Anthony Davis will undergo surgeries on his knee and shoulder and be out for several months, prompting a very important question: who will start at center for the United States at this summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Davis made it to the 2012 Olympics as Blake Griffin’s injury replacement, but barely played. By the time the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup came around, he anchored the squad and contributed the third most points and second most rebounds as they won the gold medal.
Generally, the Coach K-led United States teams have surrounded a defensive-minded center with four shooters—to better break the frequently encountered zones—often going a bit smaller with players like Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony at the four. The most played centers included Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, and Davis.
In January, USA Basketball announced the 30 finalists for roster spots in Rio. Besides Davis, there are four other centers listed: DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan. Both Cousins and Drummond were on the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup team, but played the fourth fewest and fewest minutes respectively.
Two centers are probably sufficient. Plenty of forwards on the roster have the ability to play center for a few minutes, especially in the international game. And considering that Team USA is overflowing with riches on the wings, parking a third center on the roster in case of an emergency seems like a waste of a roster slot.
The upshot here is that there is no perfect for Davis. At every other position Team USA goes at least three deep with superstars, but not at center. Davis is the best in the league, and a top five player. While the other centers on the roster can replace some of his skills, no one center has the full package like Davis, and without him the United States faces a clear drop off.
DeMarcus Cousins is probably the most likely to start. USA Basketball has prized loyalty to the program, and Cousins’s involvement in the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup gives him a leg up. He is a bear on the boards, a good passer who will keep the Team USA offense flowing, and is a nice change of pace offensive option to bully players down low. He’s obviously not as talented defensively, but on Team USA he will be 100 percent engaged in many fewer minutes a game, mitigating many of his problems.
Still, Team USA will probably want the option of a strong defensive center, and in that regard Drummond, Jordan, and Howard are all pretty similar. Howard hasn’t been involved with Team USA in six years, which is also the last time that he was DWIGHT HOWARD, and seems like the easiest to rule out. Whether Drummond or Jordan is chosen really just depends upon whether Jerry Colangelo and co. want more of a shot-blocking help defender (Jordan) or somebody who can capably guard big centers one-on-one (Drummond). Given that Drummond was on the roster in 2014, he’s probably the more likely candidate.
More interesting would be if Coach K really embraced the evolution underway in the NBA and chose a squad that wasn’t just able to play small ball, but only played it. Could a center rotation of Cousins, Draymond Green, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Kevin Love actually work? With big wings like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard, the team would probably be fine on the boards, and a switch everything defense would be easy to implement.
Given the rules of the international game and Team USA’s obvious strength on the wings, they were always going to play small by NBA standards. But whether they ultimately select one, two, or even three centers for the Olympics, Davis’s absence means small ball will become an even more prominent part of their identity.