Gold-medal winners Chris Paul and LeBron James are locks for Team USA (assuming they want to play). But who joins them?
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Before you get angry about your favorite player being snubbed on the following list, keep two things in mind. One, there is way too much talent here to pick just 12 players. Seriously, take a look at the 30 finalists announced on Monday for Team USA’s 2016 Rio Olympics roster. There’s just no way to whittle that list down to 12 without offending some sensibilities.
Two: Regardless of which squad eventually heads to Brazil this summer, there’s 99.9999 percent chance Team USA will bring home the gold. Short of an alien invasion, it’s going to happen. From there, we’re really just talking about which players we’d like to see play during the offseason.
Yet with that said, there’s no reason to take it easy on the rest of the world. Some would say it is Team USA’s patriotic duty to show just how good we are in the sport we created (with the help of Canadian transplant Dr. Naismith, of course). And if that’s the goal, then these are the 12 players who have to make the trip.
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Guards: Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors); James Harden (Houston Rockets); Chris Paul (Los Angeles Clippers); Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder)
The rules are slightly different on the international stage, but Team USA’s dominance still starts with the best point guards in the world. Being able to choose from Curry, Paul or Westbrook just isn’t fair. Curry will stretch a defense and destroy you from the shortened international arc while firing pinpoint passes to boot. Paul is going to make sure all of his teammates are in the right spot at the right time, all the time. If they’re there, he’ll find them for easy buckets. Westbrook, meanwhile, is the buzzsaw in Team USA’s back pocket, capable of turning an opponent into shreds on either side of the ball.
We’re only bringing one shooting guard along for the ride, because we’d rather have all those same two-guard skills in a larger, small-forward-esque package (which we’ll get to in a second). But Harden has to be on this roster. Like Curry, he’ll uncork from deep and bury a team in triples before they know what hit them. In the event that games get close, Harden’s ability to draw free throws in bunches is an invaluable skill as well.
Forwards:Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder), Paul George (Indiana Pacers), Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors), Blake Griffin (Los Angeles Clippers), LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers), Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs)
Admittedly, this Team USA roster might be a little light on guards. But we don’t need a ton of small guys handling the ball when we have this litany of forwards with playmaking skills. Durant, James and George are all elite at creating their own shots. Green has shown his outstanding ability as a secondary offensive option, and his defensive versatility should make him a lock for this squad. Argue all you want about whether he’s just a "system player." Wouldn’t Team USA be the ultimate setting even if that’s true?
Griffin is a fine playmaker in his own right, of course. But with all of these ball-dominant guys around, it’ll be nice to have a finisher of his caliber. And with all of the firepower on display, it’s not like defense needs to be at a premium. Yet it’s nice to have someone like Leonard along for the ride as well. Stick him on a team’s best non-center scorer, and that opponent isn’t even going to get the ball below the 3-point line before the Spurs wing gets his mighty mitts on the ball for a steal.
Centers: Anthony Davis (New Orleans Pelicans), Andre Drummond (Detroit Pistons)
Despite a down year for New Orleans, Davis is a no-brainer to make Team USA, especially if the team takes a ton of guards and forwards and leaves the center position kind of dry. There are a number of good candidates for the final big man spot. Given his recent rise — and assuming that he’ll continue to grow — we’re taking Drummond as our rim-protector and board cleaner.
Unfortunately, that means …
The snubs: There’s going to be redundancy on a team like this, and someone has to be left out. Both Dwight Howard and DeMarcus Cousins have legitimate claims to one of the big man spots for Team USA, and much like the rest of the roster, there is no wrong answer here. Howard brings experience and proven rim protection, while Cousins would be a dominant force against international bigs.
As for the likes of Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, and Jimmy Butler, there will almost certainly be open spots up for grabs. All three are deserving players who can shoot from deep and help Team USA to a gold medal.
Yet it’s important to point out that of these 12 players, at least one will likely step aside due to injury, fatigue or age. George, for one, hasn’t yet committed to Team USA, although a spot is his if he wants it. LeBron might excuse himself from his Olympic duties if the Cavs make another run to the Finals. At that point, one has to imagine the accumulated wear and tear on James would simply be too much. Ditto for grizzled veteran CP3.
So there’s every chance that most of the deserving candidates will make the squad one way or another. As for those who don’t? Feel free to tell us how wrong we are for leaving Thompson, Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony or anyone else off the gold-medal team.