TOKYO — A seemingly very American sport debuted at the Olympics here on Saturday without a team of American men. 3×3 basketball looks like it was designed in a Chicago playground lab, with the express purpose of adding to Team USA’s medal haul. And it probably will, on the women’s side.
But on the men’s side, a team of four non-NBA players fell short at a May qualifying tournament in Austria. So Day 1 of 3×3 hoops at the Aomi Urban Sports Park became two things: a crash course in the adolescent sport for newcomers, and a spark for fantasies about what a Team USA of NBA All-Stars could look like.
You’ve probably had the bar-room or group-chat debate before, about how to build that untouchable pickup team. But 3×3 isn’t pickup ball. Its intricacies change the discussion. Takeaways from Olympic action, and from interviews with 3×3 stars, were:
The men’s game is completely positionless. You can’t really play an undersized point guard or a true big — the vast majority of top Olympic players are in the 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-7 range — because …
If you have a weakness, it will be exposed, especially defensively. Help-side defense doesn’t exist. Rotate-and-recover is impossible with only three guys on the floor. There are ball screens and perimeter actions, but games are won and lost via individual battles.
The pace is relentless. You need players whose bodies and brains move quickly and don’t suffer from fatigue.
There are about five handchecks or bumps per 12-second possession that would be a foul in an NBA game and aren’t here. You have to be able to play through contact — and dish it out.
So, with that in mind, let’s rule out some candidates.
Who wouldn’t make our Team USA 3×3 Dream Team
Let’s start with Steph Curry, who’s a tempting choice because 3×3 goes by 1s and 2s, not 2s and 3s. The relative value of shots from beyond the arc is significantly greater here. The game’s physicality, though, would limit Steph’s offensive prowess and make him a potential liability on defense.
Same goes for Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, and really anybody of their stature. A point guard will inevitably find himself isolated in the post possession after possession after possession.
James Harden, meanwhile, can defend in the post as well as any point guard in league history. But his game is a bit too methodical for 3×3.
On the other hand, Russell Westbrook’s brain moves at the right pace, but there’s zero room for a non-shooter on this team.
There’s also zero room for anybody, no matter their size, who can’t guard on the perimeter.
So, by process of elimination, we’re actually left with three very obvious options, and then a fourth spot up for grabs.
The best 3×3 team in the world
Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James are the starting three. Almost unquestionably.
Might the physicality bother Durant? Perhaps, but he’s the most unstoppable No. 1 scorer in the world. Frankly, on most 3×3 possessions, no matter how much talent is around him on the floor, the ball would be in his hands. When I spoke with Dominique Jones, the top American in FIBA’s 3×3 world rankings, he noted flaws in some NBA stars’ skill sets, but said Durant would be a “great pickup.”
Leonard, meanwhile, would be the defensive presence also capable of … well, just about everything. He’d make simply taking the ball back to the 3-point line on a change of possession treacherous for some opponents.
And LeBron is LeBron, one of the smartest basketball players ever, and one of the most remarkable physical specimens. He’d have absolutely no problem adjusting, as long as he resigns himself to being the third of three options on offense. (We wouldn’t need fadeaway jumpers from Bron when KD can just rise over anybody.)
As for the fourth spot, there is actually an argument for Steph, to diversify roster construction. There’s an argument for Paul George, and a year ago there was one for Jimmy Butler. Now, Devin Booker is a decent shout, but probably isn’t quite on this level yet.
Anthony Davis would probably get our nod, slightly ahead of George. He’s versatile enough on both sides of the ball to hang in 3×3 and complement the three wings nicely.
And yes, of course, even without any 3×3 experience, this squad would be overwhelming gold medal favorites.
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