By Nick Creech
World Championships, USA Team: Final Cut
As the 2010 FIBA World Championship rapidly approaches, the Team USA selection committee owns the unenviable task of making one final roster cut prior to the tournament’s start date. While neither Chairman Jerry Colangelo nor Coach Mike Krzyzewski has given any verbal indication as to who might be the unlucky candidate, many believe that the selection will invariably come from the team’s pool of talented guards. This comes as no surprise due to squad’s well-reported concern over the team’s lack of size in the frontcourt. Although Jerry Colangelo has already stated that all 13 players will travel to the team’s next round of exhibition games, speculation has already begun as to who will make the official twelve-man roster. Some reports have gone as far as to say that the decision has been narrowed down to a competition between Warrior’s guard Stephen Curry and the Clippers’ Eric Gordon. However, if Saturday’s friendly with France is any indication, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love should consider waiting before booking any tickets to Istanbul. The former-UCLA teammates received only seven and eight minutes of playing time, respectively, the fewest minutes allotted to any two players on Team USA.
Assuming the final cut will be one of those four players, each man made a relatively strong case for himself during Saturday’s exhibition.
Kevin Love’s Chances- In reality, Love is the least likely of the four men to be cut. It is no secret that Team USA is going to be very thin in its frontcourt, making Love the sensible insurance policy at center. Tyson Chandler started the exhibition against France, but other than him, Lamar Odom is the only player that logged significant minutes at the five on Saturday. Knowing Chandler’s history with ankle and foot problems, one with think that the selection committee has at least considered potential situations should he sustain any type of injury. However, Coach K has repeatedly shown no hesitance employing unconventionally small rotations, leaving many to wonder if the team would consider cutting Love. Although the T’wolves young pivot would probably be considered by many the least physically gifted out of the four players, he offers a unique skill-set from a currently under-manned position. He has repeatedly shown that he is the best outlet passer in the game, an ability which shouldn’t be overlooked considering Team USA’s blinding quickness across the board. His penchant to find rebounds coupled with his outlet passing means that he is essentially a one-man fast break starter. Since the United States likely won’t be able to manufacture many easy points in the half-court–at least from the perspective of dumping the ball in the post and scoring—open court opportunities will come as a premium and Love has the capability of creating multiple ones. It should also not be forgotten that the selection committee has a history of picking at least a few guys who, while they might not be the most talented, fit within the team structure, such as Tayshaun Prince or Carlos Boozer. Love fits right up that alley.
Stephen Curry’s Chances- Along with Billups and Rondo, Curry is one of Team USA’s best passers. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s an absolute assassin from downtown. Through watching various interviews and media statements, Krzyzewski seems to think highly of Steph, whose younger brother—it shouldn’t be forgotten—will be playing at Duke this coming season. By most accounts Curry has already made the squad, but his liability on the defensive end against bigger guards is a serious concern. Several times France exploited this match-up, isolating Nicolas Batum against Curry in the post, where Batum was able to shoot over him with no challenge. However, if Team USA stays with the same starting backcourt of Rondo and Billups that they showed Saturday, then Steph’s ability to run the second offense might prove too valuable to ignore.
Eric Gordon’s Chances- Anybody following Team USA this summer has likely heard about Eric Gordon’s impressive showing thus far. Gordon, a player who many thought would have a difficult time making the team, has certainly made a very strong case for himself to be included among the final twelve chosen. Like Steph Curry, Gordon is a lights out shooter, hitting at close to a 50% clip from deep throughout the team’s four scrimmages. Unlike Curry, he is built like a brick house. With the US’s documented problems getting good shots when the game is slowed down, Gordon’s versatility makes him a very tough guard for opposing defenses. His shooting acumen makes him a must guard at all spots, and, thanks to his strong physique, he should excel at getting to the rim in international play despite the increased physicality under FIBA rules. Although there are those who think Gordon will ultimately be the odd man out, his performance has certainly made him a very difficult name to cut, and one that I ultimately don’t see happening.
Russell Westbrook’s Chances- Despite entering late in the fourth quarter and not until long after the game had already been decided, the Thunder lead guard was able to show that he is a pitbull on defensive. Westbrook arguably did the best job shackling French guard Yannick Bokolo, who was one of “Le Bleu’s” few notable performers. His athleticism is otherworldly, as he might very well be the best athlete on the entire squad, and he gives Coach K one more weapon to tinker with in his up-tempo offense. Also, don’t think Westbrook’s relationship with Kevin Durant and his effect on Durant’s comfort level hasn’t come into account with the selection committee. With Coach K recently making statements to the media calling for Durant to become more assertive, having a familiar presence around to push him might prove to be a good idea. Being the only teammate of Durant’s following the cut of Jeff Green, Westbrook could very well find himself in an advantageous position to make the cut solely because both he and Durant are on the Thunder. However two things really stand in the way of Westbrook making this team: his shooting and his passing. Knowing full well the quickness of Team USA’s guards, other teams will eventually back off, slow the game down and force the United States to beat them from the outside. This makes outside shooting an extremely valuable commodity come selection time, and few will deny that Westbrook is not nearly the same caliber shooter as a Steph Curry or Eric Gordon. Most would also probably agree that although Westbrook led his team in assists this past NBA season, his ability to create for others in the half court is limited, meaning that he will find himself dared to shoot by teams who will simply back off him and crowd the paint. Westbrook will have to show that he is able to make teams pay for backing off him if he hopes to secure a spot on the team.
Prediction: Although crazier things have happened, I still don’t see Love being cut. That brings it down to the three guards. If things keep going as they are, expect Russell Westbrook to be asked to return home. Ultimately, Westbrook’s biggest attributes, his defensive prowess and athleticism, are assets duplicated by guys such as Rondo and Derrick Rose, both of whom are currently slated to receive minutes ahead of Westbrook. The selection committee certainly seems to harbor a similar opinion too, or else he wouldn’t have received the fewest minutes of any player on Saturday, right?
Nick Creech is a contributing writer for NBADraft.net and can be reached at: [email protected] regarding any questions, comments or suggestions.