The USA Basketball program is in as enviable a place as it’s ever been, but it’s almost too much of a good thing at times. Some top-flight talent (Damian Lillard, for example) has already been left off the team in recent tournaments, and the cutting process for next year’s Olympic team is going to be absolutely brutal. Most of the 12 spots on the team are already spoken for with veteran players for whom it might be their final go-around in international play, as well as a handful of younger stars who are sure things.
Jerry Colangelo has made it clear that LeBron James has a spot on the team if he wants one. James will be 31 by the time the Rio Olympics start, and with all the miles on his body, it could be tempting for him to take the summer off, especially if the Cavs make another run to the Finals that has him adding to his total minutes all the way into June. But this would likely be his final Olympic opportunity, having been a part of the previous two gold-medal teams in 2008 and 2012. Carmelo Anthony is in the same boat, and he’s been so effective as a member of the Olympic team that it’s tough to see him passing up the opportunity to do it one more time.
A few of the NBA’s younger stars also seem like locks to make the roster, the guys who are being positioned as the future of the program once the LeBron/Carmelo generation is out. 2014 FIBA World Cup MVP Kyrie Irving will make it if he’s healthy. So will Anthony Davis, James Harden, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook.
Theoretically, Kevin Durant would be a shoe-in for the team — he played with Team USA in 2010 and 2012, and he’s one of the faces of the program. But his health and free agency complicate things. He played in just 27 games last year, sitting out with a foot injury, which could play into his decision. And he could decide to sit out after signing a big free-agent deal, whether it’s in Oklahoma City or elsewhere. That’s what Marc Gasol did this summer, skipping the EuroBasket tournament to rest after inking a five-year extension with the Grizzlies.
If you tentatively pencil in Durant and Chris Paul (another Team USA vet who has just enough of his prime left to give it another go), that only leaves three spots open. At least one of them has to be a big man, since Davis is the only frontcourt player who’s a sure thing to make the roster. Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, DeMarcus Cousins, Kenneth Faried and Andre Drummond are all in the program; in all likelihood, only one and maybe two of them will be able to make the roster. Another wing is possible, be it Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson. With Paul, Westbrook, Curry and Irving already all but guaranteed to make it, John Wall is probably out purely by default, which is insane to think about.
The elephant in the room, of course, is Kobe Bryant. He’s said he wants to ride out into the sunset with one more Olympic appearance. There’s no world in which, purely on basketball merit, Kobe Bryant in 2016 is more worthy of a spot than any of the younger players who will be cut, but the USA Basketball program is so deep that they will be heavily favored to win gold regardless. A lifetime-achievement spot on the team for Kobe is fine, if he’s healthy. But that’s a big if.
No matter who makes the team, the fact is that USA Basketball is in a phenomenal place. The diversity and depth of the talent that will make up the program over the next decade is staggering. 2016 could be a transition year as some veterans like James, Anthony, Paul and Durant take a victory lap while the next generation takes a foothold.