Kevin Durant’s sudden departure from Team USA not only left a huge hole in the lineup, but also forced head coach Mike Krzyzewski to hit reset on an offense that was largely built around the Oklahoma City Thunder star and reigning MVP. Durant cited “rest” as his reason to pull out after workouts in Las Vegas, but it conspicuously followed the horrific compound fracture suffered by forward Paul George that put an end to his 2014-15 NBA season. Krzyzewski now must re-tool the offense two weeks before the start of the FIBA World Cup, while trimming the roster down from 16 to 12 and selecting his starting lineup.
That’s why Saturday’s exhibition against Brazil at the United Center in Chicago could be a defining moment for Team USA. According to Yahoo!Sports, Derrick Rose and Stephen Curry will start in the backcourt, with James Harden at small forward, Anthony Davis at center and the four-spot still up in the air. Durant would’ve likely started at power forward, and George would have played ahead of Harden if only for his far better defensive play. Now the starting nod could go to Chandler Parsons, Gordon Hayward or Rudy Gay.
"It's not what you would want, but that's what you have," Krzyzewski said to USA Today about Durant. "The injuries aren't what we want but that's what we have. You go forward.
"The main thing is the medal round in Barcelona. We need to keep improving until we get to Barcelona, and then it's one and done. By that time hopefully we'll be healthy and have whatever is good for our team in and then be ready to go for the World Cup."
Krzyzewski’s clearly optimistic, and much of that has to do with Rose taking a stronger, more vocal leadership role than ever before in his career. Rose has already been highly lauded by Krzyzewski for how well he’s played this summer, to say nothing of his return to “elite” status after missing all but 10 games the last two NBA seasons due to serious injuries to both knees.
“This is my chance to actually become a better leader, being more vocal in the locker room, being more vocal on the floor,” Rose said to NBA.com. “(Saturday) starts all that. It’s a huge journey for me. I’m not trying to shy away from that. I think it’s going to help me with becoming a leader with the Bulls next season. It will help me, I have to say, have a better relationship with my teammates. I always have a good relationship, but being vocal and always talking to them it should be even better. So I’m excited about it.
“I normally lead by example, coming in the gym, shooting a lot, staying in the gym. I’ve been a gym rat. The teams I’ve been on previous to coming in the NBA, you see a person working out you want to do the same thing or you feel bad about yourself. That’s how I usually lead by example.”
Among the guards on the current roster, Rose is by far the most seasoned on the international stage. Though he missed the 2012 Olympics, Rose played a critical role during 2010’s gold medal run in the FIBAs. Harden did play in 2012, but his game isn’t suited to running an offense and Krzyzewski would likely prefer he attack the basket and stalk the perimeter rather than dish. Curry made the 2010 FIBA roster but didn’t play very much after finishing his rookie NBA season. Curry’s Golden State teammate Klay Thompson played for the 2009 FIBA under-19 team that took home the gold, but he hasn’t faced the best international competition yet. Portland’s Damian Lillard hasn’t made an international squad, and while he’s one of the emerging stars in the league, he has an outside chance of making the squad with Rose and Curry at the point, and the much bigger and longer Thompson able to defend several positions and knock down the three.
Who holds down the paint for Team USA seems to be half-decided. New Orleans star Davis should stay at center against Brazil and beyond, but DeMarcus Cousins is still healing up from a minor knee injury suffered during practice Thursday. Davis improved his scoring, rebounding and defense in his second NBA season, and has carried over his time with the 2012 Olympic squad into this year’s FIBAs. He and Cousins could be an impenetrable force, but with many debating whether NBA stars should risk injury following George’s terrible ordeal Team USA will tread lightly when it comes to the versatile big man.
Cousins isn’t expected to play against Brazil which opens up an opportunity for Detroit’s Andre Drummond. While not as skilled as Cousins, Drummond made great strides in his second season averaging 13.5 points and 13.2 rebounds. His offensive game is limited, but Drummond could crash the boards and provide excellent help defense for Davis, Curry or Harden with his wide frame.
After the matchup with Brazil, Team USA next faces Dominican Republic on Aug. 20 and Puerto Rico on Aug. 22, both exhibitions before the FIBAs start up on Aug. 30.