Perhaps it’s the name change from “World Championship” to “World Cup” but the upcoming FIBA tournament feels like a bigger deal than previous non-Olympic events.
While much has been made of the absence of most of the highest profile NBA players (none of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul or Dwight Howard were even provisionally participating), this isn’t especially surprising if one analogizes to the other World Cup – for most of the “big” soccer nations, international play is primarily a young man’s game. Though some veterans (such as Germany’s ageless Miroslav Klose) will show up as long as the national side will have them, many top players withdraw from international play around the age of thirty (as was the case for Klose’s teammate and Germany’s captain, Phillip Lahm.)
At that stage of a player’s career, rest from the past season and preparation for the one upcoming begin to take precedence over national glory. Certainly, James is due a summer off, having played the equivalent of more than a full season’s worth of playoff games during his time in Miami, not to mention the 2012 Olympics. Anthony is 30 years old, Paul is 29 with a recent history of breaking down over a full NBA season without subjecting him to an additional month-plus of international play and training. So the absence of those players shouldn’t be considered surprising or even especially notable.
Still, it’s clear the event is less important to the players than the Olympics as evidenced by the late withdrawals of Blake Griffin (due to a recently discovered back injury) and Kevin Love. Love declining to participate is particularly demonstrative as he’s not nursing an injury, or resting after a grueling playoff run; he reportedly doesn’t want to jeopardize a possible trade out of Minnesota, nor does he wish to answer questions about any such trade.
In any event, Love is out, leaving a gaping hole in the Team USA player pool. Love represents something of a platonic ideal of a big man in international play, able to hold his own on the interior defensively, dominate the boards and then rain three pointers on offense. There is no natural replacement in the squad, though the late addition of Paul Millsap somewhat addresses the need.
So who should make the final 12 man roster? Two things to remember; first is that the best team might not necessarily mean the 12 best individual players. Secondarily and more importantly is the international game rewards different skills than does the NBA. FIBA play involves a great deal of pick-and-roll, drive-and-kick style with much less of the isolation or post-up sets frequently used at the NBA level. Part of the reason Love’s will be such a big miss is how perfectly his talents mesh with this style.
With those notes in mind, five spots are all but assured barring a training camp injury: Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Steph Curry and Paul George will likely make up 4/5ths of the starting lineup, and James Harden’s prolific offensive talent is a perfect match for a game geared towards rim attacks and 3-point shots. Millsap seems likely to be included as well, as it’s hard to imagine him accepting the last minute camp invite without some assurances of inclusion. Even without such a promise Millsap should be in the squad. He’s by no means an exact replica of Love, but his offensive versatility, toughness and defense is sorely lacking from the list of possibles.
Competing for the other six spot are Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, John Wall, Bradley Beal, DeMar DeRozan, Klay Thompson, Gordon Hayward, Kyle Korver, Chandler Parsons, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Kenneth Faried. It’s probably easiest to break down the candidates by position, looking at points, wings and bigs.