Yesterday Always Knows

With Team USA bleeding centers training camp day by training camp day, positional creativity was inevitable. Mike Krzyzewski was going to have to dig deep into the team roster and the select roster to find viable candidates to play the 5 for the Americans this summer, but things seem to have escalated a bit quickly. We’ve gone from toying with the idea of playing a power forward as the team’s starting big (It’s not such a big deal when the power forward is Amar’e Stoudemire, but otherwise?) to potentially having Lamar Odom or Gerald Wallace play minutes in the middle.

Before we make a decision on what exactly that means, let’s all take a deep breath.

Lineups are determined by effectiveness, and positions really only matter in deciding which players should hold which responsibilities. Offensively, there’s a lot of fluidity, particularly with the talent Jerry Colangelo and Coach K have amassed in Vegas; it doesn’t matter which player brings the ball up as long as someone does, and it doesn’t matter who shoots as long as someone can. Is O.J. Mayo a point guard? Sure. Is Kevin Love a center? As long as he can defend one. Care to run Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, and Tyreke Evans together? Fine by me, but they’re going to need shooting help from both bigs. With players this versatile, the concern isn’t who plays where, but who can play well together.

That’s why in principle, I’m not opposed to the types of lineups Team USA trotted out in their scrimmage with the Select Team on Thursday…with one exception (per John Schuhmann):

1. Rajon Rondo, Chauncey Billups, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Lamar Odom
2. Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, Durant, Jeff Green, Gerald Wallace
3. Westbrook, O.J. Mayo, Durant, Jeff Green, JaVale McGee
4. Westbrook, Mayo, Durant, Love, McGee

Honestly, I’m not sure what JaVale McGee would bring to the World Championships. McGee, impressive Summer League dunker though he may be, isn’t a very good rebounder, defender, or even a consistent offensive threat. He can’t create his own shot, and aside from picking up blocks, really isn’t to the point where he can contribute defensively against top-flight competition. McGee may be a center, but it’s not like he’s going to be some great interior defender. He’s still a bit too lean and too jumpy for that.

So what would McGee’s purpose be, aside from having that elusive “C” next to his name on the roster sheet? He’s a center who can’t dominate or defend like one, and to me that makes him more or less useless for Team USA. If the Americans are going to give up something defensively in the middle, I’d rather they just go small and make a run for it. Rather than putting a legitimate center (which they don’t have) or a usable, useful non-center on the floor, they’d be splitting the difference by playing JaVale.

Brook Lopez is a no-brainer for the starting job, but behind him, I’m inclined to go in just about any direction other than JaVale’s. Tyson Chandler gives the team a pretty conventional look, but Chandler’s not even a competent offensive player and he was actually pretty ineffective overall last season. He’s supposedly healthy, but with reports that Chandler is woefully out of shape, I’m inclined to look elsewhere for help in the middle.

That’s where Kevin Love comes in. He’s not a center, which means that there is a 100% assurance that he is not JaVale McGee. Yet Love, when plugged in at the 5 (if that’s what you care to call it) can contribute to a team. He can act as a big body between a post player and the basket, even if he’s just as poor of a defender. Yet offensively, Love can both facilitate and score, and above all, he’s going to hit the boards. Hard. Love led the league in offensive rebounding rate as a rookie, and would have done so again as a sophomore if he had played enough to qualify as a statistical leader. His defensive rebounding rate (28.6) was also top-5 last season, making Love about as good of a rebounder as anyone in the NBA. That’s what Team USA needs. They’re not going to have an elite defender manning the paint and aside from Lopez, the potential for low-post offense is limited. That makes rebounding even more important, and in that realm, McGee and Chandler can’t even compete with Love.

Odom and Wallace may be taking the undersized center concept a bit too far, but I’m curious to see how it would turn out. We know what McGee and Chandler can do as centers, but those two? Maybe they could ignite a fast-breaking offense that would allow Team USA to compensate for its defensive limitations. Or maybe they could cue a pesky, frenetic, 2007 Warriors-style defense that forces all kinds of turnovers in lieu of grind-it-out defensive stops. The bottom line is that nobody really knows how a team with Odom or Wallace at center would fair against international competition, and that at least presents an intriguing possibility.

There may not be many true superstars on the roster, but Team USA has talent. A lot of it. It fits together in odd fashion and looks a bit funny as a collective whole, but there are capable players that should play very well in Turkey. JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler just aren’t them, and it’d be a shame that if after all of this talk of versatility and positional fluidity, Coach K neglects truly talented and productive impact players for an arbitrary positional standard.

Seth Carstens