A flurry of Team USA’s brightest names have withdrawn from the upcoming FIBA World Cup—an event that to be fair, you, casual basketball fan, may not have even known was on the docket—and the remaining talent pool, as you can imagine, is something short of an All-Star team. Damian Lillard and DeMar DeRozan pulled out of the tournament on Tuesday and Kevin Love followed Wednesday, and with training camp set for the first week of August, the ongoing roster shuffle (or lack thereof) has become something of a hot off-season topic, in lieu of other NBA drama. So, here are 10 things to think about.
1. No, USA Basketball is not broken
If recent years are any indicator, stars are still more than willing to sign up for the Olympics, which have become international basketball’s prestige event from an American perspective. NBA players unquestionably benefit from the added exposure of the Summer Olympics (coming up next summer in Tokyo), and the athlete experience there is well-documented. The FIBA World Cup runs from August 31 to September 15 in China this year, and the fanfare from a national perspective was rather muted, at least until all the superstars began to opt out. Let’s not treat this as a national disaster—this is not the exact roster that will play in Tokyo.
2. The current pool...
That being said, here’s the current pool of players (last we checked), according to various reports: Harrison Barnes, Jaylen Brown, Andre Drummond, Kyle Kuzma, Brook Lopez, Kyle Kuzma, Kyle Lowry (who’s still recovering from injury), Khris Middleton, Paul Millsap, Donovan Mitchell, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, PJ Tucker, Myles Turner, Kemba Walker and Thaddeus Young. Hot take: Not a flashy pool!
3. Can this team win the World Cup?
While only four of those players have prior senior national team experience in a major tournament, this is still a team that can totally win the World Cup. They can still theoretically add from a Select Team roster that includes Trae Young and De’Aaron Fox, among others. But the point is that this team is still going to be pretty good. They’ll need to cut down to 12 players, with Walker, Middleton and Mitchell all firmly committed at this point. But it should still be fun to watch. More on that in a bit.
4. This isn’t really that surprising
If this off-season is any evidence, star players hold all the leverage in the NBA. They also have the right to decide whether or not to play in the summer, and how much mileage they want to put on their bodies. In the era of Load Management, consider the loads managed. Whether or not you buy the general party line that guys want to get themselves ready for what should be a wide-open title chase in 2019-20 is not the point. The fact is that USA Basketball, as the overwhelming favorites in basically all international play, simply can’t leverage nationalism to the degree that smaller countries with rich basketball histories can. Nikola Jokic is playing for Serbia—it’s a point of pride, and that team is built around him. On the flipside, there’s American talent lying around to the point that LeBron and Kawhi and Anthony Davis not playing might not truly impact the results. We’d love to see those guys play in the Olympics, but it’s not fair to get mad at any of them for sitting this summer out.
5. It's better this way
Honestly, isn’t this way more interesting? If you’re part of the NBA fan cross-section that cares to watch international play instead of, say, college football in August and September, you have to admit that the stakes feel much more real when Team USA isn’t stacked to the point where Jimmy Butler and Paul George are coming off the bench and Draymond Green can barely get minutes. There’s now opportunity for some of the younger guys to take star turns and increase their international profiles. Someone is going to have to step up. That unknown is part of the fun.
6. We might see UConn Kemba
Remember Kemba Walker at UConn? If he puts together a transcendent tournament anything like his absurdly good days in college, nobody will complain. Walker has been one of the NBA’s most underrated players for years, and deserves a bigger spotlight. This is a nice prelude to his first season in Boston, and he’ll be a player well worth rooting for.
7. This is good for Zion
If there’s a player I’m extremely happy about not playing in this tournament, it’s Zion Williamson. Let’s just let him go get in shape. We can postpone that hype a little longer, if possible.
8. A hypothetical roster
The roster, in the end, could look something like this:
Guards: Walker, Mitchell, Lowry (if healthy), Smart
Wings: Middleton, Tatum, Brown, Barnes
Bigs: Drummond, Kyle Kuzma, Lopez, Millsap
Basically, Gregg Popovich (who, yes, is the coach) will have to decide how many true centers he wants to carry and whether he wants to play small forwards as power forwards, but stretch bigs are a necessity in international play. Yes, there are a weird number of Celtics on my theoretical roster. But I’d go with a look like this, with a number of strong defensive options on the perimeter, tons of shooting, and Walker and Mitchell as the primary offensive creators. Something like this should get the job done.
9. Who could replace Kyle Lowry?
If Lowry can’t go, they’ll need another backup point guard. I’d keep an eye on Young and Fox, who could earn invitations and would each add a degree of excitement to bench lineups. This is an outcome I’m secretly rooting for. It’s worth noting that recent USA rosters have traditionally stocked up on extra ball-handlers versus extra bigs, as well. Watching Popovich implement his values on this team will be fascinating.
10. Teams to watch
NBA fans should also keep an eye on Spain, Serbia, France, Australia and Canada. International basketball is a lot of fun, there are going to be lots of other NBA players taking major roles for their teams in this tournament, and if you’re really itching for more basketball in September, it’s going to be worth it. I promise I don’t have a basketball-watching problem.