Olympics 2020: Building a Gold Medal Roster for Team USA Men’s Basketball

The last time Team USA played in an international tournament was an embarrassment. The inaugural FIBA World Cup took place in China this past summer and, after taking home the gold in the previous five events, the Americans finished seventh.

They lost back-to-back games against France and Serbia to close out the tournament.

It was clear that the United States did not put its best foot forward by the end of the competition. Many of the All-Star level talent that initially committed to play ended up having to pull out for a variety of reasons that ranged from free agency and injury to the birth of a child.

Not only were the players on the roster not up to gold-medal standards talent-wise, but a lot of said players were making their first appearance on the men’s senior national team. It was also the first tournament that Gregg Popovich coached after taking over for longtime leader Mike Krzyzewski.

Thus, the program is ready to turn a new page. The 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan get started in just a few months, and Team USA released Monday the names of 44 players who will be considered for the 12-man roster. 

The full list includes, in alphabetical order:

  • Bam Adebayo, C – Miami Heat
  • LaMarcus Aldridge, F/C – San Antonio Spurs
  • Harrison Barnes, F – Sacramento Kings
  • Bradley Beal, G – Washington Wizards
  • Devin Booker, G – Phoenix Suns
  • Malcolm Brogdon, G – Indiana Pacers
  • Jaylen Brown, G/F – Boston Celtics
  • Jimmy Butler, G/F – Miami Heat
  • Mike Conley, G – Utah Jazz
  • Stephen Curry, G – Golden State Warriors
  • Anthony Davis, F/C – Los Angeles Lakers
  • DeMar DeRozan, G/F – San Antonio Spurs
  • Andre Drummond, C – Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Kevin Durant, F – Brooklyn Nets
  • Paul George, G/F – L.A. Clippers
  • Draymond Green, F/C – Golden State Warriors
  • James Harden, G – Houston Rockets
  • Montrezl Harrell, F/C – L.A. Clippers
  • Joe Harris, G – Brooklyn Nets
  • Tobias Harris, F – Philadelphia 76ers
  • Gordon Hayward, G/F – Boston Celtics
  • Dwight Howard, C – Los Angeles Lakers
  • Brandon Ingram, F – New Orleans Pelicans
  • Kyrie Irving, G – Brooklyn Nets
  • LeBron James, G/F – Los Angeles Lakers
  • Kyle Kuzma, F – Los Angeles Lakers
  • Kawhi Leonard, F – L.A. Clippers
  • Damian Lillard, G – Portland Trail Blazers
  • Brook Lopez, C – Milwaukee Bucks
  • Kevin Love, F/C – Kevin Love
  • Kyle Lowry, G – Toronto Raptors
  • JaVale McGee, C – Los Angeles Lakers
  • Khris Middleton, G/F – Milwaukee Bucks
  • Donovan Mitchell, G – Utah Jazz
  • Victor Oladipo, G – Indiana Pacers
  • Chris Paul, G – Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Mason Plumlee, C – Denver Nuggets
  • Marcus Smart, G – Boston Celtics
  • Jayson Tatum, G/F – Boston Celtics
  • Klay Thompson, G – Golden State Warriors
  • Myles Turner, C – Indiana Pacers
  • Kemba Walker, G – Boston Celtics
  • Russell Westbrook, G – Houston Rockets
  • Derrick White, G – San Antonio Spurs

The who’s who of the league is featured heavily among that group. 31 of the names listed above have at least one gold medal on their international resumes. 29 of the 44 have played for Team USA previously. It also has 12 players who were part of the disappointing 2019 World Cup team.

Aug 21, 2016; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; United States forward Jimmy Butler (4), left, United States forward Kevin Durant (5), United States center DeAndre Jordan (6), United States guard Kyle Lowry (7) and United States forward Harrison Barnes (8) celebrate after winning the gold medal in the men’s basketball during the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

All eyes will be on Popovich and his staff (that includes names like Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Villanova coach Jay Wright as part of it) to see how they construct their first Olympic roster.

It’s also always safe to assume that some of the 44 players will withdraw before the choices are made official.

To most people, this decision seems like a rather simple one. Given the players that are committed on paper, just choose the 12 best and then get ready to take home gold later. Just imagine seeing James, Durant, Leonard, Harden and Curry on the floor together, right?

Yet, we have (hopefully) come to realize over the years that there is a difference between the international game and the NBA game.

It goes deeper than just rule differences. The style of play and how the game is refereed is not the same between the two. FIBA is a lot more physical than the NBA, and teams tend to play at a noticeably slower pace.

While a team featuring Beal, Butler, Curry, Davis, Durant, George, Harden, Irving, James, Lillard, Thompson, Westbrook could challenge the original Dream Team on a name-recognition level, it actually isn’t the best team that can be made with those 44 names. USA would be left with one true big man, which is not the way to win the gold this summer.

12 is a really constricting number given the different roles that Popovich will need to have filled out. 4s and 5s are critical in international play, as many of the countries who will be the biggest challengers to America have very good (and very big) players at those positions. 

Rudy Gobert’s rim protection was a big factor in France getting the win during the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals. Nikola Jokic is the head of the snake for Serbia, though they still have work to do just to qualify for the Olympics. Meanwhile, Spain (i.e. the winners of the World Cup), have the Gasol and Hernangomez brothers. Don’t forget about Australia who has Aron Baynes and Andrew Bogut.

Anthony Davis is a great player but it’s going to take more than just him to take down these other contenders, and he’s been adamant about his hesitance to play center at the NBA level. How excited do you think he is to be the sole big against these monster front lines the other teams routinely trot out?

Thus, finding three solid options to play the 5 is a must in building out this roster, even as that sort of thing has become so diminished in the NBA these days. I’d go with Davis (of course) and round out with the other two the best options: Adebayo and Drummond. 

Nov 8, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) handles the ball against Miami Heat forward Bam Adebayo (13) during the first quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Adebayo is a first-time All-Star with the Miami who is in the midst of a breakout season. He brings a lot of the same skills that people love with Davis, along with another helping of physicality. Drummond delivers the muscle as the team’s enforcer while still being a high-level athlete. Those three can operate as the lone big on the floor or share the court with each other in certain plus-shooting lineups, which gives Popovich different options.

Another critical position in international play is the point guard spot. Team USA thankfully isn’t short on elite options here with Brogdon, Curry, Irving, Lillard, Lowry, Paul, and Walker.

CP3 is helping the Oklahoma City Thunder overachieve preseason expectations and is one of USA Basketball’s proven veterans, so he will definitely be considered. Nonetheless, a three-headed point guard rotation of Curry, Irving and Lillard just sounds too good to pass up if they’re all available.

All three are elite shooters who can also break down a defense off the dribble and either score or find their open teammates for easy opportunities. All three can likely log some minutes off the ball as well, meaning Paul’s fit remains.

With two positions solidified and some good shooting already in the mix, we have the remaining five or six wing slots (depending on Paul’s inclusion) to fill out the rest of the roster.

This is the time when we start to consider “best-player-available” given the sheer talent that is left in the selection pool. Using that, we can easily add Durant, James and Leonard, as they represent the three best players not already chosen. 

Feb 17, 2019; Charlotte, NC, USA; Team Lebron forward Lebron James of the Los Angeles Lakers (23) reacts with Team Lebron forward Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warrior (35) during the 2019 NBA All-Star Game at Spectrum Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Durant’s the most interesting choice as, by the time the Olympics roll around, he will be a few months past the one-year mark from when he tore his Achilles in the 2019 NBA Finals. The decision-makers will get to see him practice in the leadup to the festivities, but would the team take him at less than 100 percent over another player that is fully healthy? 

Does Team USA duty in the Olympics sound like a wise rehab duty for Durant? The answer to those questions may determine whether it’s three or four of the potential point guard names above that are included. It may also open the door for a youngster and/or World Cup veteran (like Jayson Tatum) to make the team.

Either way, we still need some other players who will bring defense and perimeter shooting. George and Thompson already bring that to their NBA teams while being All-Star caliber overall. Those two would instantly become a couple of the most overqualified 3-and-D specialists in Olympic basketball history.

Thompson will be playing for the first time all year as well, however, though ACL injuries are no longer the medical red flag it once was. George is finally healthy after undergoing surgery on both of his shoulders before this year began. He also suffered his horrific leg injury in  2014 during a Team USA scrimmage, so this will be his first chance to put on the red, white and blue since.

February 18, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Team LeBron forward Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder (13) shoots against Team Stephen guard Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors (11) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

That leaves one last spot and, despite there being the (seemingly) contractual obligation to include Plumlee among the names, it is unlikely that he gets picked this go-around.

In the past, the 12th man has been a young player on the cusp of superstardom (i.e. Durant in 2012 and Davis in 2016). Looking through the names left, the player who most fits that same status is Celtics All-Star, Jayson Tatum, though don’t sleep on another first-time All-Star choice like Brandon Ingram getting the nod, especially if Taytum fills the Durant spot above.

And that’s the beauty this time around: Because the biggest names typically flock to the Olympics (whereas getting them to participate in World Cup events is much harder), the talent pool is now deep enough to cover for a few absences.

Barring injury or other life events, a best-case-scenario team of Adebayo, Curry, Davis, Drummond, Durant, Irving, James, Leonard, Lillard, George, Tatum and Thompson is the group of 12 that checks all of the boxes, however.

It has star power. It has experience. It has talent. It has players that can fill all the necessary Olympic roles.

It has everything that Team USA needs to remind the rest of the world who number one is.