After an entertaining, yet tumultuous pre-tournament schedule, Gregg Popovich’s men’s national squad arrived in China to defend its throne at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. He experimented with a variety of lineups throughout the exhibition slate, and it’s time to hone in on some optimal combinations.
While the U.S. hasn’t lost a World Cup or Olympics since 2006, this year’s roster is one of the most vulnerable of the past couple of decades. Pop isn’t working with America’s absolute cream of the crop, and for the first time in a long time, the U.S. doesn’t even have the best player in the tournament (shout-out to Giannis Antetokounmpo with honorable mention to Nikola Jokic). Team USA’s August 23rd loss to Australia was its first defeat in international play in 78 games.
Nonetheless, this is still the only team stacked with only NBA players, and many of its participants boast a ton of versatility and upside. The expectations remain cased on gold, and this group must come together to reach them.
We assessed the Americans’ track records, opponents and small sample size of pre-tournament hoops to identify some favorable lineups entering the tournament. Here are four combinations Pop could lean on to catapult the red, white and blue toward a gold medal.
Kemba Walker (PG), Joe Harris (SG), Khris Middleton (G/F), Harrison Barnes (F), Myles Turner (C)
There will be several scenarios in which Popovich must stretch opponents with a talented group of shooters. Obviously, it’s imperative for Team USA to attack the rim a healthy amount and not settle for too many jumpers—which has been one of its consistent bugaboos in the past 20 years.
It’s always useful to sprinkle in lineups that space perimeter defenses and unlock driving lanes. Starting with Sunday’s opener against the Czech Republic, Team USA should spend some time hunting in-rhythm triples.
A Kemba Walker-Joe Harris backcourt provides a nice mix of off-the-bounce and spot-up prowess. Then, Khris Middleton and Harrison Barnes could fill out the wing/forward spots, while Myles Turner serves as the stretch-5.
This combination presents legitimate three-point proficiency at every spot while not sacrificing too much slashing, athleticism and defense. Setting ball screens for Walker will be a valuable action to force defensive scrambling, and off-ball screens will also be potent with this well-spaced lineup.
In a similar lineup against Australia (Mitchell instead of Harris), the defense honored everyone’s shooting prowess, leaving plenty of space for cuts to the bucket. Joe Ingles went over the screen, and Middleton wisely curled to the rim:
Pop has several additionally competent marksmen at his disposal, so he’ll try different variations of this lineup, I’m sure. With ball-handlers and big-men posing an equal threat from distance, defenses can’t play on its heels and wait at the rim.
Donovan Mitchell (G), Marcus Smart (G), Jayson Tatum (G/F), Harrison Barnes (F), Jaylen Brown (F)
Despite not sending its A-Team, the U.S. still has the most foot speed and agility of any country in this year’s tournament. It will be advantageous for Popovich to play some small-ball.
That would be a little risky against skilled frontcourts like Spain or Serbia, but it could pay huge dividends in exposing slow-footed lineups. Against almost any other nation, this diminutive group would hold the athleticism advantage at every position.
There is some data to suggest that Boston’s pair of forwards, Tatum and Brown, are an ideal combo in the frontcourt. Beyond the obvious connection as Celtics teammates, the young slashers have excelled together during the FIBA exhibitions. NBA.com’s John Schumann explained
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum didn’t start any games together, but played more minutes together (40) than any pair of forwards. And, within the group of four forwards, that was Tatum’s most successful pairing. The U.S. outscored its opponents by 20 points per 100 possessions with the two young Celtics on the floor together
Mitchell and Tatum supply this group with plenty of shot-creating juice, and the 2-5 spots offer awesome defensive switchability. I plugged in Smart to the backcourt because he offers defensive intensity and interchangeability.
Plus, he’s strong enough to check forwards for some stretches, so he makes Team USA somehow even more switchable from the 2 through 5 spots.
Derrick White (G), Marcus Smart (G), Khris Middleton (G/F), Jaylen Brown (F), Myles Turner (C)
Speaking of switchability, this is sort of a cousin to the small-ball lineup. This quintet has the best defensive footwork, perimeter range and rim protection on the whole roster.
We saw the Americans get carved up defensively a few times during the exhibitions. Australia had tremendous success with it’s 1-4 high-post offense and running Patty Mills off screens while Spain had strong sequences in the pick-and-roll with Sergio Llull.
If and when Popovich wants to send a message that he means business defensively, he should roll out his stingiest guards alongside his top shot-blocker. White and Smart have a knack for blanketing the backcourt with lateral quickness and physicality, and Turner is the most talented paint guardian the Americans have.
The following rejection displays Turner’s knack for keeping tabs on his man and the ball. He timed this help-side block splendidly, taking Jock Landale by surprise:
Sure, this combination doesn’t have as many creative ball-handlers or efficient outside shooters as most other lineups; Popovich would certainly be sacrificing some offensive prowess.
But if their defense is stifling opponents enough to consistently outscore them? It’s worth the move. To their credit, Middleton and Turner have a track record as shooters, and Brown has shot the ball well this summer so far, so this group may be a true ace up the sleeve.
Kemba Walker (PG), Donovan Mitchell (SG), Jayson Tatum (G/F), Jaylen Brown (F), Myles Turner/Mason Plumlee (C)
Popovich deployed a different starting lineup in each of Team USA’s four pre-tourney games. While many are focused on which starting lineup he’ll choose next, I’m hunting for an optimal closing lineup.
The ideal grouping could depend on who the U.S. is competing against.
Foes with bigger frontcourts might require Plumlee’s defensive physicality and rim-diving energy, whereas Turner might be the right pick-and-pop threat against other opponents. Ultimately, let’s hope Team USA is dictating the style of play more often than not.
In addition to the aforementioned favorability of a Brown-Tatum pairing, exhibition play suggests Mitchell and Walker are compatible: In nearly 68 minutes together, those two posted a Net Rating of plus-18.4.
Most opposing defenses don’t have multiple guards to check both of these slashers at the same time. Walker and Mitchell have late-game scoring moxie, yet they’re not too proud to find the right shot for a teammate. It would be awesome to watch them feed off each other late in games. If opponents scramble too much to slow down this backcourt, they could subsequently get burned by someone like Tatum instead.
Pop’s lineup tendencies are among the most unpredictable things on the planet. But we know he’s not afraid to mix things up, and he’s not afraid to hurt stars’ feelings.
The players who seek the best shots, play cohesively and compete on defense will dictate who stays on the court.
Dan is a TBW staff writer. After playing college ball at Franciscan University, he covered the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report for four years and the FRS Network for three years. He now co-hosts the Unlimited Range podcast and continues to campaign for Doris Burke’s promotion to lead analyst at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter: @DanO_Bball