Decision Time for Team USA

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

James Harden has his roster spot secured, but who will be among the final cuts for Team USA?

With Al Horford unavailable for the Dominican Republic with his torn pectoral injury, Francisco Garcia was the only NBA player among the opposition for the United States Wednesday night. The contest went as you might have expected, with USA dominating on its way to a 105-62 victory. The game had more breakaway dunks than competitive play, which I’m sure delighted the Madison Square Garden crowd, but didn’t provide much information for Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has some tough decisions to make in the coming days.

While the roster for the FIBA World Cup needs to be trimmed to 12 by Aug. 29th, the US national team heads to Europe on Saturday, and is expected to have made at least three cuts from the current 16-man squad by then. The team may bring 13 guys to Europe just in case Derrick Rose’s knees continue to be a problem in the week leading up to the tournament opener. Still, Coach K has to let a few guys go, and these final two exhibition games against the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico on Friday are his final evaluation periods.

In addition to Rose, who was sat out for precautionary reasons with general soreness, Kyle Korver, Chandler Parsons, and Mason Plumlee all were held out from action Wednesday night. Coach K stated before the game that it was planning to sit some players to get extended looks at other guys on the roster. Whether those three guys were sat because they’re obvious keepers or clear cuts remains to be seen; we’ll likely have a clearer picture with the team that takes the floor Friday night against Puerto Rico.

Other players on the bubble who did take the court Wednesday include Damian Lillard, DeMar DeRozan, Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gay, and Andre Drummond. DeRozan and Gay paced the United States with 13 points a piece on a combined 11-18 shooting. Their size best lends themselves to be the wing defender replacement for the injured Paul George; I would expect one to stay and one to go, with DeRozan having the edge as he’s been with the team throughout the entire training process. Hayward scored a nondescript 4 points in just 14 minutes of action; he’s one of the likely candidates to be dropped before Saturday in my opinion.

Drummond had the play of the night, slamming home an alley-oop feed from DeRozan, but it was already well-known he could finish around the rim. The major knock on Drummond throughout has been his atrocious free-throw shooting (career 40.2%), as international teams are much more willing to employ an intentional foul strategy than their NBA counterparts.

Lillard was the only player for the United States who could be said to have played poorly Wednesday, shooting 3-8 from the field (that doesn’t sound awful but it was the worst on the team), and committing 4 of the team’s 12 turnovers. The Portland star is clearly one of the 12 best players on this roster but has the misfortune of playing a crowded position. With Curry, Irving, and Rose, the national team already has a glut at point guard. It wouldn’t surprise me if Lillard is the 13th guy they bring over to Spain as Rose protection before being the final cut.

With so many of the bigger names dropping out due to personal reasons or injury in recent weeks, Coach K and his staff have even tougher choices to make regarding the back half of the roster. Losing a versatile player like Paul George means you have to choose from among a group of wings who are more comparatively one-dimensional, and there will be more of an emphasis on which elite skill each candidate brings to the table, and how that fits into the team’s make-up. The good news is that we only have a few more days to wait before all becomes clear. Then, it’s wheels up for Spain and the FIBA World Cup!

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