The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio begin a year from today, and the United States is on a quest for its third straight gold medal. USA Basketball will be holding a minicamp later in August, which the organization states is mandatory for anyone wanting on the 2016 Olympic team, so we’ll know then who is in greater contention for the Olympic team. Still, with the games just a year away, now seems like a good time to start narrowing down the list of players who will eventually make the team.
Although the international game is definitely different from the NBA game, recent emphasis on the corner three and guys who can switch on defense, not to mention the increase of foreign players in the NBA, means the differences are less than they have ever been. For my team (and I will be picking whom I would take, not whom I think USA Basketball will take) I am emphasizing shooting, versatility on defense, and as a tiebreaker, the ability to do one thing at an elite level.
In somewhat of an order:
1. LeBron James
The best player in basketball, LeBron can play all five positions at the international level, shoot threes, back people into the post, run the offense, and shut down opponents on defense. Not much more needs to be said other than he’s basically a free gold medal.
2. Anthony Davis
The perfect center for the international game, Davis won’t let opponents get close to the basket, and he can get out enough to contest jumpers and shut down the pick and roll. He’s improving his offensive game, and should be able to dominate inside and likely will have range out to the international 3- point line.
3. Stephen Curry
Steph already lights it up from NBA range, shooting 44 percent on 3-pointers for his career, so now imagine him with a shorter international 3-point line. He could start at point guard or off the ball, and even though I think he was a bit overrated on defense last year, Team USA won’t have to hide him defensively and even if it does, it’ll be able to do so without paying too much of a price. The U.S. record for 3-pointers in an Olympic game is 10 set by Carmelo Anthony in 2012 against Nigeria, which might be tough to top if only because Steph won’t attempt that many in a game, but if he gets a chance to break it, keep an eye on that record as well as the record for most threes in an entire Olympic games.
4. Draymond Green
Another perfect big man for international play, Green can guard any position on the floor, won’t get beat up on the boards by international big men, and even though he isn’t a great outside shooter, the shorter three-point line and the threat that he can make it will cause teams to come out and guard him, which will only improve the already great USA spacing. Green could start, but I think will best fit as a backup for either of the team’s starting big men.
5. Kevin Durant
Durant’s health will be the biggest obstacle to him coming back into the fold, but assuming he is healthy, he is another perfect fit for the international game. Durant’s range is second only to Curry’s; he can play inside as well; and he will work as either a guard or a big man in international play.
6. Kawhi Leonard
The best perimeter defender in basketball, Leonard can effectively take one player out of an opposing team’s offense and force them to play 4-on-4, which will be a huge advantage for the United States. Being able to hound Tony Parker or Nic Batum will keep France from having a shot at an upset; Leonard can take Ricky Rubio or any of the Spanish guards out of the game to make things tough on the Gasols, and you can rinse and repeat for any of Team USA’s other competitors. Offensively, Leonard turned into one of the Spurs’ top offensive options, but even if he is more of a supporter on the Olympic team, Leonard has shot just under 37 percent on 3-pointers in his NBA career.
7. Klay Thompson
Klay is the lone guy on my team who is only a 2 guard, but he works well for a few reasons. First, he is Steph Curry’s backcourt partner in the NBA, and thus would be a good fit to do so in the Olympics to take advantage of that familiarity. Secondly, his outside shot (44 percent last season) is a great fit for international basketball, and he would be another member of the stable of above-average perimeter defenders.
8. Blake Griffin
The backup big men are tough to choose from. I’m going with Griffin because he brings a lot of energy to the table, and although he’s much more than a dunker, there’s no doubt that those dunks of his will fire up the team and crowd. I think his spot could come down to either him or Kevin Love, and Griffin’s defense as well as ability to bang down low gives him the edge over Love to me. Love’s biggest edge is in outside shooting, but the U.S. will have enough of that as it is, and I don’t think the Americans will get killed on the glass even without Love’s rebounding.
9. Chris Paul
Paul has gotten some heat recently for maybe not being a great teammate, which makes him a bit of a risk in a scenario like this, but his talent is so immense that he has to be on the roster. He’s a good outside shooter, defends well on the perimeter, and is the assist leader in the last two Olympics. He has a good shot to start at point guard, even if I would prefer Curry.
10. Kyrie Irving
Irving likely will make the team thanks to playing for Coach K at Duke, and although I am not his biggest supporter, I do like his shooting and ball-handling abilities. The question with Kyrie is if he will have the ability to take a step back and be a facilitator and shooter rather than a guy who has the ball in his hands a lot.
11. Kevin Love
I know I said the last forward spot could be Griffin or Love, but I think I would take both. Love is good enough to play center internationally, and his abilities on the glass are important, even if he isn’t a good defender. He’s played well in a supporting role for both the Cavs and USA Basketball, so he will likely be okay with shooting threes and rebounding.
12. Kyle Korver
The actual Olympic team will no doubt have one of James Harden, Paul George, or maybe DeMarcus Cousins in this spot (and all three might make the team), but I am taking Korver. The U.S. won’t need more size than what it can get from Davis, Green, LeBron, Griffin, and Love, and while the Americans already have good shooters, it will be nice to have one of the best shooters in the league come off the bench if the team falls behind late in a game. Korver shot 49 percent on 3-pointers last season and is a better defender than he is given credit for. He will be 35 when the 2016 games roll around, but it’s worth it to me to take a guy who is an offense unto himself.
James Harden – The biggest snub on the list, the 2015 MVP runner-up will probably make the team for real, but I don’t have Harden on my team because of his need to dominate the ball and, despite the fact that he improved as a defender, he still isn’t great on that end of the floor. Harden would probably be effective as a spot up shooter and backup ball-handler, but there are other guys to fill those roles who are more comfortable doing so.
Paul George – This is mostly a health pick at this point; if George is healthy I would have no problem with him on the team. He can play both shooting guard and forward internationally, and he looked like one of the best two-way players in the world before he got hurt last year.
DeMarcus Cousins – His numbers are excellent, but he isn’t terribly versatile. With his attitude I don’t want him anywhere near my Olympic team.
Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan – Both are great interior defenders who excel offensively in the pick and roll and struggle at the free throw line, but neither guy ultimately ends up on my team because I don’t want the potential for teams to slow the game down by putting them on the line repeatedly.
Russell Westbrook – Westbrook might be my favorite player in the NBA to watch and is a human wrecking ball out there, but I don’t love him internationally. He isn’t a great shooter and with a team as good as the one on the floor, Westbrook’s run and gun style isn’t a great fit. His willingness to pressure the ball defensively and jump passing lanes could come in handy, however.