The Summer Olympics are about much more than basketball. For American fans who are unaccustomed to the thrills of track and field, the powerful grace of gymnastics, and the drama of swimming, though, Mike Krzyzewski’s Team USA will draw the most attention yet again.
That probably shouldn’t be the case, by the way. The only field in which the United States is poised to win more easily than than in men’s basketball will be on the women’s side of the game. Far more interesting stuff – in terms of competition, at least – will be taking place on the track, on the mat, in the pool, and everywhere else.
But who cares? The chance to watch the world’s best basketball players team up on the Olympic stage is never one to take for granted. You’ll be tuning in to see Kevin Durant and company begin the quest for a third-consecutive gold medal on August 6, and we definitely will, too.
Both Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo have suggested this iteration of Team USA could be the best defensive unit that’s ever donned the red, white, and blue. It remains to be seen if that will prove the case, but it’s easy to understand why the national program’s head honchos are preaching that possibility.
Draymond Green is truly the most versatile defender in basketball, a reality evidenced by consecutive runner-up finishes in Defensive Player of the Year voting and his utmost importance to the Golden State Warriors’ “death lineup.” Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Klay Thompson are perennial All-Defense candidates on the wing, DeAndre Jordan has been named First Team All-Defense two years in a row, and Kyle Lowry and Harrison Barnes definitely qualify as high-caliber defenders. Even Durant can be elite on that side of the ball when locked in; just look what he did in the Western Conference Finals. DeMarcus Cousins fits that bill, too.
But it doesn’t really matter if the notion that this group has the goods to become the most dominant defensive team in USA Basketball history is accurate. Absent offensive savants like LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Chris Paul, it makes sense for Krzyzewski to instill the belief in the Americans that their biggest mark will be made on defense.
Expect constant pressure and frequent switching of on- and off-ball screens to lead to deflections and steals that yield deadly transition opportunities for Team USA. What will be especially entertaining is when Krzyzewski leaves Cousins and Jordan on the bench to employ Green at center. Can you imagine the all-court havoc a no-point guard lineup featuring he, George, Butler, Thompson, and Durant will wreak? Scary.
Lack Of Playmakers
LeBron isn’t playing with USA Basketball this summer. Neither is Paul, floor general of the gold-medal winning groups in London and Beijing. Curry won’t be making his first Olympic appearance with the Americans, and neither will James Harden or John Wall.
The absence of basketball’s foremost table-setters is highly unlikely to keep the United States from another gold. There’s enough scoring and defensive talent here for the Americans to win every game in Rio by 20 points. That’s how good they are, and how depleted their competition is compared to years past. But relative to previous iterations of Team USA, this one is still sorely lacking in the playmaking department.
Irving and Lowry, the only American point guards going to Rio, are better at producing offense for themselves than their teammates. Thompson, Anthony, Butler, DeRozan, Barnes, and even George can’t replicate team-wide shot creation from the wing the way Dwyane Wade did in 2008 or Harden did in 2014. When Durant is the ball handler who’s considered Team USA’s best playmaker, it’s clear the Americans are deficient in that regard. Green is probably the 2016 squad’s best pure passer.
It won’t matter. The national program preaches an all-for-one mentality that always manifests itself on the floor, and this team’s decided lack of players who naturally look to pass before shoot won’t change that reality. Ball movement is contagious when players this talented have the opportunity to team up.
But don’t be shocked when the United States devolves into quick shots and one-on-one play more than it has in recent years. This roster just isn’t built to play as beautifully as American teams that were led by the likes of James, Paul, and Jason Kidd.
Kevin Durant’s Dominance
Durant was by far the best player on a young, undermanned United States squad that won gold in Turkey at the 2010 World Championships. There’s an argument to be made he held that distinction while helping the Americans to gold four years ago, too. The Golden State Warriors’ newest superstar MVP led Team USA by scoring 19.5 points per game in London, doing so on the strength of a true shooting percentage just below .70.
Durant, basically, has become the face of USA Basketball over the past six years, and will even further establish himself as such in Rio. With all due respect to George, Cousins, and other all-league caliber players on this team, none of them hold a candle to the 2014 MVP.
If there’s still a question as to who deserves the title of world’s best player following last month’s Finals, the Olympics will make it hard to believe the answer anyone but Durant. He’s a class above all of his teammates, and on a different plane entirely than any competition the Americans will face en route to gold.
Maybe more than any other factor related to Team USA, Durant will be the one most worth watching in Rio.