Roster decisions loom as U.S. holds opening Olympic practice in Vegas
The U.S. Olympic basketball team held its opening practice in Las Vegas on Friday
Three of the final 12 spots on the roster remain open for the Olympic squad
With plenty of NBA talent available, the final roster will be announced Saturday
LAS VEGAS -- It's the kind of argument you hear after work and on chat rooms in rotisserie leagues. In this case those arguing rate among the leading basketball authorities in America, and their decision is meant to result in an Olympic gold medal next month in London.
Three of the final 12 spots remain open for the U.S. men's team, and on Saturday night the final half-dozen candidates to fill out the roster will find out whether they've made it. After the team held its opening practice here Friday, managing director Jerry Colangelo insisted no conclusions had been reached. "We're still not making a final decision until we practice tomorrow,'' he said.
Nine of the places have already been assigned to the following NBA stars:
Center: Tyson Chandler.
Forwards: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love.
Guards: Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook.
A trend of injuries continued when Paul aggravated a thumb injury he suffered at the end of the NBA season; Colangelo said he was being X-rayed. In addition to the absence of Dwyane Wade, who has been sidelined by a knee injury, the original goal of assembling a traditional front line has been decimated by the unavailability of 6-foot-9 Lamar Odom as well as injuries to Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Andrew Bynum and LaMarcus Aldridge. Rookie Anthony Davis was unable to scrimmage Friday because he is recovering from a recently sprained ankle that may cost him a place on the Olympic team.
Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski may yet decide Saturday to put Davis on the roster, not only because his strengths fit the needs of a 12th man -- he's a rim-protecting defender and rebounder who doesn't need the ball -- but also because of his youth. Based on the possibility of a new 23-and-under standard being applied to the men's basketball tournament at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Davis could be available to play for that team in four years -- and so the potential of him experiencing the London Olympics would give the U.S. a ready-made team leader for the future.
And yet it's hard to imagine that Krzyzewski would grant a place on the team to a rookie who has been unable to practice. Other players might not consider that to be fair, considering the wealth of experienced NBA talent that was competing at scrimmages Friday to make the team. The remaining candidates for the last three spots are:
F Blake Griffin (6-10)
F Anthony Davis (6-10)
F Rudy Gay (6-8)
G/F Andre Iguodala (6-6)
G/F James Harden (6-5)
G Eric Gordon (6-3)
Griffin is a likely choice, based on the U.S. need for length -- he has averaged 11.5 rebounds over his first two NBA seasons -- as well as his ability to move without the ball, as demonstrated whenever he cut inside for numerous dunks from Paul last season.
If it is decided that the U.S. can get by with the big positions being shared by Chandler, Love, Griffin, James, Anthony and Durant -- all 6-8 or taller and capable of creating mismatches offensively -- then four wings will be competing for the last two spots. Gay, Iguodala, Harden and Gordon each brings his own set of skills. "It's really a difficult choice,'' said Krzyzewski. "The guys who fill out the roster all give us things we can use. We just have to figure out what is more important.''
The most valuable specialist may be Iguodala, who can defend multiple positions in order to fill the same kind of role that was played by Scottie Pippen for the original Dream Team 20 years ago.
Harden can play the three small positions, including the point. Gordon is a combo guard who is the most aggressive scorer of the four. Gay, who played very well Friday, provides length on the wing, and he even played seven possessions at center in the gold medal game of the 2010 Worlds.
Colangelo has enjoyed the back-and-forth debates with the coaching staff, with whom he will meet Saturday afternoon to make the final decisions. "It's good to see how people can be influenced to some degree, and how you can be steadfast in what you believe in,'' said Colangelo. "I love to hear coaches stand up for a player, just fight for him. It is important because we don't know what the future holds regarding age limitations. For many of them this might be their only bite of the apple, so there's a lot at stake.''
Krzyzewski and Colangelo both insisted that no player will be "cut'' from the team when the final roster is announced live on NBA TV Saturday night. The three who don't make it will be considered alternates and may yet be called to replace injured players as late as 48 hours before the Olympic opener July 29 vs. France, which became a more formidable opponent when Tony Parker was cleared this week to play after suffering a recent eye injury.
James and Williams didn't scrimmage five-on-five for the U.S. -- the former because Krzyzewski wanted to work him back in slowly, just 15 days after he won his first championship ("When you win,'' said the coach with a smile, "you're on a parade of victory laps, so to speak''), and the latter because he wanted to wait until he signed his new contract with Brooklyn. Williams acknowledged that he was close to signing with the Mavericks before he was convinced to reunite with the Nets based on their trade for Joe Johnson.
Carmelo Anthony, who as of last week had lost 12 pounds, noted that he was forced to buy new clothes, which could not have been cheap. Bryant showed up to camp with a new goatee and spoke optimistically of winning a sixth NBA championship thanks to the help of the Lakers' newly-acquired point guard, Steve Nash. "It gives us a much, much better chance,'' said Bryant.
A few rows of bleachers were filled by NBA coaches and executives watching the finalists of the national team scrimmage full-court against the younger players of the "select team.'' The pace was fast with a lot of shouting on defense and trapping in the frontcourt to create turnovers. In one five-minute scrimmage the seniors won 19-4 while the select team had trouble getting the ball to the rim and settled for jump shots falling away. In the next game, however, rookie of the year Kyrie Irving led the selects to a 14-11 upset as coach Byron Scott and GM Chris Grant watched happily.
The condensed schedule caused by the lockout was not harming performances, according to Krzyzewski. "Actually, they're in better shape,'' he said. "I don't see wear and tear.'' After the final roster is decided Saturday, Krzyzewski will spend the remaining four days here continuing to install a style of play meant to emphasize athleticism and mask the absence of length up front. On Friday the U.S. will play its opening exhibition game here against the Dominican Republic, and then it's onto more minicamps and four more exhibitions in Washington D.C., Manchester, England, and Barcelona.