Updated: Jun 16, 2021
A potential 2021 NBA Finals Game 7 would occur on July 22, the 2020 Olympics (yes, they are keeping 2020 despite being played a year later) begin on July 23. This conflict, along with the fact that we are coming off of a season unlike any other in NBA history when it comes to injuries, along with the fact that the NBA offseason is already shorter than usual, and along with the fact that we are still dealing with a global pandemic, has naturally led to a lot of uncertainty when it comes to what the United States’ roster will look like as they go for their fourth consecutive Gold Medal in Men’s Basketball.
While the United States remains a heavy favorite in Tokyo, their last international competition appearance, the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China where an American team lacking in true star power, but still filled with all-star caliber talent saw their 58-game winning streak snapped on the way to an embarrassing seventh place finish in Gregg Popovich’s debut as Head Coach, may have some thinking that the rest of the world has closed the gap. This means that the roster will need to be constructed with the right balance of veterans and young talent while continuing the trend of overwhelming NBA star power that Team USA has deployed every four years since 1992.
In March, USA Basketball announced their list of 57 finalists for the 12 spots on the Olympic roster. Now in June, just over a month away from the start of the games, only four players on that list of 57 are officially out, while two (Damian Lillard and Draymond Green) are officially confirmed and two others (Jayson Tatum and Bradley Beal) are seemingly confirmed.
Therefore, I will take a shot at filling the remaining eight roster slots with the 49 Americans left in the player pool. In order to do this, I will have to break down the deep player pool to figure out who the real options are for Team USA. Before I start, let me make clear that this is not what I would do if I were in charge, but rather a guess at how I think the roster may take shape when it is finalized later this month.
Confirmed: Draymond Green (F), Damian Lillard (G)
Shams Charania and Joe Vardon reported on Tuesday that Green and Lillard were the first two players to commit to playing for Team USA in Tokyo. Lillard’s decision did not come as much of a surprise considering his Trail Blazers lost in round one, so a lack of rest would not be a reason to decline, and because he has not yet played in an Olympics. In fact, Lillard, who was a final cut from the 2014 FIBA World Cup Team, has never played for Team USA in a major competition. Fresh off of a short postseason run that was filled with otherworldly shooting and a lack of help from teammates, Lillard will surely be thrilled to play with a team of fellow All-Stars and take advantage of the shorter 3-point-line in international play. Depending on who else participates, Lillard may very well be Team USA’s best player as they head to Japan. Green’s participation was a bit of a surprise considering he was a member of the United States’ 2016 Gold Medal winning team (maybe I am wrong but I would assume most players who have already won a Gold Medal would politely decline doing it again at an Olympics that will be substantially more challenging both in terms of health/safety and impact on their NBA careers). Regardless, Green’s all-time great defense and leadership will play an essential role in Team USA’s quest for gold.
Somewhat Confirmed: Bradley Beal (G), Jayson Tatum (F)
For whatever reason, out of all of the players on the 57-player list, Jayson Tatum and Bradley Beal have been singled out as players that USA Basketball is “optimistic” that they will get commitments from. This makes me assume that a full-confirmation is imminent. Similar to Lillard, it is no surprise at all that Beal and Tatum would be interested considering their teams are out and they have not played in an Olympics yet. Beal, who was the NBA’s second leading scorer this past season, will be a great fit for the team as either instant offense off the bench or even in a starting role. Tatum was expected to be a centerpiece of the United States’ 2019 FIBA World Cup team, but he played in just two games due to an ankle injury. Coming off of a strong end to the 2021 NBA season, Tatum should take that momentum right into the Olympic starting lineup.
Out: LaMarcus Aldridge (F), Jimmy Butler (G/F) Anthony Davis (F), LeBron James (F)
These four are the only players that I can say with 100% certainty will not be on the roster. Of course, Aldridge abruptly retired from basketball this March due to an irregular heartbeat. It was revealed today that Butler, who won a Gold Medal in 2016, has turned down an invitation to play in Tokyo and will focus on next season instead. This was definitely not a surprise considering the turbulent season Butler had with the Heat this season. James, who helped lead the United States to Gold Medals in 2008 and 2012, made the right decision to prioritize recovery (and Space Jam 2 promotion) this offseason. We saw the negative impact that the short offseason had on LeBron and the 2021 Lakers, so this was not a surprise at all. Per usual, Anthony Davis is following his Lakers teammate and not playing for Team USA. Like James’, Davis’ decision is also a good one as the 2012 Gold Medalist can take the offseason to recover from the groin injury that hampered him in the playoffs.
Hurt/Fatigued: Jaylen Brown (G/F), Mike Conley (G), Kevin Durant (F), James Harden (G), Kyrie Irving (G) Kawhi Leonard (F), Donovan Mitchell (G), Victor Oladipo (G), Chris Paul (G)
Due to both injury and the fact that players will likely have no interest in going straight from the NBA Finals to the Olympics, Team USA loses a ton of talent here. Brown’s wrist and Oladipo and Leonard’s knees will eliminate them from roster contention. Leonard’s knee injury is a major blow as the superstar forward had expressed interest in playing in his first Olympics. Even if healthy, Oladipo probably would not have been a top priority for Team USA, but Brown played 20 minutes per game at the 2019 World Cup and may have been a wing option off of the bench in Tokyo. Conley, Harden, Irving and Mitchell all have the distinction of being players that are dealing with injuries while also playing for title-contending teams. Right now, the most likely NBA Finals matchup seems to be Conley and Mitchell’s Jazz against Harden and Irving’s Nets. If that is the case, relatively healthy or not, you can probably rule all four of them out of the Olympics. Chris Paul and Kevin Durant are both north of 30, both two-time Gold Medalists, and both still playing in the NBA playoffs. While Team USA would surely love to have them, it is hard to imagine either of these veterans doing anything other than spending the first few weeks off their short offseason off of the court.
Unrealistic, But In The Player Pool: Andre Drummond (C), Blake Griffin (F), Montrezl Harrell (C), Dwight Howard (C), DeAndre Jordan (C), Kyle Kuzma (F), JaVale McGee (C), Mitchell Robinson (C)
Some of these names may have you scratching your head, but it shows how weak the United States player pool is when it comes to big men. I would safely bet that none of these players come anywhere near the final roster. Drummond won gold at the 2014 World Cup, and that alone probably makes him the most-likely selection in this most-unlikely group. Blake Griffin had to miss the 2012 Olympics due to injury, and his career resurgence with the Nets will not be enough to get him on this year’s squad. If Harrell, Kuzma or McGee end up on the roster then Team USA will have serious problems both in terms of recruitment and in Tokyo. Howard and Jordan have both won Gold Medals, but they are too far past their primes to go for a second one. As a Knicks fan, I hate to put Robinson as an unrealistic choice, but even in the weak spot of center, there are too many better options in the player pool.
Filling the Roster
After weeding all of the previously mentioned players out of the player pool, that leaves me with 32 Americans to fill eight roster spots. In terms of roster construction, I am going to follow the blueprint used by Team USA in 2016 with five guards, five forwards and two centers. Therefore, I have to select three of the remaining sixteen guards, three of the remaining eleven forwards, and two of the five remaining centers.
Remaining Guards: Devin Booker, Malcolm Brogdon, Stephen Curry, Eric Gordon, Joe Harris, Jrue Holiday, Zach Lavine, Kyle Lowry, Khris Middleton, Duncan Robinson, Fred VanVleet, Kemba Walker, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Derrick White, Trae Young
Immediately with these guards, it is worth noting that Booker, Harris, Holiday, Middleton, Walker and Young should have asterisks (or question marks) next to their names. Booker, Harris, Holiday, Middleton and Young are all still playing in the NBA Playoffs and may favor rest over the Olympics while Walker is recovering from a knee injury. Even if the Nets don’t play deep into July, I feel comfortable eliminating Harris, along with Eric Gordon and Duncan Robinson, because I don’t imagine USA Basketball spending a spot on a three-point specialist. Among the other question marks, I could actually see all five guards securing a spot on the roster if they feel fresh enough. Booker and Young, two young stars who have truly exploded onto the scene in the 2021 playoffs, would certainly be the top choices. Walker and Middleton, who were both on the 2019 World Cup team, and Holiday would all be highly competent backup options if Young and Booker choose to rest this Summer. The next grouping of guards would be veterans Lowry, Wall and Westbrook. Lowry won gold in 2016, Westbrook won gold in 2012 and Wall, somewhat surprisingly, has never played a major competition with Team USA. Lowry and Westbrook definitely have better shots to get a spot than Wall, but I imagine, with plenty of young guards available, there will only be one, at the most, available slot for these veterans. Brogdon, Lavine, VanVleet and White all present interesting options at guard. Brogdon is coming off the best season of his career, and his nickname, “The President,” should get him some extra consideration when it comes to representing the United States. In all seriousness, Brogdon may not be the “sexy” pick, but he deserves a real look as a floor general. Lavine, who averaged 27.4 points per game this season, would be a high-risk, high-reward selection. His scoring prowess is undeniable, but, considering there will be scorers all over the roster, it may not make sense to carry a guy who struggles on defense. VanVleet is an interesting sleeper considering his strong shooting, but his status may depend entirely on whether or not Coach Popovich wants to go with a two point guard starting lineup. If Team USA has two guards in the starting lineup, the smaller VanVleet will not be needed. White will surely get a bump as one of Popovich’s Spurs players. After all, he was on the 2019 World Cup team where Popovich debuted as the United States’ coach. The biggest question mark of all is with Stephen Curry. Curry, who has won two FIBA World Cups but never an Olympic gold, remains “up in the air” when it comes to Tokyo. If he chooses to play he will, in all likelihood, be Team USA’s biggest star and best player. After the Warriors missed the playoffs this season, the 33-year-old should be rested and ready to go in July. Curry’s hesitancy seems to be related to the pandemic, as he had previously been very enthusiastic about going for his first gold.
Guard Picks: Stephen Curry, Khris Middleton, Kyle Lowry
The Curry selection was a no-brainer. I believe he will ultimately decide to play for Team USA and fill the role of “face of the team” like fellow NBA legends Kobe Bryant in 2008, LeBron James in 2012 and Kevin Durant in 2016. If he wants to play, of course he will get a spot and join Lillard in the starting lineup. Regarding the next guard spot, I really wanted to go with Young or Booker. I think Booker may be playing in the finals, so I ruled him out, and Trae Young, who I don’t think will make the finals, but you never know, should probably take some time off after his first playoff run. That left me with Bucks teammates Middleton and Holiday. Either would be great choices, but I opted for Middleton because he has experience with Team USA and can play both shooting guard and small forward. With Lillard, Beal, Curry and Lowry all on the smaller side, I think the team will go for Middleton’s size and versatility at the guard/wing position. I personally would love to see Westbrook on Team USA again, but I think they will lean towards a “safer” option with the 35-year-old Lowry. He played 16 minutes per game in the 2016 Olympics and can serve as a great leader for this year’s squad. However, Lowry is a free agent this Summer, so that may factor into his decision of whether or not to play. If he opts not to go, I think Malcolm Brogdon has a better chance of getting his spot than Westbrook or Wall.
Remaining Forwards: Harrison Barnes, DeMar DeRozan, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Tobias Harris, Gordon Hayward, Brandon Ingram, Kevin Love, Julius Randle, Zion Williamson, Christian Wood
Regarding question marks at the forward position, George and Harris are the only two who remain in the playoffs. George, who famously suffered his gruesome leg injury in a Team USA scrimmage, already has a Gold Medal, so that combined with the short offseason allowed me to rule him out. However, if he wants to play, they should have a spot for him. Harris has no experience playing with Team USA and should be playing into, at least, early July, so I ruled him out too, even though I think his game would fit very well in international play. The next grouping of forwards are those who are already gold medalists. Barnes and DeRozan won in 2016, while Kevin Love won in 2012. Barnes was a surprise pick in 2016, and I do not think it will happen again, even though he was also on the 2019 World Cup team. Love is far removed from his 2012-self, so he is probably out too. DeRozan is a very interesting option considering his Team USA experience and connection with coach Gregg Popovich. However, he is a free agent this Summer. It went under the radar, but DeRozan played very well this year as he transitioned to power forward. He is definitely someone to watch as the roster is constructed. Grant, Hayward and Randle are all veterans who are yet to play in a major tournament. Grant shined with his own team in Detroit this year, and his two-way skills make him an intriguing option. Hayward could definitely provide a scoring boost off the bench, so he can’t be ruled out. Randle is the biggest wild card in this group because his poor 2021 playoff performance left a lot to be desired. While his struggles may have hurt his case, there is no doubt that the Most Improved Player winner will be a hard worker that can fit in well with the Team USA culture. On the other hand, Randle may not want to put more miles on his body after such a grueling first season with coach Tom Thibodeau. If the United States is looking for youth, they have options with soon to be 21-year-old phenom Zion Williamson, 23-year-old Brandon Ingram and 25-year-old Christian Wood. Wood is probably not a realistic option, but good for him for working his way into consideration. Williamson’s fitness and injury struggles are well documented, so he may not be looking to tax himself even more in the offseason, but if he wants to play then he’ll instantly be one of the biggest names on the team. Ingram, Williamson’s Pelicans teammate, would be a great scorer off of the bench.
Forward Picks: Zion Williamson, DeMar DeRozan, Julius Randle
If Zion wants to play, he’ll have a starting spot. I feel like he, and his friends at Jordan Brand, will ultimately decide it would be the best decision for one of the leagues’ brightest young stars to shine on the international stage. As many of his fellow young stars made their playoff debuts this year, Zion can have his shot on the Olympic stage and win a Gold Medal before even playing a playoff game. Due to his experience, a lack of truly reliable forward options, his positional versatility and his familiarity with Popovich, I’m confident that DeRozan, if he wants it, will have a spot waiting for him. The final forward spot was tough, and I think Jerami Grant and Gordon Hayward will get serious consideration, but I went with Randle. The Knicks fan in me is torn on this one because I’d love for him to redeem himself in Tokyo, but don’t love the additional miles. I think Randle can win over the coaching staff with his strong work ethic and improved defense and carve out a role in the rotation from the back end of the bench.
Remaining Centers: Bam Adebayo, Jarrett Allen, Brook Lopez, Mason Plumlee, Myles Turner
It’s a somewhat odd group outside of the All-Star Adebayo, but Team USA has plenty of options here at the center position. Lopez is the only center in question as the Bucks are still in the playoffs. Adebayo is definitely a lock, if he wants to play then he’ll be the starting center. Plumlee, Turner and Lopez all played on the 2019 World Cup team, but none were overly impressive. Plumlee, who was pretty good this season, should probably be in the unrealistic section, but the 2019 experience at least got him a spot here. Turner battled injuries after a great start, especially on defense, this season and he was the best of the three centers in China two years ago. Lopez’s combination of defense and outside shooting would make him a great option in international play. Allen is the wild card here because he is not an All-Star like Bam and has no experience like the other three options. He is one of the league’s most underrated centers and should get a long look as a backup option here.
Center Picks: Bam Adebayo, Brook Lopez
Bam could very easily make the same choice that his teammate, Jimmy Butler, did and prioritize the 2022 season over Tokyo, but I feel like he’ll be interested in winning his first Gold Medal and starting at center. His defense and rim-running skills would make him a highlight machine in the Olympics. For the second center spot, assuming the Bucks don’t get to the NBA Finals, I love Lopez here. I think USA Basketball will love his defense and use his great shooting to stretch the floor, plus they can even play him and Adebayo together. If Adebayo says no, or Lopez is too fatigued, I like Allen, Turner and Plumlee, in that order, as replacements.
Final Roster Picks
Starters: Damian Lillard (PG), Stephen Curry (SG), Jayson Tatum (SF), Zion Williamson (PF), Bam Adebayo (C)
Bench: Bradley Beal, Kyle Lowry, Khris Middleton (G), Draymond Green, DeMar DeRozan, Julius Randle (F), Brook Lopez (C)