Since 2008’s “Redeem Team,” two themes have applied to every iteration of the U.S. Men’s National Basketball Team.
They are stocked with the current cream of the crop, and they lay a groundwork for future partnerships or rumored partnerships.
Injuries, workload management and personal decisions have invalidated the first of those themes as the U.S. prepares for the FIBA World Cup in two weeks, but the bonds made in China could still influence the NBA in years to come, just as such friendships led to the 2010-14 Miami Heat, the 2016-19 Kevin Durant-included Golden State Warriors and the brand new Brooklyn Nets.
LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh were all a part of that 2008 Gold Medal team. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson first got to know Durant up close and personal while winning gold in Brazil. Kyrie Irving and Durant played together then as well, and that goes without mentioning DeAndre Jordan. Let’s not forget that Irving also played with Jimmy Butler and Anthony Davis in 2016, two others he has been linked with the last few seasons.
So what partnerships could come from the current team? Three possibilities stick out.
The 2022 Restricted Free Agents
Four members of Gregg Popovich’s U.S. roster will reach restricted free agency after the 2022 season. For Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma and San Antonio Spurs guard Derrick White, they may have the option to survey their options and force their current organizations’ respective hands, but Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell will almost assuredly sign five-year deals where they are now.
That will set up Tatum and Mitchell – and perhaps Kuzma and/or White – to reach unrestricted free agency simultaneously in 2027. Is it absurd to look eight years ahead? Perhaps, but in the current climate of player empowerment, those timelines can become truncated in unexpected ways. For now, using the 2027 offseason simply creates a predictable point of reference.
Tatum will be entering his age-29 season and Mitchell his age-31 season. If either or both has not yet won a title — by 2027 or, as alluded to, when forcing a franchise’s decisions even earlier — the competitive clock will be ticking at a rapid pace.
To put it bluntly, the Tatum-Mitchell duo could fit very well. For that matter, there is no genuine overlap even when considering Kuzma and White.
Though his 2018-19 was a slight step backward in many respects, Tatum remains a solid shooter and one that should only improve. Perhaps he is not quite the 43.4 percent three-point shooter that he was as a rookie, but he is also better than last season’s 37.3 percent. As his body continues to mature, his rebounding rate should continue to rise, already up to 6.0 from 5.0 in just two years.
Mitchell, meanwhile, improved his shooting from deep to 36.2 percent from 34 percent in his first two seasons and raised his assist-to-turnover rate to 1.48 from 1.35. On the surface, those may seem like incremental betterings, but considering Mitchell’s usage rate also jumped to 31.7 from 29.2, their impacts were crucial pieces of Utah finishing fifth in the West.
A pick-and-roll between the two of them would put any defense in a compromising position. Either could drive to the rim, either could crash for a lob, either could pop out for a three. Neither lags off the dribble or in a catch-and-shoot situation. And each comports himself well defensively, a trait that will presumably only strengthen with age.
Tatum and Mitchell would make for a solid combination, a rapport to be looked for when the U.S. faces the Czech Republic on Sept. 1.
Of course, if either appears to be fitting with Kuzma or White better than expected, one or the other could eventually lean on his current franchise to tender a better offer than the Lakers or Spurs are likely to match.
2020 Role Players on the Market
On this U.S. roster, only Nuggets forward Mason Plumlee and Nets guard Joe Harris will be free agents next summer. Neither will command massive contracts, though both would be leaving teams with distinct championship aspirations if they shopped around. There are, however, two contingents of players headed to China with equal title hopes who could begin sales pitches.
Tatum is just one of four Celtics on the roster, making them the loudest group. They could see Plumlee and recognize size not much abundant on their team in Boston. With Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward and Tatum, they have reasonable shooting, but finding a way to bang with the lengthy 76ers will undoubtedly be on Celtics president Danny Ainge’s to-do list.
Bucks guard Khris Middleton and big man Brook Lopez are the only other pair of NBA teammates representing the U.S., and in Harris they should see the ideal sharpshooter to stash around Giannis Antetokounmpo.
That version of player recruitment may not have the same headline value as the Gold Medal-winning efforts of the last decade, but that is appropriate for a roster devoid of MVP candidates. It could be the key to a title all the same.
Be it Harris to the Bucks, Plumlee to the Celtics or a Tatum-Mitchell partnership years from becoming a reality, such team-building could shape a postseason just as James-Wade-Bosh and Durant to the Warriors did, all spurred by time on a national team roster.
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