Damian Lillard continues to fight for a coveted spot on the Team USA roster among some of the best players the world has to offer. Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose, John Wall, and Kyrie Irving are also vying for the point guard position. There will almost certainly only be three as they prepare for the 2014 FIBA World Cup, so two of these guys will not make the cut (though one may be pushed to shooting guard). Here is how things are looking right now, barring injury:
Curry is a mortal lock to make the team. After Chris Paul and arguably Russell Westbrook (neither of whom is participating in camp), he was the best point guard in the league last season by leaps and bounds. He is also one of two competing point guards with previous experience in international play. While this sounds bad for Lillard, it may actually work in his favor. Curry has reportedly spent some time at the 2 in practice. If he sticks there, the five point guards fighting over three slots can be whittled down to four.
Rose is the other point guard with previous international experience. He and Curry played together on the 2010 team. Rose has faced numerous trials and tribulations with his knees since then, but he is still virtually guaranteed a spot on the team. Reports and footage indicate that he is back to his ordinary extraordinary self, and even Coach K stated that Rose has “played great, not good”. I would not be surprised to see him get the starting role; especially if Curry is moved to shooting guard.
This is where things start to get hairy. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Curry remains at his natural position—which he will do in all likelihood. If he and Rose take two of the three point guard spots, there is only one remaining for Lillard, Wall, and Irving to battle over. Everyone at the USA Basketball camp is there because they are capable of playing for the team, so this “bottom of the top” tier is hyper competitive.
There seems to be a ubiquitously preconceived notion that Irving is the frontrunner to land the remaining spot, but I cannot agree. If anything, I think Wall fits the bill as the most complete player in the trio. He is the most steak and the least sizzle. Lillard and Irving, on the other hand, while not to be underappreciated, are more similar to each other than I care to admit at times. Their styles and statistics were near identical last season, with Irving leading ever so slightly across most of the board.
However; Lillard is a big time player, and big time players make big time plays. His advantage is primarily intangible because he is absolutely cold-blooded. Lillard has proven time and time again that he can come through for his team in big games, where Irving is arguably less reliable. Both are fantastic in the clutch, but all that matters in a tournament is the ‘W’. Grantland’s Bill Simmons put it rather eloquently:
Everybody on this team should be put on this team under the premise: “We’re in Spain—who do you trust in that game?” I trust Damian Lillard. I think that guy is fearless. I don’t trust Kyrie Irving at all. I’ve never even seen him play in a big game. I know what Damian Lillard can do in a big game; I’ve seen him have multiple big moments. If you made the All-Testicles team, he would be the point guard. I think he should be on the team.
The problem is that even if Lillard beats Irving for a spot, he still has to go through Wall. I do not think this will (or should) happen. Yet, there are two remaining scenarios in which Lillard makes the team regardless, but both require a little bit of shuffling: A) Lillard is moved to the shooting guard position as a backup, or B) Curry is moved to the shooting guard position. Both of these are sort of long shots, but real possibilities.
Having frequently played in a two-point guard system with Mo Williams last year, and practiced as a shooting guard on occasion in last year’s USA mini-camp, Lillard is a prime candidate for reassignment. Irving is less experienced at the 2 and may be less suited for a positional transition. If it came down to it, I am confident that Lillard could beat out Irving, Klay Thompson, and probably Bradley Beal for a spot behind James Harden and DeMar DeRozan in the backcourt.
If Curry takes on the shooting guard role, Lillard’s chances of making the team improve drastically. He would “only” (as if it were that easy) have to prove his worth over one player (likely Irving) for a spot, instead of three or four. It is much easier for a point guard to play shooting guard than it is for a shooting guard to play point guard, so there is no concern that Thompson, DeRozan, or Beal would challenge at the already stacked point.
So, ultimately, Lillard’s shot at making Team USA for the 2014 FIBA World Cup depends on other players almost as much as it does himself. He is perfectly capable of forcing the issue at point guard, but that will be an uphill battle unless someone else slides from the 1 to the 2. If all five players that are currently pushing for a slot at point guard continue to do so, I have to rank Lillard just below the three-man cutoff (Curry, Rose, Wall | Lillard, Irving). Something probably has to shift in order for him to make the final roster.