Dunc’d On: Team USA Roster Cuts

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After a 112-86 victory against Puerto Rico that was close for a half, Team USA flies to Spain on Saturday.  The USA braintrust apparently want to bring only 12 players with them, so here is how I think the roster should look.

My preferred starting five:  Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kenneth Faried and Anthony Davis.  The two positions up for grab are point guard and power forward.

Rose, assuming he is over his soreness, is a better fit with the starters than Kyrie Irving due to his ability to distribute, superior defense and FIBA experience. Rose was excellent against Puerto Rico. He and Klay Thompson played the best defense on the perimeter, but Rose also provided unique (to this team) ball distribution.  When he handled in high pick and roll, Rose showed off his rehab-aided core strength to gun bullet jump passes to three-point shooters on the weakside.  He hit a three and a layup to keep the defense honest, but most importantly he just moves the ball quickly.  The ball really pops around the floor when he is out there, and that is something this squad really needs.

Irving mostly works for his own offense, even on this team, so he is better as a scorer on the second unit when Harden and Curry are not in the game.*  Hopefully he will also be facing the opponent’s backup point guard who is less likely to light him up on defense.  He had been passable on that end, but he spent the whole game alternating getting blown by and taking bad gambles.  He gave up at least eight straightline drives in the game through either of those two mechanisms.

*Irving did have six assists, but after watching the video none of these were really value-added plays in the halfcourt the way all of Rose’s four assists were.  This is not to suggest that Irving in any way has played selfishly.

Curry, Harden and Davis are unquestioned starters, so the other spot up for grabs is between Rudy Gay and Faried. Faried is not what the US has looked for recently at the four since he cannot shoot from deep.  But he has overcome my skepticism by being among the best US players by plus/minus in the exhibitions and providing excellent work on the glass.  He also played intelligent, effective defense against Puerto Rico.  The US scheme calls for a lot of switches, and he did well to execute them.  Faried is a player who does have the physical talent to be a solid defender.  That has not yet manifested at the NBA level, but we have seen poor NBA defenders improve defensively for Team USA, most notably Chris Bosh in 2008.*

*People forget that Bosh was basically a sieve in the NBA until he got to Miami.

Faried has played better so far, has been with the team longer and provides a unique aspect with his energy. But he also does not offer the spacing that Gay does, nor the ball skills to attack off the dribble with an advantage.  And Faried really isn’t much bigger than Gay, so their post and help defense are relatively on par despite Faried’s status as a traditional big man.  I would start with Faried, but consider playing Gay down the stretch if the game is close.

In addition to the seven mentioned above, Thompson is clearly in the rotation as the other plus defender on the perimeter and a deadeye shooter.  That leaves another space in the rotation for a backup center, with the candidates being Andre Drummond, DeMarcus Cousins and Mason Plumlee.  Ideally, that player would provide five core skills: protect the rim, play pick and roll defense, play post defense (crucial against Spain), set great screens and finish pick and rolls.  But nobody has really emerged who provides even three of those skills.

Plumlee had by far his worst game. Although he provides solid effort offensively and gets some buckets that way, he is a liability on the defensive glass and does not really protect the basket.  He was very undisciplined on the pick and roll with no clear purpose on Friday, jumping out at seemingly random times to leave the lane unprotected. Theoretically, Plumlee’s best attributes would be playing hard and not messing up, but he really failed to execute Friday.  He was a miserable -7 on the night, which he earned with his play.

Cousins is the best NBA player of the group right now, but his skills are not particularly optimized to this team.  His ability to create (relatively inefficient) shots in the post at a high rate is not useful when there are so many more efficient options available.  He has not been effective on the few postups he has had either, going 0-2 and throwing a pass away against Puerto Rico.  If he is going to post up, it should be in transition right under the basket.  Otherwise, he gums up the spacing by trying to post on the strong side.*  Cousins does set great screens in the pick and roll though, and hits the offensive glass hard, though it can lead to him not getting back on defense.

*Faried and Davis have tried to postup as well, which just shouldn’t be happening.  They should just go out to set a side pick and roll if they find themselves on the strongside block.

Defensively, he has never been a great rim protector or pick and roll defender. Another concern for Cousins is that he is going to pick up a lot of fouls. His slow feet are bad enough, but he compounds that by reaching in a lot and hacking when he is frustrated. You can also be sure that savvy international teams will be flopping against him at every opportunity.  It is also possible that Cousins is still struggling with the bruised knee he suffered in practice last week.

Drummond on paper provides the skills Team USA needs.  He is a great pick and roll finisher and an amazing offensive rebounder.  Defensively though he is not the greatest at protecting the basket despite his quick feet, huge wingspan and hops.  Per’s SportVu tracking system, opponents converted at a 52 percent mark on shots within five feet against Drummond this year, and he struggled to stop the Dominican Republic’s guards at the rim on Wednesday, although he did do well to get into position.*

*One problem for Drummond is he tries to block every shot with his left hand. That works sometimes, but it’d be nice to see him change up when expedient.

Drummond has the least experience defensively, but has done well moving his feet in pick and roll defense when he has been out there.  He played very well in his one game, but the level of competition was so low it is difficult to say how much that matters.  Another potential wart for Drummond is his free throw shooting, but I believe that is an overblown fear.  Plumlee is almost as bad from the line anyway.

Ultimately, I would bring all three of those bigs with the team to Europe to see if someone emerges, cutting one before the games start.  However, Coach K has said the preference is to bring only 12 players.  If that is the case, I would still put all three on the team, not out of merit but in the hope one distinguishes himself in pool play.  It appears from his postgame comments that Krzyzewksi is leaning that way.

That leaves room for one more player, with the main candidates being Damian Lillard, Kyle Korver, Chandler Parsons and DeMar DeRozan.  It appears Gordon Hayward is pretty much out of consideration.  Among that group, Parsons does offer the ability to play as a stretch four in theory because he is taller.  But he has not played well and looks a little thick at the moment. Korver to me is redundant with Thompson and Curry already on the team.  If Rose is not a concern health wise, Lillard does not serve much purpose with Curry having the ability to slide to the one.  However, given the slight uncertainty, Lillard should probably be brought along if possible and potentially cut before the tournament if Rose is okay. But assuming Rose is healthy, there is little use for him.

That leaves DeRozan, who provides some of the athleticism on the wing that is usually Team USA’s biggest advantage internationally.  He has played very well when he has been on the floor, and also provides a dynamic aspect running the wings in transition that the other players do not.

Of course, I have not had access to the practices so my opinion might well change if I had more information available.  But based on the exhibitions, DeRozan would be my final pick.

So my final roster:

Derrick Rose

Stephen Curry

James Harden

Kenneth Faried

Anthony Davis

Rudy Gay

Klay Thompson

Kyrie Irving

DeMar DeRozan

Andre Drummond

DeMarcus Cousins

Mason Plumlee


–Thankfully the team ran less “floppy” tonight against Puerto Rico.  This is a set in which the bigs set up at each block and set screens for the wings to pop out for jumpers.  The US typically ran this for Curry, Thompson, Harden and Korver, but it has not resulted in good looks.  The big trouble is it takes them forever to get into it, with the action not even starting until there is about 10 on the shot clock.  If the primary action fails, it leaves little time for another and devolves into an isolation. Moreover, with the amount of talent on this team a jump shot for a player moving away from the basket as the primary goal of a set is not particularly useful.  Fortunately they only ran it a couple of times against Puerto Rico after using it much more often against Brazil.

–The best offensive set for USA is unquestionably a high pick and roll with any of their myriad ballhandlers and Davis.  But we only saw that used sparingly during a short period at the start of the fourth quarter when he took the floor with Gay.  Otherwise it was often the power forward setting the screen, which compacted the spacing.

–Curry had 20 points on nine shooting possessions.

–Team USA’s defense really struggled to adjust to Puerto Rico’s five-out strategy in the first half, giving up 47 points on 42 possessions.  Davis had been a terror defensively in the first two exhibitions, but looked strangely out of it to start the game and picked up two quick fouls.  The big problem in general was over-aggressiveness on the pick and roll, a crime of which Plumlee was most often guilty.  That tightened up in the second half (39 points on 41 possessions) as Puerto Rico struggled to score unless they were getting bailed out by USA fouls out on the perimeter.  And it should also be noted that Puerto Rico was making some crazy shots in the first half. Overall the defense has been excellent, with Tom Thibodeau installing his strongside zone and ICE pick and roll defensive concepts (in which the defender forces the ball handler away from the screen).  Those should prove even more effective with the lack of defensive three seconds in FIBA play.  In fact, with the presence of Davis I expect this team to play much better defense than its 2012 counterparts, which only played one defensive big man (Tyson Chandler) any kind of minutes.  The 2012 team was still good enough to just outscore teams, but they looked bad defensively in games against Lithuania and the gold medal match against Spain.  Since this team lacks that sort of firepower, they will have to be better on defense.  Superior coaching and defensive talent in the frontcourt should make that happen.

–Thompson seems like a great shooter, but somehow his misses don’t really seem to register on the consciousness, especially inside the arc. He had 12 points on 12 shots, missing all three of his two-pointers.

–The fact that a relative NBA non-entity like Plumlee is even in consideration for this roster shows that a poor job was done selecting the player pool this time around.  Team USA added Paul Millsap late, but he does not really excel in the five core skills I noted, nor is he a center.  However, many Americans could have provided these skills. Taj Gibson and DeAndre Jordan have both been on the Select Team in previous years–it is unclear whether they were invited and if not, why.  They both provide superior defense to any of the three backup centers on the roster.  While Larry Sanders had a disappointing year, his skills are also exactly what the team needed and he could have gotten at least a chance to try out. He is also a former Select Team member.  So too is Derrick Favors, another player whose skill set might be a better fit.  Even Amir Johnson could have gotten a look.  All of these players could have superior skill sets for what this team needs, even if Cousins or even Drummond is the superior NBA player.