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Team USA, Gregg Popovich


The cuts will make themselves: Why Gregg Popovich might not have to make a tough call for Team USA

Less than two weeks remain before the start of the 2019 FIBA World Cup, yet Team USA head coach Gregg Popovich might head to China in the last week of August with no decisions to make. USA Basketball was primed to take 15 players to Melbourne, Australia for a series of practices and three exhibition games before departing for the real test — still with three more cuts to make before finalizing the 12-man roster.

De’Aaron Fox wouldn’t make that 16-hour flight, but rather withdraw from consideration shortly after the Americans got their first exhibition win against Spain on Friday after playing only six minutes. Fox said he’d shift his focus into the upcoming 2019-20 regular season and leading the Sacramento Kings to the playoffs.

Only three days after, veteran forward PJ Tucker, the team’s most experienced defender, withdrew after suffering an ankle injury — instead of choosing to nurse it, thus returning to Houston to rejoin the Rockets ahead of a great opportunity to take the Western Conference by storm. His teammates James Harden and Eric Gordon had already turned down their respective invitations after being listed among the 20 preliminary names to take part in this process.

The roster now stands at 13, only one above the 12-man cutout — so don’t be surprised if Popovich has no say on who makes the final trip, as it’s highly likely that a player could drop out before the team finalizes its three remaining exhibition games after playing Canada on Aug. 26.

With Tucker gone, the presence of Marcus Smart could now become a must with such dire need for an experienced defender. Smart recently recovered from a calf injury he’d been nursing for the past two weeks, rejoining the team in practice.

Yet the elephant in the room still stands: why are NBA players so fast to abandon this World Cup adventure?

Initially, it was due to the new FIBA scheduling change that would lace the World Cup and the Olympics in back-to-back years (2019 and 2020), and later due to the wild nature of free agency, which saw more than 200 players change homes over the course of the summer — many of them stars in the NBA.

The likes of James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, and Damian Lillard did not change teams but chose to rather narrow their focus to their NBA teams and their own future in this upcoming season. At the wake of those dropouts, many others turned down the invitation in fear of playing high minutes in a less-talented roster, turning the experience from a fun star-budding competition to a real one where a lot would be demanded of them.

Yet USA Basketball isn’t the only one dealing with these issues, as Team Canada has had the likes of Jamal Murray, Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, RJ Barrett, and now potentially Cory Joseph, who was reportedly out of the World Cup and then unreportedly back into contention.

Reality is that NBA players are dropping like flies and the Americans have among the thinnest of margins, as only one more dropout will leave coach Popovich with no other option but to take whoever remains available, regardless of fit or ability.

As it stands, these are the available players remaining from a list of more than 50 that managing director Jerry Colangelo initially reached out to.

PGKemba WalkerDerrick WhiteMarcus Smart
SGDonovan MitchellJoe HarrisJaylen Brown
SFKhris MiddletonHarrison Barnes
PFJayson TatumKyle Kuzma
CMyles TurnerBrook LopezMason Plumlee

Derrick White is likely to get the upper hand over the more experienced Smart based off two things — firstly, he’s a true point guard who Popovich trusts after a couple of years under his system with the San Antonio Spurs — lastly he’s more adept at knocking down the open shot and can hold his own defensively, making him a more valuable all-around option than Smart.

Harrison Barnes has likely locked down a spot on the roster based on his experience with the program, which is imperative at this point, given the bevy of new faces.

If Popovich is left with a choice to make, Mason Plumlee is the likely odd man out of this 13-man rotation, as international competition is heavily-based on guard depth, and the contributions of Smart and Jaylen Brown could prove helpful in case of an injury or for spare minutes. Though Pop might never get the chance to call that shot if another player withdraws from this commitment within the following days.

The United States simply has never had this awry a situation before, and they will be entering uncharted waters at perhaps the most vulnerable point since the 2004 Olympics — a time Popovich still recalls as one where he suffered what he calls the worst loss of his career as an assistant coach under Larry Brown.