Ever since taking over as the head coach of Team USA, Mike Krzyzewski has made a philosophical commitment to playing small. The logic is simple - since the Americans have the best athletes and the most skilled players in the world, they should be playing in as much space as possible. Coach K was playing 4-out basketball before it became fashionable in the NBA, most notably in 2012, when he used a frontcourt of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.
LeBron and Carmelo were never going to play internationally in 2014, but Durant, Kevin Love and Paul George were expected to be mainstays on the roster. In a perfect world, they would have split the majority of the time at the forward positions, giving Team USA an almost unbeatable combination of size, athleticism and shooting ability. Instead, Love withdrew before training camp started, George was injured and Durant got cold feet at the last minute.
As a result, in a 95-78 win over Brazil in a scrimmage this weekend, Coach K started Kenneth Faried at power forward and brought Rudy Gay off the bench. While it’s hard to be too critical of a 17-point win over a good team, the game was closer than the score indicated. Faried and Gay are proven NBA players, but neither is likely to make an All-Star team and they don’t have the combination of skill and athleticism to blow international teams off the court.
In the modern game, power forward is the most important position on the floor. It determines your identity as a team - a traditional big man means a two-post team that wants to slow the tempo, attack the glass and play through the post, a combo forward means a four-out team that wants to speed up the game, spread the floor and slash at the rim. As a rule, bigger teams struggle with floor spacing on offense while smaller teams struggle on defense and the glass.
At the international level, where there isn’t nearly as much size as there is in the NBA, you can get away with playing smaller guys at the position. That’s the bind Team USA has traditionally put other teams in - their big men don’t have the size to exploit guys like Durant and George in the post and they don’t have the quickness to defend them on the perimeter. If they downsize and try to play with four perimeter players, they play right into Team USA’s hands.
That dynamic changes without those guys on the roster. On Saturday, the only small-ball PF’s on hand were Gay and Chandler Parsons. It’s a dramatic downgrade on both sides of the ball - they don’t have the athleticism to blitz teams on defense and they aren’t nearly as dynamic on offense. Other countries would be more than willing to have Team USA run offense through them. The talent gap is still there, but the rest of the world can match up with the Americans.
When Faried was in the game, Team USA became much more conventional. At 6’8 230, he likes to crash the offensive glass and is most effective playing in the paint. While he has received raves for his energy level and hustle in training camp, he can’t shoot and doesn’t have the skill to create a mismatch on the offensive end of the floor. In many ways, he represents the worst of both worlds at the position, since he can’t defend the pick and roll or protect the rim either.
The only reason Coach K could stick with his offensive schemes was the presence of Anthony Davis at the center position. Davis was the best player on the floor for most of the night and his ability to run the pick-and-pop and knock down the 20-foot jumper allowed Team USA to play 4-out even with Faried on the floor. While he has the size to play as a small-ball center in the international game, Davis is also the best power forward on the roster.
Given the lack of options at the forward positions, that is the adjustment that could make the most sense for Team USA. If Davis is going to play big minutes on the perimeter on offense anyway, Coach K might as well pair him with a bigger player who can protect the rim. All three of the centers still in the running to make the team - DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee - would make more sense next to Davis than Faried, Gay or Parsons.
Even before a knee injury that kept him out of the game against Brazil, Cousins was seen as a longshot to make the cut to 12 players. However, his ability to play out of the post would give the Americans a whole different dimension on offense and he can’t be any worse at defense, either on the perimeter or in the paint, than Faried. The duo of Cousins and Davis would be an absolute nightmare to defend and would give Team USA a ton of length and skill upfront.
What makes Drummond so interesting is that he is simultaneously the biggest player on the roster as well as the one reserve who would significantly improve the Americans overall athleticism. At 6’11 275, his ability to run, jump and stand at the front of the rim at would represent a huge mismatch problem for other countries. While he can’t operate outside of the paint, the shooting ability of Davis means Team USA could play Drummond and still space the floor.
Plumlee would represent a compromise choice, as he’s more athletic than Cousins and more skilled than Drummond. Of course, he isn’t nearly the player the other two are and it seems unlikely he would even be in consideration if he hadn’t played at Duke. Nevertheless, like the other two centers, he would represent a dramatic upgrade from Faried in terms of his ability to protect the rim and match up with the Gasol brothers in a game against Spain.
In the last two Olympics, Coach K has been able to get away with going small against a much bigger Spanish team, knocking them off in the gold medal game. However, the 2008 and 2012 teams had far more athleticism and skill than the 2014 version and the Spaniards stuck with them for all 40 minutes. This time around, if he moves Davis to PF and pairs him with a C, he can have the benefits of playing small while upgrading his team on both sides of the ball.
No matter what Coach K decides to do with his rotation, the Americans will be the favorites in Madrid. Not only do they have the most talent, they have a very easy draw, as the vast majority of their potential challengers will be other side of the bracket. However, a depleted talent pool means Team USA is as vulnerable as it has been in some time. If they leave points on the board in terms of building their roster, it could come back to haunt them.