Even though they have not yet left the United States, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton of the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks and Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns may actually be in the starting lineup for Team USA against France on Sunday in the Tokyo Olympics.
Assistant coach Steve Kerr delivered that news Thursday morning (U.S. time) on a conference call conducted by USA Basketball from Tokyo, where the American national team is getting used to the time change and preparing to defend its Olympic gold medal.
Holiday, Middleton and Booker will arrive in Japan on Saturday along with head U.S. scout Jeff Van Gundy, and then it’s right into the mix for all three. If what Kerr said was accurate, the three NBA finalists will start, presumably alongside Bam Adebayo and Kevin Durant, although it is somewhat of a guessing game right now as to what the U.S. team’s rotations will look like.
Such is the lay of the land in the strangest of Olympic years, with the American team operating at a deficit in terms of familiarity – especially against France, which is led by reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, and defeated the United States the last time the teams played during the 2019 World Cup of Basketball in China.
After initially indicating the lineup was unsettled, Kerr responded to a follow-up question about the three players from the NBA Finals, uttering the words “starting” and “lineup” a few minutes later as he spoke about the unique circumstances.
“One of the big topics in our coaching meetings is how quickly can we play those guys because chances are all three are going to be in our rotation,” Kerr said. “They are great players. There’s a reason they are on the team -- they are three of the best players in the world. So we are going to have to figure that out. It will be a collaborative effort with them, we’ll see how they’re feeling the day after they arrive, and we’ll see if they’re ready to go, but we really can’t predict any of that...
“...These circumstances are so unique with three players not having practiced for a single minute with us. They haven’t practiced a single minute and are going to be thrown into the starting lineup. We’re hoping Jeff can share some of the concepts, some of the ideas that we’re trying to impart to the players, some of the ways we are trying to attack and defend. Jeff will be able to share some of the strategic aspects with the guys.”
The Americans play France on Sunday at 8 a.m. ET, are off Monday and Tuesday, play Iran at 12:40 a.m. ET Wednesday, then have two more days off before playing the Czech Republic at 8 a.m. ET on Saturday, July 31.
The roster has had two major changes, with Keldon Johnson replacing Bradley Beal due to COVID protocols and JaVale McGee taking the spot of Kevin Love, who withdrew.
One quarter of the roster was unavailable during training camp in Las Vegas because the NBA Finals coincided with Olympic preparations, and COVID protocols sidelined Zach LaVine for multiple days and prevented him from traveling to Japan with seven of his teammates. An exhibition game against Australia was cancelled because of COVID-related issues, and by the time the ball goes up against France, the Americans likely will have not conducted a practice at full strength with all 12 players on the roster.
This is going to make this tournament especially challenging for Popovich, Kerr, Lloyd Pierce and the rest of the American coaching and training staff, and it is especially troubling because most of the other teams in the tournament have rosters comprised of players who have spent several years competing together on their national teams.
The U.S. federation has had to deal with unfamiliarity and chemistry issues in the past, too, but it has never quite been so much of a pronounced characteristic as it is this particular summer.
“We’re not going to have a ton of plays. It would be impossible," Kerr said. "Those guys have been kind of busy recently. We were not about to send them a mini-playbook or something. They had a lot of stuff going on. So we’re going to play out of concepts more than we are going to play out of plays. We want to play with pace and we want to move the ball and we want our players to use their considerable talents, and we’re very confident they’ll be able to do so even without a ton of practice time.”
It remains to be seen how short of a rotation Popovich develops as the games play out, but it can be assumed that Holiday will split time at point guard with Damian Lillard, and Booker will share the shooting guard spot with LaVine and Middleton. Durant, Draymond Green and Jayson Tatum will be the forwards, while McGee will back up Adebayo at center. Players who probably will not have huge roles include Johnson and Jerami Grant, although an injury or foul trouble could thrust them into the rotation.
It should be an interesting Olympics, and the important thing to remember is that the goal for Team USA is not winning every game. It is winning the final three: the quarterfinals, the semifinals and the gold medal game.
To be continued.