seems like the most likely garbage time lineup, even though Cousins will probably start. Again, USA tends to play small most of the game after opening with a big man on the court. DeRozan and Jordan have the least international-y games of anyone on the roster, given their lack of range and defensive flexibility, while Barnes is pretty clearly the 12th man here. Given the shortcomings in off-the-dribble capability of the group, you’ve got to have a point guard out there, and if Irving starts, it’s likely Lowry gets the blowout minutes.