USA basketball is synonymous with athletic advantage. Regardless of which players have comprised the roster or the team’s performance in any given competition, the Americans have always had the physical abilities to strike with more size, force, and velocity than their opponents. Talent and capability have never stood in Team USA’s way, with most of their failures easily attributable to poor scouting, coaching, preparation, or roster construction. It’s a brilliant, and natural, place to be for the patron nation of basketball.
Team USA’s 2010 incarnation may be a bit atypical in that regard. While the team is sure to be as agile as ever, there could end up being something of a (relative) hole in the middle. The giant, bruising, physically dominating center is something of an American tradition; from Shaquille O’Neal to Alonzo Mourning to Tim Duncan to Dwight Howard, the center position has basically been owned and operated by the United States of America. With Dwight Howard doubtful to compete in the FIBA World Championships however, this year’s team appears set for a downgrade in their physical primacy at the 5 as well as their overall talent at the position.
We’ve known for quite some time that some of USA Basketball’s biggest names would forgo the Championships due to their lack of interest, injury, or other summer pursuits. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh have free agency to consider, and without them involved, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony don’t seem all that interested in playing. However, if we extend the James-Wade-Bosh trend to all of the other 2010 free agents, Team USA’s roster troubles begin to take shape.
There were three true bigs on the 2008 Olympic roster: Howard, Bosh, and Carlos Boozer. Dwight, as I mentioned before, will probably be a no-show. Bosh and Boozer, as we all know, are two of the summer’s biggest free agents, and while their contracts will likely be resolved by the time Team USA goes Voltron, there’s both historical precedent and contemporary indication that the summer’s free agents would simply rather sit this one out. Chalk it up to making a good impression with their new employers or whatever you’d like, but it looks increasingly unlikely that we’ll see either Bosh or Boozer play for America at the ‘Ships.
Okay, no big. Jerry Colangelo has assembled an extensive program of young, committed players for just this reason. When one (or three) of them back out or can’t play, there are others waiting in the wings for the opportunity to shine on an international stage. However, a look at the other centers included on Team USA’s active roster reveals just three names: Brook Lopez, Al Jefferson, and Kendrick Perkins. The latter is ruled out due to injury, which leaves the fate of Team USA’s center position (on paper, anyway) in the hands of Lopez and Jefferson. Forgive me for being less than enthused.
I appreciate Al and Brook greatly, but neither seems like a great fit at this point. In 2008, it was Team USA’s defense that made them the most impressive team of the bunch, and while much of that was Kobe, LeBron, and Wade causing absolute hell on the perimeter, Dwight did his part as well. With most international teams subscribing to a style featuring more ball and player movement than typical NBA offenses, an aware and mobile center with real defensive skill is perhaps even more important than usual. Defensive focus and execution will be absolutely critical, and considering that Team USA will already be forfeiting a serious advantage with LeBron and co. staying stateside, can the Americans really afford to have Brook Lopez as their great hope in the middle?
Another option is to play a power forward at center, which could actually work out just fine. Mike Krzyzewski showed a willingness to go small in various situations in 2008, whether that meant playing a Chris Paul-Deron Williams backcourt, starting Carmelo Anthony at power forward, or playing Michael Redd, Tayshaun Prince, and Carlos Boozer as the 3-4-5 off the bench. Theoretically, Team USA could get away with playing a power forward as the team’s full-time center, provided they could contribute to USA’s game plan on both ends. It sounds good, but another trip to the well comes up with an equally dry result. The following are the power forwards listed on Team USA’s roster: Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, LaMarcus Aldridge, David Lee, and Kevin Love. Bosh, Stoudemire, Boozer, and Lee are all free agents, so we can add Aldridge and Love to our candidates for USA’s starting center. Lovely.
Of the bunch, Lopez is likely the most effective defender, but Aldridge could be better suited to defend international 5s. Either way, Coach K will simply have to make do. The 2010 dropouts are causing crunches at every position, and while the players in reserve are still quite talented, they’re flawed enough to make the World Championships awfully interesting.