Friday, July 12, 2024

Who should start for Team USA? LeBron or Curry off the bench?

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LAS VEGAS — Don’t read too much into who is starting for Team USA when it takes the court Wednesday night against Canada.

“We are purposely going to just throw all kinds of different combinations out there…” USA head coach Steve Kerr said. “I imagine I’ll change the starting lineup for the first few games, just try different ones. Everybody understands this is a very unique situation. They’re all not only starters, but superstars, future Hall of Famers. So they all deserve to start but only five can. We will figure it out.”

Kerr has options, but if we don’t see the Paris starting five against Canada — and we definitely won’t with Kevin Durant out — then who will start in Paris? Let’s break it down.

The Anchor: Joel Embiid

Steve Kerr learned a hard lesson at the World Championships in the Philippines last summer — his small-ball lineups don’t work the same way in the physical game allowed internationally as they do in the NBA. The USA struggled to match up with size.

Enter Joel Embiid — the most dominant physical big man in the NBA (or, at least tied with Nikola Jokic). If Team USA takes home another gold it will be because Embiid — along with some help off the bench from Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo (who Kerr seemed to use together in scrimmages, bumping Bam to the four) — could match up physically inside with anyone. Kerr added this style of play may be an adjustment for Embiid because he’ll be down on the block more.

“Nothing changes,” Embiid responded. “I’ll still be dominant as I always am. I’ll just see a few more touches in the low post and go from there.”

The must starts: Curry, LeBron, Durant

There is a political element to being USA basketball coach and with this team in particular — Kerr has to start these three legends. Even on a team of superstars, these three icons can’t come off the bench.

This is also not a bad thing. The plan in scrimmages appears to have been LeBron as a point-forward initiating the offense, with his elite decision-making and passing setting everyone up, then have Curry working more off the ball and as the secondary shot-creator. (Still, the USA Select team was quick to double Curry once he got the ball and started making a move.) Durant will fit into that nicely once he returns from his calf soreness.

However, don’t be shocked if Kerr ultimately asks one of these guys to be the sixth man as he works through his thought process because some other lineup combo just works better. It would be weird to see Curry or LeBron coming off the bench, but it’s not out of the question.

Final Starter: Kawhi Leonard

This final spot could go a lot of directions, but whoever it is has to take on the 2008 Olympics Kobe Bryant’s “just tell me who to stop” defensive mindset.

I’ll take Leonard. He’s still one of the best on-ball defenders in the league, physical (which will play well in FIBA ball), long, and just knows how to play the game. Tell him to just shut someone down, and they’ll be toast.

“It’s fun coaching Kawhi, just seeing him up close,” Kerr said. “Just the physicality, the strength, the skill. And it’s great to see him back on the court.”

If not Leonard, Kerr could go a number of directions here: Jayson Tatum or Anthony Edwards can step into this role, or if the USA needs to go bigger against an opponent Anthony Davis can start. If Kerr wants to go smaller, there is Jrue Holiday or maybe Devin Booker.

All that versatility gets to the key point with Team USA: What matters is not who starts games but who finishes close ones. Kerr will have options when that happens, he can play through his roster in these games and then ride a hot hand at the end — maybe it’s
Booker’s night or Holiday’s night or Tyrese Haliburton’s night. Kerr can just go with it.

That’s what makes Team USA so dangerous.

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