Kevin Durant's decision to withdraw from Team USA three weeks before the start of the 2014 FIBA World Cup due to to mental and physical exhaustion came as a shock to many observers who expected the Oklahoma City Thunder star to serve as the undisputed focal point and linchpin of the squad heading to Spain this month. One of those shocked observers, evidently, was the guy who coached Durant to gold medals at the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London: U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
"Yeah, I was [surprised]," Krzyzewski said after Team USA's practice in Chicago on Thursday. "No question. I was."
Krzyzewski wasn't the only one surprised, but he might have been the most frustrated. Durant, the reigning NBA MVP, was expected to be the leader on and off the floor for Team USA.
"It's one of those things; you don't replace Kevin Durant," Krzyzewski said. "You look different. And so we have today and [Friday] to look different before we play a really good team. That's of concern for me because we were pretty far along. We had our best camp ever in Vegas since I've coached [Team USA]. Those guys were terrific. We had more in [game plan-wise], but we had more in to play a certain way. And then Kevin deciding not to play ... it's concerning.
"But hopefully we'll be good enough on Saturday, and then we use New York and Gran Canaria to get better and get better during pool play."
The sheer downgrade in offensive firepower that comes with bidding adieu to a player who has led the NBA in points scored for five years running, who averaged 22.8 points in 28.2 minutes per game en route to winning 2010 tournament MVP honors, and who set an American Olympic tournament scoring record in London will obviously have a major impact on the U.S. squad. Coach K's bigger issue, though, seemed to be with the late-in-the-process timing of Durant's announcement, which left Krzyzewski and his staff with precious little opportunity to reconfigure their approach, according to Steve Aschburner of NBA.com:
“We had a whole camp building what we’re doing around him,” Krzyzewski said. “So that’s the very first thing: You had one of the great scorers at the [power forward position]. So how does that change your offense? That changes your offense immensely.
“You have to do more to get your guards shots. I mean, these guards are really good, but they were complementing one another – Kevin with those guards. … Now we have to look at developing our inside and getting the guards more involved.”
Developing that inside game might have gotten a bit harder on Thursday, as center DeMarcus Cousins went down with a right knee injury during Team USA's first practice since Paul George suffered a horrific broken leg during a showcase scrimmage that closed the team's Las Vegas training camp. Thankfully, the Sacramento Kings big man's injury was nowhere near as severe — an MRI revealed no structural damage, USA Basketball officials listed Cousins as "day-to-day" and Boogie himself later tweeted to assure fans he's fine — but with the likes of George, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and now Durant out of the mix, the U.S. can ill afford additional frontcourt injuries that put an even greater strain on the backcourt.
Or, y'know, maybe that's not true. Remember, this isn't your average team's backcourt — this is some combination of James Harden, Stephen Curry, a back-in-business Derrick Rose, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard ... you get the idea.
"Our guard play is amazing," Atlanta Hawks sharpshooter Kyle Korver, who could go to Spain as Team USA's designated zone-buster, told Aschburner on Thursday. "And that’s going to be the strength of our team now. A lot of what we do is going to be predicated off of our guard play. … I don’t think we’re going to get to the end of the shot-clock much.”
The hope, then, is that Team USA's guards can handle the heavy lifting on both ends of the court — pressuring opposing ball-handlers up top to create live-ball turnovers that fuel the U.S.' open-court transition game, drilling enough 3-pointers from behind the shortened FIBA 3-point arc to pull defenders away from the rim, and using their off-the-bounce quickness and creativity to blow past their marks on the perimeter to get to the basket at will.
If Krzyzewski can get enough productivity and pace-setting from his guards, and enough rim protection and rebounding from a frontcourt led by Anthony Davis and (based on reports of his impressive activity in camp) the Denver Nuggets' Kenneth Faried, that would decrease the two-way burden on the tweener forwards expected to step in for Durant and George, like Chandler Parsons of the Dallas Mavericks, Gordon Hayward of the Utah Jazz and the most recent addition to the U.S. training camp roster, Kings forward Rudy Gay, who was part of the 2010 squad that won gold in Istanbul, but isn't exactly a ready replacement for the best scorer in the world.
“I wish I could play like the MVP,” Gay said Thursday. “No, I’m not coming here to fill his footsteps. I just want to play hard and help this team get a W. I’m not going to do it just like him.”
Short of getting that dude who just moved back to Cleveland to break off his vacation in Greece and lace 'em up, nobody is. The question, though, is whether what's left on the roster is potent and varied enough to get the U.S. through to a gold-medal matchup and, if the bracket plays out as many expect it to, past a revenge-minded, very good and very big Spanish squad in the championship game. If Coach K and company can't shuffle the deck satisfactorily enough in the next couple of weeks to answer it in the affirmative, the result could be something even more surprising than Durant's late-in-the-game opt-out: the United States' first loss in a major international tournament since September of 2006.
- - - - - - -