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Team USA's Big Problem Playing Small In World Cup

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.

A Superstar Is Not Enough Out West

Seven years after trading Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics, the Minnesota Timberwolves had to press the reset button again, sending Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of a three-team trade for Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young and a future No. 1. Even though it’s as good of a deal as could reasonably be expected for a team in their position, they are still almost certain to extend their playoff drought to 11 seasons, the longest streak in the NBA. 

It’s a stunning record of futility, especially when you consider they had either Garnett or Love on their roster for the vast majority of that span. Players of that caliber don’t grow on trees, especially when you are a small-market franchise. Wiggins was the No. 1 overall pick in one of the strongest drafts in recent memory and there’s no guarantee he ever becomes as good as Minnesota’s last two franchise players. The good news is he shouldn’t have to be.

The Wolves situation isn’t nearly as dire as it was seven years ago. The franchise had to start from scratch following Garnett’s departure - they won only 32 games in his final season and they didn’t retain any of the top-5 scorers from that team. Al Jefferson, the centerpiece of the deal with the Celtics, was the only real building block on hand. They would have needed to bat 1.000 on their next few lottery picks in order to avoid a long journey in the wilderness.

Love came the following season, but it was all downhill from there. They had four first-round picks in 2009, but only one - Ricky Rubio - ended up sticking and he didn’t come over from Spain for another two seasons. They drafted Wesley Johnson in 2010 and Derrick Williams in 2011 and they traded their first-round pick in 2012 for Chase Budinger. With so many misses at the top of the draft, it’s no surprise they weren’t able to build a playoff team around Love.

The Wolves won only 40 games last season, but they had a lot more talent on their roster than most below-.500 teams. They had a point differential of +2.7, better than both the 49-win Dallas Mavericks (+2.4) and 48-win Phoenix Suns (+2.6). The four remaining starters in Minnesota - Rubio, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Nik Pekovic - are hardly perfect, but they all are proven NBA veterans capable of contributing to a winning team.

Young can’t fill Love’s shoes, but he’s a good player who gives the Wolves a starting unit that can keep them competitive on a nightly basis. While that may not translate into many wins in a Western Conference that is as stacked as ever, it means Wiggins won’t be asked to do too much too soon, as opposed to Jefferson in 2008. With Martin and Brewer entrenched on the wings, Wiggins could start his career as a reserve, where he would be groomed into a bigger role.

Nor would he be the only high-upside young player coming off Minnesota’s bench next season. In his second stint with the franchise, Flip Saunders has already proven to be a better judge of talent than David Kahn and Kevin McHale. Shabazz Muhammad and Glenn Robinson III have a chance to stick in the NBA while Gorgui Dieng, the No. 21 pick in 2013, and Zach LaVine, the No. 13 pick in 2014, could end up as the biggest steals in their respective drafts.

After spending most of his rookie season on the bench, Dieng came on strong in the final month, posting multiple games with 17+ rebounds. At 6’11 240 with a 7’4 wingspan, he has prototype size and athleticism for an interior defender as well as the ability to contribute in multiple ways on the offensive end of the floor. His per-36 minute averages last season - 13 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 assists and 1 steal on 50% shooting - mark him as a comer.

LaVine was one of the most polarizing players in this year’s draft, a walking embodiment of the “stats vs. scouts” debate made famous in Moneyball. He has about as thin a resume as any lottery pick in recent memory - in his only season at UCLA, he averaged 9 points and played only 24 minutes a game. Nevertheless, while he didn’t get many opportunities in college, he’s an electrifying athlete who doubles as a high-level shooter, passer and ball-handler.

Even as rookies, the combination of LaVine and Wiggins should form one of the most exciting second-unit duos in the league. They are both only 19, so there will be plenty of growing pains, but you could not ask for two better athletes to run the break and catch lobs from Rubio. Minnesota will have two different identities next season - a halfcourt team built around Pekovic and an uptempo team with Dieng protecting the rim and helping to trigger the break.

It’s a best of both worlds scenario for the Wolves, as they can grow a group of promising young players for the future without sacrificing wins in the present. LaVine, Wiggins and Dieng can all start their careers in small roles on a team full of veterans, instead of being forced to carry heavy loads on one of the worst teams in the NBA. And with those three on the roster, Minnesota is the rare rebuilding team that won’t have to sweat the results of the lottery too hard.

In a best-case scenario, Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins and Dieng form the core of a playoff team in a few years time, with Saunders filling the PF spot either though the draft or dealing one of the remaining vets. If he can land someone like Kentucky freshman Karl Towns, a two-way 7’0 who can protect the rim on defense and play on the perimeter on offense, the Wolves could have a future starting five of under-26 players who can excel on both sides of the ball. 

Of course, there will be plenty of bumps and bruises along the way and there are no certainties when it comes to projecting young players. Rubio has to become a better shooter, Dieng only has a month’s worth of good games under his belt and Wiggins and LaVine have proven nothing at the NBA level. There’s a lot we don’t know about each of them and the Wolves don’t exactly have a great track record of developing prospects over the last decade.

However, after years of failed lottery picks, they finally seem to have a front office capable of finding talent in the draft, the most important asset for a rebuilding franchise in the modern NBA. If a lost decade in Minnesota has proven anything, it’s that no player, no matter how talented, can single-handedly carry a franchise into the playoffs out West. Andrew Wiggins is a good start to a rebuild, but he’s far from the only thing Wolves fans have to be excited about.

Cavs Enter Win-Now Mode With A Machine Of An Offense

In the end, with LeBron James in his prime and the Eastern Conference wide open, the Cleveland Cavaliers went with the sure thing rather than rolling the dice on building a team with LeBron and a bunch of under-22 players. Trading Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a future No. 1 for Kevin Love not only dramatically improves the Cavs short-term prospects, it also accelerates the timetable for the rest of the team and puts them firmly in win-now mode.

After spending the first seven years of his career with a paucity of talent around him, LeBron’s charmed life continues, as he goes directly from a Big Three in Miami to a Big Three in Cleveland. While neither Love nor Kyrie Irving have ever made the playoffs, they have already combined to make five All-Star appearances and both are under the age of 26. The Cavs are now one of the favorites to win a title, although they still need to figure out the rest of their rotation.

On the offensive side of the ball, the biggest plus is the absurd amount of spacing they can put on the floor. Three-point shooting is the most important thing that players in LeBron’s supporting cast need to have and Cleveland has the winner of the three-point shoot-out in 2011 (James Jones), 2012 (Love) and 2013 (Kyrie). Instead of receiving the brunt of the defensive attention as the primary option on offense, Love and Kyrie will get a diet of open looks.

While they will have to adjust to having the ball in their hands less often, they should be able to make up for taking a fewer number of shots by increasing their overall efficiency. Last season, Kyrie averaged 17.5 field goal attempts and shot 43% while Love averaged 18.5 field goal attempts and shot 46%. In contrast, while playing next to LeBron in Miami, Dwyane Wade shot 54% on 14 field goal attempts and Chris Bosh shot 52% on 12 field goal attempts.

By the end of their fourth season together, the Heat’s Big Three had become a well-oiled machine, moving in unison and creating efficient looks at the basket on almost every possession. Here’s what should frighten the rest of the NBA - on paper, the offensive games of Love, Kyrie and LeBron fit better. Wade has never been a good three-point shooter while Bosh only added it to his game last season. Kyrie took five 3’s per game last season and Love was at 6.6.

The player in Cleveland who will have to make the biggest adjustment is Dion Waiters, as he goes from a second option to a guy who will struggle to get a consistent amount of shots on a nightly basis. Mario Chalmers, the fourth option in Miami, averaged only 7.7 field goal attempts a game, half of what Waiters averaged (14.3). If Waiters can’t improve as a decision-maker and a defensive player, he may end up coming off the bench and playing as a sixth man.

Upfront, Anderson Varejao should be a good complement to Love and LeBron with his ability to crash the glass and move without the ball. While he isn’t a great outside shooter, the amount of space that Cleveland can play it should make that a non-issue and he should make a killing rolling to the rim on the pick-and-roll. The question is whether he will make sense on the defensive side of the floor, as he’s never been a shot-blocker in his time in the NBA.

The defensive side of the ball is where the questions are and that’s where David Blatt will have to earn his paychecks. LeBron is the only player in their current starting five with much of a reputation as a defensive stopper and he took a step back in that department in the regular season, as he seemed to be conserving some of his energy and not going all-out on a nightly basis. With the personnel around him, he may not be able to do that in Cleveland. 

That’s why one of their most important additions might be Shawn Marion, as he can come off the bench and defend a number of different positions. While his defensive numbers began to slip last season in Dallas, he was being asked to carry the team on that side of the floor, too much of a burden for a guy in his 15th season in the NBA. As a 20-25 minute player with the Cavs, Marion could be invaluable as a guy who can plug up any holes that spring up on defense. 

Going forward, as Cleveland tries to build a roster around their new Big Three, the most important qualities they will need are guys who can spread the floor and defend their position. That’s the only way they will be able to compete with the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder - teams who can put lineups on the floor without a weak link on either side of the ball. As is, come playoff time, Blatt will have to juggle offense and defense off each other.

If the Cavs can’t find a rim protector, which won’t be easy given the amount of money they have committed to LeBron, Kyrie and Love, they can’t afford to have too many holes on defense. While the combined length and athleticism of Wade, LeBron and Bosh allowed the Heat to play small and clean up a lot of mistakes, that won’t be an option in Cleveland. Kyrie has a 6’4 wingspan, Love has a 6’11 wingspan and neither is a plus athlete for their position at the NBA level.

One of the biggest reasons for the Heat’s ability to hit the ground running was that LeBron, Wade and Bosh were elite players on offense and defense, which gave them a tremendous amount of flexibility in terms of setting their line-ups and filling out the rest of their roster. LeBron is LeBron, but he will need help on both sides of the ball to win championships. How good can Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love be on defense? That’s what the Cavs ceiling will be.

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