On Tuesday, the American press at the World Cup momentarily diverted its attention from Thursday's upcoming clash with Germany to consider the future of NBA superstar and pending unrestricted free agent LeBron James. As noted by Dan Wetzel in a column for Yahoo Sports, everyone in Brazil suddenly knew that the national team's preparations would no longer lead the news back in the United States. Even the U.S. team's Twitter account started to woo LeBron:
This confluence of events got us thinking about what the U.S. soccer team would look like with LeBron and other NBA stars available for selection. While the sports obviously have major differences – the size of the field of play, the importance of height, the use of hands (that one's especially key) – the talents and intelligence involved are translatable enough that we can at least imagine an alternate reality.
So read on for one interpretation of a U.S. squad made up entirely of eligible NBA players. How would they fit together on the pitch? Would they get along? And could Lionel Messi just go ahead and run through their legs?
Goalkeeper: Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs). The reigning NBA Finals MVP is perhaps the easiest pick of the bunch. Blessed with absurdly large hands and long limbs and inclined to defend, Leonard has the ranginess to shut down virtually any shot on goal. The only issue is that his disinclination to speak up makes it hard for him to organize his defenders on set-pieces. Perhaps legendary U.S. keeper Kevin Garnett can give him some lessons.
Right Back: Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder). Possessed of near-limitless energy and strong two-way skills, Westbrook is a natural fit as an attacking fullback with the ability to get back quickly in defensive transitions. Unfortunately, his habit of freelancing makes him the target of heavy criticism, with various pundits claiming that the U.S. really needs a classic right back who knows the responsibilities of his role and doesn't think he's the star of the show.
Center Back: Joakim Noah (Chicago Bulls). Although Noah plays his international basketball for France, he holds American (and Swedish) citizenship and might well have chosen to play his soccer for a nation without such a logjam of world-class talent. The NBA's Defensive Player of the Year excels in patrolling the area around his own goal but also has the ability to facilitate an offense, which means he could shut down opposing attacks and help build his own side's from the back. He's not a bad inspirational leader, either.
Center Back: Anthony Davis (New Orleans Pelicans). Able to man-mark or control an entire area (and then some), Davis possesses every attribute of a top central defender, including the ability to head in goals from set-pieces. However, the 21-year-old is also progressing at such a rapid rate that it's likely he might eventually need to move further up the park and get involved in more offensive possession.
Left Back: Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors, free agent). Though perhaps best suited for the right side, Lowry is the sort of tenacious two-way player who could excel in a position with equal offensive and defensive responsibilities. Also, while as tenacious as anyone in the NBA, Lowry lacks the sense of vindictiveness that seems to animate Westbrook. He's more likely to carry out a game plan as devised.
Right Winger: James Harden (Houston Rockets). In typically American cultural fashion, this U.S. side prefers to play inverted wingers so that each can cut in and shoot with his favored foot – it's best to exercise as much aggression as possible. On the right, Harden is at his best when he dribbles as far into the defense as he can, almost like a hirsute Arjen Robben. His goal is not always to score, but to draw fouls and put his team in positions to benefit. Yet he's an uneasy pairing with Westbrook on the right, largely because he shirks his defensive responsibilities to the point of self-parody. The United States would be very vulnerable down this flank.
Central Midfielder: LeBron James (Miami Heat, free agent). Like Chile's Arturo Vidal, LeBron could feasibly play any position satisfactorily, but when he's in the middle of the park his impact is maximized. Dangerous as a scorer, destroyer, facilitator, and all-around match-winner, James can do anything asked of him depending on the challenges posed by the opponent. He's so talented, in fact, that he sometimes appears capable of doing more, even when he performs to Man of the Match level. As various New Maradonas have learned, expectations often do more harm than any personal weakness.
Central Midfielder: Chris Paul (Los Angeles Clippers). A feisty player with elite dribbling and passing abilities, Paul has the qualities of a captain and primary creative playmaker. The big worry is how he and James shuffle offensive and defensive responsibilities – both players are so capable of creating scoring chances that they sometimes push too far forward and expose the back. No player opens and closes up space so effectively.
Left Winger: Monta Ellis (Dallas Mavericks). One of the fastest and most agile dribblers around, Ellis is a natural fit as an attacking winger with the ability to score from difficult angles. Although he has been criticized in the past for shooting too much, Monta is a more willing passer than his reputation suggests, particularly in a national team with so much talent surrounding him. Ellis is a willing defender, but his lack of ability in that area makes Lowry's cover essential.
Striker: Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers). The national most-capped player in history and a necessary inclusion when healthy, if only for his popularity and fame. At an advanced age, Kobe is not the scorer he used to be, though he often does not appear to acknowledge his diminished abilities and gets sluggish when not in possession. This makes him a frustrating player, obviously, but Kobe means too much to the sport to fall out of favor — he's earned the right to leave whenever he chooses. On his best day, he remains capable of magic.
Striker: Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder). Durant is the United States' most widely beloved star, spoken of as a talismanic figure who deserves to be the focal point of attack. That overwhelming praise is usually warranted. Durant has the height and leaping ability to battle any defender in the air but impresses most with his skills on the ball – he's a big man-little man partnership in a single forward.
SUBSTITUTES AND RESERVES
Midfielder: Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics. In many ways, Rondo might be better suited for soccer than basketball. His tendency to avoid shooting gives him a natural home in midfield, particularly as a deep-lying playmaker, while his mix of defensive and creative abilities make him capable of helping at any spot in the middle of the park, or even as a fullback. Like Paul, he understands how to manipulate space on an intuitive level.
Striker: Carmelo Anthony (New York Knicks, free agent). Analysts often decry Melo for focusing only on scoring goals and not contributing in other ways, but that poaching skill makes him a fantastic super-sub on a national team with so many versatile talents. Sometimes you need a guy who will do nothing more than put back a rebound or take shots with impugnity.
Striker: Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors). A master of the long-range shot.
Head Coach: Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs). Popovich has a reputation as a pragmatist, a term that usually brings to mind negative tactics and a willingness to win at any cost. In practice, though, Popovich simply assesses his options and challenges with a clear head. He's perfectly willing to institute a system predicated on clever passing and movement – he's not interested in the path of least resistance so much as the plan that maximizes his team's chances. He may be used to a certain kind of personality receptive to coaching, but Popovich could easily fit these pieces together, juggle lineups as required, and make the tough decisions required of someone in his position. Few coaches in the world can get their players to be so precise.
More World Cup coverage from Yahoo Sports:
- Sports & Recreation
- Kyle Lowry
- Russell Westbrook
- James Harden
- Kawhi Leonard