LAS VEGAS — For most of the Jerry Colangelo/Mike Krzyzewski era, the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team has played two nominal small forwards together.
On the 2008 Olympic team, the starting forwards were LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. On the 2010 World Championship team, it was Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant. And at the 2012 Olympics, it was Durant and James.
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One reason is that the international game requires more shooting on the floor than the NBA game, where you can have offensive success with two traditional bigs. Under FIBA rules, defenses can play zone and pack the paint.
The other reason? Well, the U.S. is really freaking talented at the small forward position.
When you have the two best players in the world on the same team, you’re not going to have them backing each other up.
This year’s edition of the National Team has Durant playing next to Paul George, one of the best two-way players in the league and an MVP candidate through the first half of last season. With those two teamed with Anthony Davis, the U.S. starting frontline is pretty much set in stone.
All you have to do is look at how the 20-man roster has been broken up in training camp this week. Once Kevin Love decided to back out of participating this summer, it became obvious who would start at the three, four and five positions. So, the staff set out on allowing the trio to start building chemistry from the start of camp. Each of the first three days, Davis, Durant and George have been on the same team.
“We’re going to play a lot together,” Durant said Wednesday. “The chemistry is going to come. But if we stick with it, continue to keep learning and playing off each other, we can be great.”
Though it’s becoming clearer with every day that passes that Derrick Rose will be the starting point guard for this team, the minutes distribution in the backcourt is still in the air. So the George-Durant-Davis trio has been teamed with different backcourt tandems each day.
On Monday, it was Rose and James Harden (the best bet for the starting two at the World Cup). On Tuesday, it was Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry. And on Wednesday, it was Rose and Klay Thompson, with John Wall subbing in for Rose after a few minutes.
“We wanted that with different guard tandems,” Krzyzewski said. “So you give them all a chance to play with those two guys, and with Anthony.”
George knows that, playing next to Durant and the guards on this roster, his focus has to be on one end of the floor in particular.
“I [have] got to be a defender,” he said. “We got guys that can make shots, run the floor and make plays. I got to be a defender for us. We got a bunch of defenders here, but I can be the versatile one that can guard 1-4 and be able to make plays when I need to.”
That’s the role that Iguodala played in 2010. Durant carried the U.S. offense, averaging 33 points per game in the final three games, but Iguodala’s defense — like holding Linas Kleiza to four points on 1-for-11 shooting and stripping him clean multiple times in the semifinal — was also critical.
Davis, Durant and George is a freakishly long and athletic frontline. And though they each averaged more than 20 points per game last season, George likes the potential of the trio defensively more than anything.
“What’s great is we can switch everything and not give up much,” he said. “I’m excited with that lineup. We can really cover the floor with our athleticism, our length, our speed.”
The U.S. only has 12 days of practice, one intra-squad scrimmage and four exhibition games before it begins World Cup pool play in Bilbao. So chemistry building from Day 1 is important. But so far, it has come at the expense of versatility building. With Davis, Durant and George always teaming together, they haven’t had the chance to team with other frontcourt pieces.
“The thing we haven’t been able to do,” Krzyzewski said, “is take a look at Paul at the four.”
With two NBA small forwards playing the three and four on this team, you’d think they were interchangeable in the game flow. And as George explained, they are on defense. But there are some distinctions between the two positions in the U.S. offense.
“The four, you’re setting a lot of screens instead of coming off the screens,” Chandler Parsons, a candidate to back up Durant and George, said. “You’re taking the ball out of bounds instead of running the wing. In different sets, you’re in different places. But for the most part, if you’re moving and you continue to get around, it’s all the same stuff.”
At some point, George will get the chance to play the four alongside another one of the U.S. forwards. But for most of the World Cup, he’ll be Durant’s running mate. James may be taking this summer off, but there still no country in the world that can match up with the U.S. forwards.