The specter of Marc Gasol, one of the three best centers in the world these days, hangs over Las Vegas. A score of young American players will get together in Sin City this week as USA Basketball assesses its candidates for the 2014 FIBA World Cup team. Per usual, Spain expects to be Team USA's top rival. But this time, Spain has home court advantage. Next summer's tournament will be played in six Spanish cities, with the final in Madrid.
Center has been Team USA's weak spot since Tim Duncan unceremoniously exited the program in 2004. (It seems incredibly weird that the pitiful bronze medal United States team in 2004 featured Tim Duncan.) Dwight Howard has been an iffy FIBA-rules player; he was basically supplanted by Chris Bosh in the 2008 cycle. And famously, the NBA has trouble turning out elite centers. A few of the best -- Gasol, Joakim Noah, Nikola Pekovic -- play for other countries.
Neither Bosh nor Howard played for Team USA at the 2012 Olympics. Tyson Chandler did, and it's likely that he's done with international play due to his age. The other true big men on the '12 team were Kevin Love and Anthony Davis. The latter can probably play center in FIBA action, but he didn't get much burn in London. That leaves a gaping hole for Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski to fill ahead of '14. This week's minicamp is the management's best and only opportunity to see what they have in the youth movement.
Of the 20 or so players convening in Vegas, the most important participants are the big men. In part, this is because of the lack of incumbents and the looming presence of Gasol. But there's also the issue that Team USA has no shortage of young guards and wings. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden have expressed interest in returning. Derrick Rose might want to play. There's Kyrie Irving, Paul George and Damian Lillard available. Team USA's perimeter superiority is rarely doubted, and shouldn't be so long as Durant is playing. But those guards can't defend or wear out the opponents' seven-footers. You need someone to do that. Coach K and Colangelo have to find two of those guys this week to give Team USA a good chance of becoming repeat World Champions.
And why is winning the 2014 World Cup important, beyond the glory and pride of representing the United States? Because with it comes an automatic berth to the 2016 Olympics, which means that the squad can largely take the summer of 2015 off. Failing to win the World Cup means Team USA has to qualify for the Olympics via the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship, a regional tournament that's not exactly a cakewalk. (It will be even less of a cakewalk when Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Tristan Thompson develop for Team Canada.)
So who are the big men under consideration for Gasol duty, joining likely 2014er Kevin Love? Here are the candidates.
Anthony Davis. The Pelican had a fine rookie season and could anchor Team USA in the middle for years to come. His style certainly seems like a fit: he has a floor game and some perimeter skills. But he's also still pretty thin, so he could struggle against some of the bigger international centers, including Gasol, Pekovic, Enes Kanter and Omer Asik of Turkey and Serge Ibaka of Spain.
DeMarcus Cousins. Brief aside: it's a little gross how so many in the media are now asking Colangelo whether Cousins has a clean slate after last summer's mini-brouhaha. Are we all forgetting that Colangelo took the blame for last summer's mini-brouhaha because he got cranky after a bout of food poisoning? Cousins didn't actually appear to do anything but play hard and passionately in camp and take exception to Colangelo's errant shot at him. Why wouldn't Cousins have a clean slate?
That said, Cousins is a fireball and a coach who puts so much weight on team culture may just want to avoid any potential conflagrations at all costs. There's a trade-off to that combination of size and skill.
Andre Drummond. If you want a monster athlete with size to try to baffle the opponents, you can't do better than Drummond. He has no perimeter game -- Perimeter Game is, in fact, insulted by the insinuation -- but you can't teach size and manic energy.
Derrick Favors. The reasonable man's Andre Drummond. Favors is about halfway to "safe pick," but that honor goes to ...
Greg Monroe. The problem with picking Monroe to join Love is that defense matters. But there's no question that Monroe is the most skilled option.
Ryan Anderson. I mean, you might as well just take Love. As in Love and no other true bigs. Anderson is very similar, though not as good (especially at passing, rebounding offensively or scoring in the pivot).
Larry Sanders. This would be hilarious fun, but I just don't know.
Kenneth Faried. The somewhat safe Drummond, a compromise between Drummond and Favors.
DeAndre Jordan. I mean, you might as well pick Drummond. At least people won't make fun of Drummond when he tries and fails to stop a faced-up Noah.
Tyler Zeller. Yes, Tyler Zeller was invited to Team USA mini-camp. Team USA's center problem in a nutshell. Was Meyers Leonard unavailable?
I don't see any favorites on the board, though Davis just has to play well to become the favored choice, the way I see it. Cousins needs to play well and be on absurdly saccharine behavior. A strong week from Drummond could boost his status -- the other guys should foul him mercilessly to keep his awful free throw numbers in Coach K's mind. If Favors breaks out, he's a legit option. If no one stands out, Monroe could take it. Under no circumstance should Zeller be allowed near the 2014 roster.
Of course, someone like Howard or Bosh could decide to play in 2014. Roy Hibbert could find a way to get released from the Jamaican team before 2014, or Brook Lopez could reach out to Colangelo and ask to be considered. (He was in the mix back in 2010 for the Worlds, but mono knocked him. Hibbert would have been a last-minute add for the 2012 Olympics, but Jamaica wouldn't release him.) That could make this week's battle moot. But if Team USA does pick a new face (or, in Davis, a basically new face) to battle the world's top centers, this week is the best chance to influence that decision.