So yeah, if your attitude toward the world basketball championships is “who cares JV players rudy gay omg lol bbq,” just go ahead and skip down to the comments, register that complaint, and ignore the next two weeks. The rest of us will be here enjoying one of the oddest sports experiments in recent memory: a team made up of super-elite basketball players — top draft picks, All-Stars, world champions — trying to do their best impression of a scrappy, undermanned mid-major college team. This time, Mike Krzyzewski is coaching Butler.
Okay, so that metaphor doesn’t totally work. As a whole, this U.S. team is going to be more athletic and talented than anyone they face, even Spain, which would be playing the role of Duke in the prior paragraph’s 2010 Final Four comparison. But: The defining feature of our country’s roster is its severe lack of size inside. They’ll be featuring guys like Rudy Gay and Andre Iguodala as power forwards, which at this level of competition is like being one of those college squads who run out lineups where the tallest guy is six-foot-seven. (The U.S. does have two seven-footish players in Tyson Chandler and Lamar Odom, but since one of them always needs to be playing, the drop-off to the second-biggest guy on the floor is pretty severe.) The way they’re going to try to deal with that height weakness is by throwing a deep rotation of pesky, constantly hustling perimeter players at the other team’s ball-handlers, trying to force turnovers, while their offense will rely heavily on bombing three-pointers. It’ll be our opponents who spend their time methodically and boringly exploiting their physical advantage by forcing the ball inside to post players.
For almost the entire tournament, they’ll be the best of both worlds for U.S. fans. The team will be playing a fun, loose underdog style — but they’ll still be dominating like the heavy favorites they are. They’re not expected to have trouble with anyone in their round-robin group (Brazil, Slovenia, Croatia, Iran), nor should anyone challenge them in their first two elimination games. Things will get dicey and exciting, most likely, in the semifinals, where the U.S. will probably match up against Spain. The Spanish team is, in our humble opinion, just what international basketball needs: a worthy challenger to American hegemony. (Greece is the only other team with even a puncher’s chance of beating the U.S.) (Knock on wood.) They’ve got name players: Marc Gasol, Rudy Fernandez, Jose Calderon, Ricky Rubio. They play a flashy, hot-dogging game that’s frankly obnoxious to this American partisan. And as anyone who watched the 2008 gold medal game — or last week’s exhibition contest between the two squads in Madrid — knows, they’re very capable of beating an American team at any time, even the Redeem Team–styled ones put together with an eye toward cohesive play and good chemistry. (And by all accounts, the players on this U.S. team are all on the same page, unselfishness-wise.)
So the first five or six games the U.S. plays, essentially, will just be build-up, kind of like a college-football powerhouse spending September taking on a bunch of 1-AA teams. (Before the end of this tournament, we will have made comparisons between FIBA and every college sport up to and including club lacrosse.) Coach K will probably spend the first few games finding a rotation that he likes: There isn’t anyone on the team apart from Danny Granger and Kevin Love that seems destined for limited minutes. We’re guessing Krzyzewski will settle on a starting lineup of Chauncey Billups, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, and Chandler. Rose has been the team’s best penetrating guard; Billups provides a nice complement to the Bulls star as a strong on-ball defender who can spot up for threes and play a more deliberate pick-and-roll mid-range game if opponents scheme to stop Rose’s drives. Durant is by far the team’s best scorer and should pretty much play every important minute of the tourney. Chandler is too important defensively not to start. And Iguodala has gotten a ton of praise from Krzyzewski and looks to have locked up the leading slot as the team’s defense-rebounding-hustle guy. (For our money, Rudy Gay has looked stronger on the boards and less inept on offense than Iguodola, but then again that’s just from anecdotal observation of a few exhibition games, and we’re not one of the country’s most successful basketball coaches. Yet.)
Off the bench, Russell Westbrook will back up Rose at the point; Stephen Curry and Eric Gordon will be offensive sparkplugs, with whoever has the hot hand on a particular night getting the most minutes. In the front court, Lamar Odom will play a ton and hopefully remind us more of the long-limbed team defender and high-post offensive creator we saw on this year’s Laker playoff team than the knucklehead who air-balled a crucial three-pointer in the Spain exhibition game (i.e., the knucklehead we saw on previous Laker playoff teams). Gay will see a lot of time. Love and Granger will probably play sparingly, though that could change if anyone tweaks an injury, especially given that the U.S. plays four games in five days starting Saturday against Croatia (noon, ESPN).
Or maybe that’s all wrong. With games against Tunisia and Iran, the team will have plenty of time to play around with lineups and scout the Spanish team for their big matchup. About that: The sports books still have the U.S. as favorites to win, but we tend to agree with ESPN color commentator and international-game guru Fran Fraschilla that the Iberians should probably be favored. They’ve got better size inside, as mentioned, but they also run a well-honed offense on the perimeter. Every team the U.S. goes up against, of course, wants to force them to play good team defense, to switch and rotate, because that’s one of the hardest things to figure out how to do when you’re on the court with four guys you’ve barely ever played with. The difference is that Spain runs their sets and pick-and-rolls with guys like Calderon, Fernandez, and Jorge Garbajosa — players who’ve proven capable of lighting up American defenders even in the NBA. The U.S. couldn’t stop Juan Carlos Navarro on the pick-and-roll when Spain made their big run in last weekend’s exhibition game, which they only lost by a single point. Was Coach K sandbagging, deploying a permeable defense on purpose? Was a flaw exposed that they’ll be able to fix in the preliminary rounds? Or are the Americans just completely screwed? I don’t know — no one really does, and that’s what makes this tournament exciting even in the absence of LeBron, Wade, Pau Gasol, et al. There’s suspense in the air, pride on the line, and top-notch basketball to be played. And if that’s still not enough for you, imaginary antagonistic commenter, because there aren’t enough guys playing who have their own shoe commercials — well, are you a sports fan or a marketing executive?