Team USA Olympic roster rivals Dream Team: ‘We knew this was the team we wanted’

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Team USA Olympic roster rivals Dream Team: ‘We knew this was the team we wanted’

If not for March Madness, the identity of Team USA may have been revealed even earlier.

Breaking from past practices, when the 12 NBA players representing USA Basketball at the Olympics or a FIBA World Cup either had to try out at a summer minicamp, or, at least, were unveiled after the NBA season, the dozen stars the Americans are sending to the Paris Olympics are already known, announced Wednesday by managing director Grant Hill on NBC’s “The Today Show.”

And if Hill didn’t have another job as lead color commentator for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which concluded nine days ago in Phoenix, it’s conceivable this USA roster, headlined by superstars LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid and Kawhi Leonard, would have been unveiled even earlier.

“We knew,” Hill said on a video call with The Athletic and a few other outlets covering USA Basketball regularly. “We just, we knew that this was the team we wanted. … Why wait?”

Well, yes, if a collection of talent so strong, so decorated with Olympic golds and NBA championships, to say nothing of the dizzying amount of NBA MVPs and All-Star appearances, wants to play and is committed to playing at the Paris Games now, why wouldn’t Team USA — and NBC, the American broadcast partner for the Olympics — want to take advantage?

The roster Hill assembled rivals the Dream Team:

  • Durant is the USA Basketball’s all-time leading scorer on the men’s side. He is tied for the program record (among men) with three gold medals. He’s a two-time NBA champion and a former MVP.
  • James has two golds, is the program’s all-time leader in assists and is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, a four-time NBA champion, four-time MVP and all-time leader in All-Star Games played.
  • Curry has no Olympic golds (but does have two FIBA World Cup titles), four NBA championships, two NBA MVPs and is the greatest shooter in NBA history.
  • Leonard is a two-time NBA champion and two-time finals MVP.
  • Embiid has never played internationally but is the reigning NBA MVP.

But another way, this is how good the USA team is: Either James or Anthony Davis may not start. Bam Adebayo and Jrue Holiday, two of the most important players on the Tokyo Olympics gold medal team, may play bit roles, and coach Steve Kerr will have to figure out how to incorporate Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker — two scoring machines and Olympic gold medalists in Tokyo — into the rotation.

Tyrese Haliburton and Anthony Edwards, two of the brightest young stars in the NBA and the two holdovers from the 2023 FIBA World Cup team, round out the roster. The only player on the American 12 who was not an NBA All-Star this season was Holiday.

“I like the flexibility of this group, I like the character and the maturity of this group,” Hill said. “If you look at the NBA, certainly the styles of play in the NBA currently, it’s very similar. A lot of teams do and run the same stuff. It’s different in the (international) game, and we have to respect that. We have to be prepared for that. And we have to have the talent and the skill set that can execute against that.”

Team USA has won four consecutive Olympic golds but has had a much harder time at the last two FIBA World Cups. Part of that is, by and large, A-level American NBA stars have lost interest in playing in those events (but not the Olympics), and USA Basketball has sent teams of younger, perhaps budding stars, and also role players, to the last two World Cups and suffered disappointing results.

Even with that handicap, though, Hill and Kerr learned some hard lessons about roster construction for international play. Mainly, the 2023 USA team was too small, and the inability to rebound or defend led to three losses in the Americans’ last four games at the World Cup and a fourth-place finish.

As the USA roster currently stands (yes, there is a possibility things change), size and strength in the post, and defense in general, will not be problems.

Kerr could have Leonard, Holiday, Davis and Adebayo on the floor at the same time. All four are considered among the best defenders in the world. Embiid, a 7-footer who shoots 3s, and Davis, who is 6 foot 10 and prefers to play the four instead of the five, could easily be in the same starting lineups.

In the World Cup semifinal game last summer against Germany, which the Americans lost by two, Johannes Voigtmann, who is 6-11 and does not play in the NBA, grabbed one of his seven rebounds and used one arm to toss Josh Hart through the air and onto the ground. Hart, a relentless competitor, is nonetheless 6-4 and should not be playing power forward in a FIBA game, but that’s where he started for much of the World Cup.

Voigtmann should not be able to do that to the American power forwards this summer because they will be either Davis or James.

“We have guys that have (defensive versatility) as a foundation, have an understanding also to the physicality (of FIBA),” Hill said. “The game is much more physical than the NBA game. And so, you know, being aware of that, having guys whose games we translate on that level, on the defensive side, and offensive side was important.

“This is not a knock on any team that we’ve had in the past, but I’m excited about the defensive potential of this group.”

Hill said USA Basketball’s board of directors approved the American roster two to three weeks ago, and the formal announcement of the team this week coincided with the U.S. Olympic committee’s media summit in New York and demarcation of 100 days until the start of the Paris games.

Also this week, the NBA playoffs — a two-month grind for teams that reach the finals — begin Saturday, and all but Curry (whose Golden State Warriors lost in the Play-In Tournament on Tuesday night) among the USA 12 is still playing. Embiid, who missed months recovering from knee surgery, will try to lead the Philadelphia 76ers out of the Play-In on Wednesday against Adebayo and the Miami Heat.

Leonard, who was the last to accept Team USA’s offer and is battling a knee injury, has a first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks. James, who is 39, led the Los Angeles Lakers in a Play-In win and has a first-round date with the Denver Nuggets.

All of those players could have early postseason exits, but they also are in questionable health. Hill said there is a contingency plan for every position on the roster should an injury befall one of the 12, though he declined to name them.

While Leonard was contemplating the USA offer, The Athletic reported that Paolo Banchero, Paul George, Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson were candidates for the 12th spot if Leonard declined.

In the meantime, Hill said Team USA would begin conducting video calls with the players and coaches as a group before training camp starts on July 5.

Hill spent the last week traveling across the U.S. to surprise the players with formal offers and USA jerseys. While in Boston, he went to the homes of Tatum and Holiday. Tatum answered the door and was greeted by Hill and a film crew. He accepted with a hug — a nice gesture between two Duke alums.

Former U.S. soccer star Lauren Holiday, Jrue Holiday’s wife, had already let Hill and the film crew in the house when she sent one of the couple’s young daughters to find her dad in the back of the house. Holiday emerged, nursing a lollipop, and said, “I’d love to.”

(Photo of Grant Hill: Juan Ocampo / NBAE via Getty Images)