CHICAGO – Team USA doesn’t have Carmelo Anthony this summer in its quest for the 2014 FIBA World Cup. It doesn’t have a Carmelo Anthony, either, as in an established NBA scoring champion, a volume scorer – 25.3 ppg in 11 seasons – and a bail-out option who can make something out of nothing, inside or out, to salvage possessions. Kevin Durant was that guy but he withdrew last week. USA Basketball, which faces its first real competition vs. Brazil on Saturday (9 ET, ESPN), is once again looking for “that guy.”
That complicates the task of finding even a “Carmelo Anthony 2012 Edition,” a.k.a., that potent scorer off the bench who harnesses his ego even as he’s unleashing his skills in game-changing spurts.
Anthony filled that role expertly for the USA Basketball squad that took gold at the London Games. In the process, the New York Knicks scoring star – a polarizing player for what some see as me-first tendencies in his NBA work – wound up generating some of the best media clippings of his career and altering a few critics’ assessments.
“I don’t think he needed to do that. He always had respect from me,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, a Team USA assistant who had Anthony in his only NCAA season, 2002-2003. They won the national championship that year.
“Back then, he was content. If he got 10 points and we won, he was fine,” Boeheim said Friday after Team USA’s workout at a West Side sports complex. “I think his main role in the NBA has been to score. I don’t think you should be criticized when a coach asks you to score and you score. That’s what he does.
“He’s a great offensive player. He’s not LeBron James. He can help, he can make passes. But his primary focus and what he does best is score. He did it for us when we needed him. He’s great under pressure.”
That’s one of the reasons coach Mike Krzyzewski wanted Anthony in that sixth-man role two years ago. Then there was that other reason.
“He was willing to do it, that’s No. 1,” said Jerry Colangelo, Team USA’s managing director.
There’s an esprit de corps each time the U.S. national team revs up nowadays, with All-Stars and franchise players generally accepting whatever roles Krzyzewski and his staff ask of them. But it’s not automatic and it certainly didn’t jibe with Anthony’s profile as an NBA dilettante whose teams in Denver and New York were, and needed to be, built around him.
Yet just two summers ago, with egos as assertive as Durant’s, James’ and Kobe Bryant‘s on board, Anthony agreeably took on the job of super sub. He came off the bench in all eight games and played less than half-time (17.8 mpg), but averaged 16.3 points, trailing only Durant (19.5 ppg in 26.0 mpg) in U.S. scoring.
Back in 2008, in Beijing, Anthony ranked fourth in scoring (11.5) behind Dwyane Wade (16.0), James (15.5) and Bryant (15.0). That year, it was Wade who did the sixth-man thing, outscoring each of the starters while averaging just 18.8 minutes.
And in 2004, Anthony’s first Olympics, he averaged just 2.4 points while appearing in seven of the eight games. The scoring load then was carried by Allen Iverson (13.8 ppg), Tim Duncan (12.9) and Stephon Marbury (10.5).
“These guys will do anything that you need ’em to do to win,” Krzyzewski said. “Carmelo, for U.S. basketball, was really as good a ‘stretch 4′ as there was in international competition, starting or coming off the bench.”
With Durant tapping out and Paul George getting hurt two weeks ago – after other top candidates such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin opted not to participate – Team USA’s roster has been thinned.
As Colangelo said: “We originally thought we had guys coming off the bench – on paper – who would bring something to the table. Up tempo. A little more quickness. A little more shooting. But because of some injuries, they might end up starting.”
After Friday’s workout, Krzyzewski did not name his starting lineup for the tune-up game against Brazil’s national team Saturday at United Center. That’s part of what this pre-medal round schedule is for, flipping through the various combinations. But four of the five spots seemed heavily penciled in – Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Anthony Davis.
Candidates for the fifth starting spot include Chandler Parsons, Kenneth Faried, Rudy Gay, Klay Thompson and DeMar DeRozan. Big man DeMarcus Cousins (right knee bruise) will not face Brazil, so going small against that team’s big front line – Anderson Varejao, Tiago Splitter and Nene – might yield better results in a counter-programming way.
The candidates for sixth man – this squad’s ‘Melo – are in that above group, too, along with Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Gordon Hayward and Kyle Korver, pending the cutdown next weekend to 12 players. Krzyzewski’s substitution pattern Saturday won’t necessarily reveal anything, because the first game is all about “what if?” lineups. Even the game’s outcome – beyond setting, perhaps, a winning atmosphere – matters less than using the exhibition as a measuring stick.
“We’ll find out some things by trying new things, which will help us,” Krzyzewski said. “The main thing is medal round in Barcelona. We need to keep improving until we get to Barcelona, then it’s one and done. By that time hopefully we’ll be healthy, have whatever is good for our team in and then be ready to go for a World Cup.”
That includes a viable sixth man.
“I really think there are a lot of guys who would be willing to do it,” Korver said. “I don’t think it’s a hard thing. It’s one thing for a guy to be the sixth man on his NBA team, but there have been a bunch of guys [to do that for Team USA]. Every time someone’s done it, it seems that person has gotten a lot of praise and a lot of credit.”
Having a green light to shoot, at the urging of the coaches, at a rate that probably would lead the stellar squad in attempts-per-minute? Yeah, someone might raise his hand for that.
“We’ve got so many guys who can come in and contribute in any aspect of the game,” said Harden, who might pick up some of Durant’s shots in Team USA’s reworked offense. “From Klay Thompson to Kyle Korver to Damian Lillard, so many guys who can be effective at what they do.”
Harden was the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2012 before getting traded to Houston and emerging as an All-Star the past two seasons. He knows a little about managing one’s ego from the bench.
“It’s all about your mindset,” he said Friday. “If you come in with the mindset that you’re going to impact the game, that as soon as you step out there you’re going to make your presence felt, then you’ll be more effective and your team will be better off. We won’t have that problem with this team – I’m sure guys will be ready and super-prepared at all times.”
Super-willing, it sounds like, to accept whatever role. From starter to sub, from sixth man to 12th man, and anything in between if the minutes change from night to night. Colangelo and Krzyzewski have worked wonders selling these guys on the honor of participating. They’re all fully marinated.
“When we started coaching NBA players,” Boeheim said, “everybody said, ‘Well, they won’t do this and they won’t do this.’ We found out they would do ‘this’ and they would do ‘this.’ They would come off the bench. They would play defense. They would sacrifice. Dwyane Wade came to us the first year  and said, ‘I’ll come off the bench.’ Kobe Bryant came to us and said, ‘I’ll take the toughest guy defensively.’ Chris Paul came off the bench.
“These are great players. They do what they can to help us win and that’s why we’ve been successful. These guys have sacrificed, they’ve worked hard, they play defense and, really, I’ve never had a better experience in basketball than working with NBA players.”