Friday, July 12, 2024

Why Derrick White made more sense for Team USA than Jaylen Brown after Kawhi Leonard’s withdrawal

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Three Boston Celtics are playing for Team USA at the Paris Olympics. Jaylen Brown, widely considered the team’s second-best player, is not among them. It didn’t seem like much of a slight when the rosters were initially announced. The star-studded group had to make cuts somewhere when LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant all surprisingly agreed to play following the disappointment of the 2023 World Cup. Jayson Tatum still made the cut. Jrue Holiday would likely rank lower among all NBA players than Brown to most observers, but his stellar play for Team USA in Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics and his specialist skill set as a defensive ace made him a natural pick. Nobody called Brown a snub when the roster was announced during the season.

But when Kawhi Leonard withdrew due to a knee issue, Brown appeared, on the surface, to be an obvious candidate to replace him. He plays the same position as Leonard and shares similar physical dimensions. He is coming off of his first NBA championship and is a reliable, All-Star-caliber player. He even played for Team USA before, back in the 2019 World Cup. Team USA didn’t medal in that tournament, but Brown’s performance was largely acceptable. In the end, though, Team USA chose Brown’s Boston teammate, Derrick White, to replace Leonard.

Brown seemingly didn’t take that too well. When the news came out, he began tweeting cryptically. Eventually, he directed his ire towards Nike, the manufacturer of Team USA’s uniforms.

Brown is not currently signed to a sneaker deal anywhere, but had previously worn Adidas. However, in 2022, Brown criticized Nike founder Phil Knight for his treatment of Kyrie Irving after the then-Brooklyn Nets star shared an antisemitic film on social media. Knight said that Irving “stepped over the line.” Brown responded by rhetorically asking, “Since when did Nike care about ethics?” Nike cut ties with Irving soon after. Team USA executive director Grant Hill pushed back on the idea that Nike was any sort of factor in the decision to add White over Brown.

“For a good portion of my career, I wore Fila,” Hill joked. “That was supposed to be a joke. We’re proud of our partners, obviously, USA Basketball. This is about putting together a team.”

Putting together a team on the FIBA stage is an entirely different process than doing so in the NBA. Think about the sheer degree of competition for talent in the pros and the constraints the salary cap creates when assembling it. In the NBA, loading your team with star power means having three or four big names. But Team USA? Even in a weak year, it’s generally feasible for the Americans to send 12 All-Stars to the Olympics. When you have that degree of talent, the things you need change drastically.

Think about Brandon Ingram. He was supposed to be one of the faces of Team USA at the World Cup last year. He largely proved unplayable. In hindsight, that made plenty of sense. Ingram’s best trait by far is his one-on-one scoring ability. He can make hard shots. There are a finite number of players in the world who can reliably do so. In the NBA, when 30 teams are fighting for 100% of that player pool, getting even one of them is a major coup. But Team USA has access to 80-90% of them at any given time… and is only fielding one roster. Suddenly, taking and making hard shots becomes less important when Jalen Brunson, Anthony Edwards, Mikal Bridges, Paolo Banchero and Tyrese Haliburton are also on the team.

What you need under those circumstances are players who do everything else. Josh Hart isn’t nearly as accomplished at the NBA level as Ingram. He was a significantly more important part of Team USA’s World Cup bid last summer because he makes his living doing the dirty work. “People ask, ‘What position does he play?’ He plays winner,” head coach Steve Kerr said last summer. Team USA wants players like this. That is why Tayshaun Prince and Andre Iguodala have gold medals right now.

Brown, emphatically, is not Ingram. Ingram’s defense is theoretical most of the time. Brown is a reliably strong defender. He’s no star playmaker, but he was just among the higher-usage players on the most efficient offense in NBA history. He can function within a team setting, clearly. But a lot of the appeal of having Jaylen Brown is his scoring. Remove it from the equation as something Team USA simply doesn’t need and White starts to look more appealing.

White, by virtue of his experience as a point guard, is the superior playmaker. He shot better from 3-point range last season. He’s earned All-Defense honors two seasons in a row. Brown has never made an All-Defense team. Perhaps more importantly, White has never made an All-Star Team. Unlike Brown, he wasn’t a high-lottery pick or a high recruit. He spent most of his college career playing Division II ball and didn’t arrive in the NBA as a starter.

This means nothing in the NBA. It’s potentially important in an Olympic setting featuring so much star power. The reality of building an American Olympic roster is that there aren’t enough minutes or shots for everybody. Neither Brown nor White was ever going to get much run in the Leonard slot because neither is as good as Leonard. Team USA credibly could have started or closed games with him. Even if it hadn’t, Leonard has genuinely competed for the title of “best player in the NBA.” So have the other players at his position. LeBron James and Kevin Durant are higher priorities here than whoever gets the 12th roster spot.

There is always a player or two sitting at the end of the bench as a “break glass in case of emergency option.” It’s imperative that Team USA fills those slots with players who aren’t going to let their egos get the better of them. This isn’t to suggest that Brown has any sort of bad reputation within locker rooms. He’s just so accomplished as a player that he’d probably arrive at Team USA expecting to play a meaningful role because he’s never not played a meaningful role on any team he’s been a part of. White has been a role player all his life. If he’s just here to practice hard and cheer from the sidelines, then there’s little doubt that he’s going to practice hard and cheer from the sidelines.

There are worlds in which he’s asked to do more than that. This tournament, strategically speaking, is geared much more toward guards than wings. Remember, Luka Doncic and Slovenia just got knocked out before qualifying. Most of the other best wings in the world are American. But Germany just won the World Cup with Dennis Schroder as by far its leading scorer. Canada is the only team in the field with multiple perimeter stars, and both Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jamal Murray are guards. There are even less famous players on the NBA stage that morph into megastars in FIBA play. Patty Mills has averaged over 21 points per game in Olympic play for his career. He’s never been a full-time starter in the NBA. Defensive guards, in this field, are more important than defensive wings.

Team USA’s job is not to simply assemble the 12 most talented players available. Frankly, if it was, Brown would probably miss out anyway. Donovan Mitchell isn’t on the team. Neither is Jalen Brunson or Damian Lillard or Paul George or Zion Williamson. Almost any American All-Star could construct a gripe if he really wanted to. The difference between, say, the 15th and 21st best player in the NBA is pretty small.

It’s Team USA’s job to put together the group of 12 players who, combined, give it the best chance at winning gold. Sometimes that means grabbing the most accomplished player on the board. Sometimes that means identifying a specialist that makes sense in the context of the other 11 players and the 11 other teams it will face in the tournament. That thought process led Kerr and Hill to White over Brown, and it was the right decision.

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