With the NBA Finals in the books, we’re starting to get some clarity on the Olympic basketball landscape. LeBron James is likely out, while Kevin Durant, Paul George and Kyrie Irving look like sure competitors. But questions remain both domestically and internationally.
Jeremy Woo and Ben Eagle discuss dropouts, new faces and … Kobe Bryant (yes, Kobe) below.
1. Big names keep dropping out of the Rio Games. Which player will Coach Mike Krzyzewski miss most come August?
Woo: LeBron. (Well, the latest news makes it sound like he’s not playing.) Jerry Colangelo told ESPN he’s been prepping two rosters, one with him and one without. After neatly tying up his own narrative in the Finals, there’s little serious incentive for James to return to USA Basketball knowing that he’ll turn 32 in December. Well, that and the fact that another title or two are in play as long as LeBron stays near his physical peak. We won’t blame him after the last two gold medals. Well, eh, some people probably will.
Anyway, Coach K and whoever else ends up on this team will miss James not only for his typically jovial presence, but as the ultimate cog in America’s Naismithian dream of a wheel that has not lost a major tournament in a decade. LeBron’s ability to play five positions, pass with precision on a tighter-packed floor and fit seamlessly with almost any combination of players means the USA has to work that much harder to fit star-shaped pegs into simpler-shaped holes.
That’s not to mention how much his versatility aids the task of roster building, or the fact that he just reminded us all in the span of a week that he’s the best basketball player on Planet Earth. They won without LeBron at the 2014 World Championships, and are still likely to cruise, but it’s all a bit less secure without LeBron around.
Eagle: It’s hard to argue with Jeremy. But I’m going to anyway.
Is LeBron every coach’s dream? Yup. Will Team USA miss Steph Curry’s limitless range? Absolutely.
If I’m Mike Krzyzewski, though, here’s the player I’m going to miss most: Russell Westbrook, who withdrew from consideration for personal reasons.
Four years ago, Westbrook was a big boost of energy off the bench for Team USA, constantly dashing down the floor for easy buckets and harassing ball-handlers on the perimeter. Is he a great three-point shooter? He wasn’t then and isn’t now, but big plays like this can jumpstart any team:
Since the London Games, Westbrook has grown enormously as a passer and decision-maker. A steady floor general is crucial at the Olympics and Westbrook appeared ready to inherit that role from Chris Paul (who is also skipping the Games) before opting to skip Rio. Let’s also not forget Westbrook’s synergy with Kevin Durant. With LeBron and others sitting out, it’s clear that Durant will be the lead dog in Rio. Wouldn’t you want his favorite sidekick out there, too.
2. There will be a few new faces on Team USA. Who has a chance to be the U.S.’s breakout Olympic star?
Woo: Draymond Green. It’s bold of Green to make the trip after all the mileage he’s accrued dating back to 2014, but this is his prime and he could use a little extra goodwill after what just happened to the Warriors. Provided he doesn’t start an international conflict with a wayward leg kick or two, it’ll be fun to watch Draymond play defense, move the ball, spot up and help accommodate the loss of James from a role standpoint.
I’m also extremely curious as to how much of Golden State’s deadly high-screen action Coach K adopts. Steph is out, but Kyrie is in, and perhaps he and Draymond were made for each other just the same. That’s the real fun of these things, anyway. When we look around this year’s roster, we’re likely to see far more passive personalities on whole. Green is not that. He could certainly steal the show and become a face of this team. The world is ready for Day Day.
Eagle: I’m going to go with another Warrior, which is … weird. Can you really “break out” if the NBA has been talking about you non-stop since June of last year?
Well, indulge us here. My pick: Klay Thompson.
No one on the Warriors is more overshadowed by Curry. If Thompson were on any other team, he’d be the unquestioned No. 1 option, averaging 28-plus points while nipping at Steph’s heels annually in the three-point title race. While Thompson would probably love to win a gold medal alongside his Splash Brother (especially after the disappointing end to the Finals), no one stands to benefit more from Curry’s absence. Pure shooters can make or break a team in international play (just ask the 2004 version of Team USA), and Thompson will be the best long-range threat on the floor anytime he plays. I’m not ready to say Thompson will be the face of USA Basketball, but he’ll surprise people who believe Curry is the only star in the Golden State backcourt.
3. Over the years we’ve seen players get the “Olympic boost,” a bump in their regular-season performance seemingly as a result of training and playing alongside the NBA’s best during Team USA camp. Who’s poised to get the “boost” after Rio?
Woo: Assuming he cracks the roster, I’m inclined to toss Jimmy Butler a vote here. At first he seemed like a long shot, but with James Harden and now possibly LeBron dropping out, there’s definitely room to roster a well-rounded wing player. As a first-time representative of the U.S. in any international competition and a guy who’s starting to carry himself like a star, for better or worse, Jimmy needs this look as much as anybody. The Bulls have a large hump to get over to return to relevance in the East, and being around the league’s best will either greatly inflate Butler’s ego or give him a better idea of what it takes to actually get it done. I guess both could happen, actually. If nothing else, it’s a sweet reunion with Thibs.
Eagle: Given how young the roster will be, there are a ton of great choices. Jimmy is a strong one. I was also tempted to make the case for Boogie Cousins.
Instead, I’ll opt for Kyrie Irving.
The biggest knock on this selection? Things are already going pretty well for Irving. He was a major force behind the biggest comeback in NBA Finals history. He’s likely to be the starting point guard on a heavy favorite for gold.
But there’s still plenty of room for growth. While things clicked for the Cavs down the stretch, Irving and James struggled to mesh during the regular season. Want to learn how to play alongside the best player in the world? Try playing with Nos. 2, 3, 4, etc. Defense has also been on knock on Irving throughout his career. With Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Jimmy Butler poised to lock down the perimeter in Rio, Irving will have no shortage of teachers if he’s willing to learn.
4. Name one non-American you’re looking forward to watching during the Olympics.
Woo: Marcelo Huertas! Well, he’s kind of a placeholder until we know what happens with qualifiers. I’m hoping for as much Giannis Antetokounmpo and/or Mario Hezonja as I can handle, but Greece and Croatia have to get in first. So I’m down with Marcelinho until further notice, because Brazil is the home country and he throws nutty passes, a lot of them to Nene. Nene is totally about to be the grumpiest Olympian in the entire village, isn’t he?
Actually, if France gets in, the answer is Boris.
Eagle: I’m going to stick with Brazil and throw out the Brazilian Blur, Leandro Barbosa. It feels like he’s been in the NBA forever, but he’s only 33, and boy did he look good shooting a Finals-best 64.3% from the field. Rooting for the host nation is always fun (who didn’t go crazy for Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Team GB in 2012 or Yi Jianlian and China in ‘08?) and Brazil has a lot of familiar faces: the aforementioned Huertas and Nene; Anderson Varejao; Bruno Caboclo. But sign me up for one last sprint with Barbosa.
5. Lastly: With all the guards withdrawing from consideration, are we sure we don’t need Kobe in Rio?
Woo: Yes. I hope.
Eagle: The U.S. should only need 11 NBA All-Stars to win gold. If I was selecting this team, Kobe would have a spot on the roster until he literally couldn’t walk.