This may be the unluckiest squad that USA Basketball has ever assembled. From the beginning the US national team had its problems with recruiting and with injuries. Jerry Colangelo made statements early on this summer which threw the future of the program and its ability to lure big name NBA talent to represent the country in jeopardy. With the entire Redeem Team choosing to opt out of playing for USA Basketball this summer at the FIBA World Championships in Turkey a whole new team had to be assembled. During that process, efforts to build a cohesive unit have been hampered by a slew of injuries, contract issues, and wary general managers. Most notably, these injuries, issues, and mononucleosis in one case, have had an adverse effect on frontcourt players. As Team USA readies to play exhibition games against Lithuania and Spain this weekend in Madrid, they are outfitted with just a single true center in Tyson Chandler. Despite this lack of size, Team USA is bourgeoning with speed and length in the backcourt and along the wing. What this team may truly be out to prove is that the role of the traditional center no longer applies in today’s game. Whether this team wins gold or not they have a task before them of tearing down long standing notions about the effectiveness and need for a big man in the paint.
The most recent player to fall victim to Team USA’s injury woes was Stephen Curry. He mildly sprained his left ankle during practice on Wednesday and was forced to miss crucial time with the team. As of now, Team USA has a 13 man roster which they must whittle to 12 just prior to the World Championships beginning on August 28. This injury has placed Curry squarely on the bubble to be cut as less participation at this point is viewed as a negative. However, he went through a no contact practice on Friday and hopes to be ready for exhibition play this weekend. Whether or not Curry is cut, the final player that will be released by the team is likely to be a guard as Team USA’s roster is replete with them. Where the team is lacking is at the center of a shift in attitudes and style currently taking place across the NBA.
For better or for worse, Team USA has unwittingly anointed themselves as the great experiment. No, they do not have trans-warp drive, but with the number of guards they have they sure do have speed. Their experiment is one that has been implemented by Jerry Sloan in Utah recently, Don Nelson throughout his career, and is the model for any Mike D’Antoni offense. They have all relied on speed, quickness, and athleticism over size and power. Essentially they are the architects who transformed what used to be standard role of a center into an arcane practice. With them the center has to be mobile and versatile, a long range jump shot is a must. Post play, as limited as it is in their systems of the pick-and-roll, will come from the power and small forwards. Team USA has fully embraced this concept, although unintentionally, with the roster they have composed. If they were so worried about their size in the frontcourt they probably would have kept JaVale McGee on the team. Team USA will be the test for whether the center position is obsolete or not and if the European style of basketball is the new model for the NBA.
The dominant center model is one that many teams have struggled to let go of as their quest to find the next Hakeem Olajuwon continues in earnest. He is not out there. Yes, there are players such as Dwight Howard in the league today but his skill set is limited at best. The two time reigning defensive player of the year (an award I still contest) is quite one dimensional in his offensive abilities. Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing (and possibly David Robinson) were the last of a now dead breed. Here is where one would attempt to inject Shaquille O’Neal’s name into the debate. O’Neal is more of a transition center built on the archetype of the dominant five. Each of his championships has come not as a result of his play alone, but because of his pairing with a versatile shooting guard. Essentially, O’Neal helped to usher in the demise of position he plays. His size has become cumbersome in today’s game. His first few outings with the Cavaliers last season were disastrous and opposing teams were using him and his lethargic body as they set screens and pick-and-rolls to lure him out of the comfort zone of the paint. It worked to perfection.
With Coach Mike Krzyzewski taking notes from D’Antoni’s playbook, Team USA is either adapting to an international style of play or embracing the future of the game. It is clearly the latter. Who will back up Chandler at center since he is the only legitimate five on the roster? Lamar Odom will. One of the most exciting dynamics that this presents is the possibility of a point-center. Odom is accustomed to being a point-forward in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense in Los Angeles so it would not be too far fetched to think that he would be called upon, at times, to run the point while he was the center on the floor. This concept could not have existed during the big man dominant days that litter the history of basketball. Some could argue that Magic Johnson played point-center for the “Showtime” Lakers in the 1980s but this is simply not the case. A team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on it has no need or concept of a point-center.
In today’s game, smaller is better. Think of the dominant big man center as the Macedonian phalanx. For years they were the cornerstone of every NBA team. If a team did not have one, they were actively seeking one. When the opposing team had a dominant center the game was over even before the tip. Both the large dominating center and the Macedonian phalanx were thought invincible. Now the post game of the center is as obsolete as the formations of the phalanx. The center was one dimensional: grab rebounds, dunk the ball, and block a few shots in close. Centers were basically immobile using their sheer size to gain leverage over a defender. Now those same attributes have become hindrances, the center, in the traditional sense, has fought its Battle of Pydna. Team USA has embraced the future.
If Team USA is able to bring home gold for the first time since 1994 with the roster it has in place it will be the crowning achievement of small ball and the present sea change taking place, mostly in small markets, in the NBA. Already, many teams have adapted a backcourt of combo-guards instead of the traditional point and shooting guard lineups. Versatility has also become more important in the sport as players that have the ability to play two to three and possibly four positions are coveted over those with limited scope and range to their games. Coach Krzyzewski made it very clear from the outset of minicamp that player versatility was of the utmost importance. Only taking one center to Turkey fits the new model perfectly. The post game is dead; the center is no longer the queen, it has become the rook. Many will question whether the lack of size on the team may hamper their rebounding efforts. It may, but there will likely be no team in the tournament that can adjust, let alone matchup, with the lineups that Team USA can put on the court. However, Team USA may come to regret their center-less experiment when they face off against Greece in exhibition play on August 25. It is always a good thing to have a few big guys on your side when a fight breaks out.