With the Warriors anticlimactic sweep in the NBA Finals and Alexander Ovechkin finally lifting the Stanley Cup, the period of lull in three out of four major US sports inevitably began. The American sports fans are now slowly winding down from a season filled with excitement, but things are just getting heated up at the most anticipated sporting event of the year – the FIFA World Cup.
After 28 years of continuous participation at the biggest stage and a solid presentation in 2014 in Brazil, the soccer USNMT inexplicably failed to qualify after suffering a shocking defeat at the hands of Trinidad and Tobago. That means that despite the surging popularity of soccer in the US, the American audience hasn’t been particularly eager to tune in for coverage from Russia.
Since Bruce Arena and his squad have proven incapable of taking advantage of quite a simple path to the World Cup, this might be the perfect time to introduce some drastic changes.
It has been proven time and again that the US system produces a significant share of world-class athletes, and the NBA arguably features the highest concentration of elite professionals among all sports. If their basketball talent was to magically translate into soccer skills in a Space Jam-like scenario, the new team would instantly become a dominant force at a global level.
While this concept definitely falls into the domain of an “ambitious crossover”, let’s take a look at what the ideal team made up of soccer equivalents of current NBA players would look like.
11. Goalkeeper: DeAndre Jordan
DeAndre Jordan, a dreaded presence in the restricted area, is consistently ranked among the top rim protectors in the NBA. More importantly, he has almost a decade of experience under his belt, which is vital for goalkeepers since they generally peak at a later age.
Jordan has shown impeccable timing for catching anything that’s thrown in his general direction during the Lob City era, and his leaping ability and agility is virtually unparalleled for a player of his size. Just like Manuel Neuer, he would tower over every other player on the pitch, and the opposing attackers would unquestionably get cold feet seeing him braced between the posts.
With Jordan operating as the last line of defense and the only player allowed to use his hands, his team could definitely afford some lapses knowing that an octopus with an amazing 7-foot-5 reach has their backs.
10. Right Back: Jimmy Butler
The wing-back position is among the most underrated and, at the same time, the most demanding positions in soccer. The main requirements for that role are excellent stamina, endurance and the ability to control the pace, while balancing out defensive duties with the offensive ones.
A prime example of what a right back should be able to do is the Brazilian legend Cafú, who has always been a feared sight along the right sideline. His ability to reliably cover the entirety of the right side of the pitch in all phases of the game made him an integral part of one of the best soccer teams ever assembled.
Jimmy Butler seems like a perfect man for that exact job; he has proven he can carry quite a load, as he finished the season second in minutes played behind LeBron James. Butler is known as a solid two-way player and, more importantly, a lockdown defender. Besides that, he has shown that he doesn’t necessarily have to be in the spotlight to contribute to his team’s success, which makes him a fitting choice for the right back role.
9. Stopper: Anthony Davis
Despite receiving his All-Defensive First Team honors for just the first time after six seasons in the league, Anthony Davis has always had the reputation of a premiere defender. Imagining him as the centerpiece of the backline comes almost naturally, as his insane physical attributes combined with exceptional mobility and elite defensive instincts make him an ideal stopper.
With his Unibrow™ as his distinguishable physical feature, Davis could become a reflection of another player with an instantly recognizable appearance – Carles Puyol. The FC Barcelona icon is not just an all-time great central defender, but also one of the most admired players in the history of the sport, which is not that common for players who rarely get on the scoring sheet.
With Davis replicating Puyol’s commanding stature in the defensive line, the opposition would have an extremely tough time getting into scoring chances. Set pieces also wouldn’t pose much of a problem, as the opponents would probably forfeit taking corners or free kicks seeing a 6-foot-10 Davis manning the 18-yard box or the defensive wall.
8. Centre Back: Draymond Green
Just like in basketball, players who are able and willing to do all the dirty work in an “end justifies the means” manner are especially valued in soccer. Just remember how Sergio Ramos’ seemingly inadvertent elbow maximized Real Madrid’s chances of winning the third straight Champions League title this year.
Draymond Green is, without a shadow of doubt, the prototypical “dirty” player; the one you despise when he’s facing you, but adore when he’s playing for your team. With that in mind, Green absolutely deserves a place on his team. His competitive spirit and his ability to coordinate the defense while having a huge impact on his own would be crucial in this lineup.
To avoid wasting his versatility, Green would better be suited in a more upfront role than Davis, where he could serve as a reliable and a vocal link between defense and the midfield.
7. Left Back: Kawhi Leonard
In today’s soccer, the left back is the position with the largest deficit of world-class players. Since creating any sort of a defensive line that includes NBA players without Kawhi Leonard seems almost unimaginable, sticking him into that position becomes the logical course of action.
Setting all the ongoing drama with Leonard aside, no one can deny his incredible defensive prowess both on and off the ball. Just like Butler, Leonard possesses all the necessary traits for a trustworthy wing-back, with the added value of terrific defensive awareness that would be key in covering up any eventual defensive lapses.
While his reputation of an android incapable of feeling emotions might seem compromised, his surgically precise, no-nonsense kind of approach on the court reminds one of the Italian legend, Paolo Maldini. Spurs fans can now only hope that Leonard will follow in his footsteps and remain loyal to his original team, just like Maldini did with A.C. Milan over the course of his storied 25-year career.
With Butler on the right side and Leonard on the left, the flanks of this team would remain impenetrable. However, their roles wouldn’t necessarily be reserved just for breaking up the opposition attempts at scoring, as they could potentially cause some damage on offense as well.
6. Box-to-Box Midfielder: LeBron James
Inserting LeBron James into any possible NBA lineup instantly puts him in the position of the centerpiece and the leader, and this crossover team would be no exception. Seeing how James feels the most comfortable when he’s in complete control of the game, assigning him with the box-to-box midfielder role, which would allow him to cover most of the ground while pulling all the strings, seems like the easiest choice of all.
Managing both the flow of the offense and the integrity of defense would pretty much be in line with the duties he had to handle over the entirety of his career. While that may seem like a demanding task for someone his age, LeBron has carried the load in 100+ games this season, proving that his durability borders with supernatural even for NBA standards.
The poise of a winner with which he approaches every game and his cerebral playstyle make it impossible not to draw parallels with arguably the greatest midfielder of all time – Zinedine Zidane. If you factor in James’ receding hairline, the resemblance becomes almost uncanny. Both Zidane and James are deities of their respective sports, and both were/are able to destroy the opposition in multiple ways with their overwhelming ingenuity.
It’s safe to say that LeBron would thrive in any sport with his current athletic and mental attributes. Imagining his impact after a transformation into a soccer rendition of himself seems almost unfair to anyone that would have to face the newborn soccer demigod.
5. Playmaker: Chris Paul
With James in the role of a workhorse that keeps everything on the field in check, there is enough room to add a creative spark plug in the midfield. In Chris Paul, this team gets an orchestrator who can slice open the defenses with pinpoint passing and consistently provide scoring opportunities for the players up front.
There is a similar player in the world of soccer who is globally recognized as a compact package of incredible playmaking skills. Andrés Iniesta, who goes by the moniker of The Illusionist, has been the key man in the middle for F.C. Barcelona and the Spanish national for well over a decade. Just like Paul, Iniesta has that astounding ability to always somehow find the open man and facilitate a smart transition from defense to offense.
Another important caveat of both Paul’s and Iniesta’s game is the ability to retain possession; in Paul’s case, it is evident from his his historic assist-to-turnover ratio. Considering his comprehensive skillset, it is clear that CP3 possesses all the prerequisites for an effortless transformation into a world-class midfielder.
With James setting the tone of the entire team and Paul taking up the more creative playmaking duties, the NBA soccer team would have a foundation that most coaches can only dream of.
4. Right Winger: Russell Westbrook
Impressive physical specimen. Dominating presence on the field. Competitive spirit that borders with fanaticism. Accusations of putting individual achievements above team success. The parallels between Russell Westbrook and Cristiano Ronaldo really do draw themselves.
From the position of an offensive wing, Westbrook would have enough space to put his skillset to proper use. The opposing teams would basically be faced with the same “pick your poison” dilemma NBA defenses have to deal with on a daily basis.
Giving him enough room to cut towards the box would lead to a chaos that would negatively affect the defending team’s chances of conceding a goal. Trying to limit his impact would, on the other hand, allow him to distribute the ball as the most prolific passer on the team, making his teammates much more open to punishing the opponent’s approach.
While his decision-making is questionable at times, the gravity that stems from the ability to overpower anyone that stands in front of him would make Westbrook an exceptional soccer player. Just like Cristiano Ronaldo, his presence on the pitch would be a game-changing factor, regardless of whether or not he’s having a good day.
3. Left Winger: James Harden
Since he’s currently the best active lefty and one of the finest in NBA history, the position of the left winger clearly belongs to James Harden. As a perfect counterweight to Westbrook on the far side of the pitch, Harden would pose a comparable attacking threat, but with more finesse, coordination and poise.
Everything that Harden brings to the wooden floor is equally valued on the grass field. His elusive footwork, sharp dribbling skills, ability to draw fouls and punish defenses from distance and close range would make his soccer version a complete offensive menace. Factor in his elite passing, and this team now features a player that can single-handedly destroy opposing defenses with ease.
The current player that aptly reflects Harden’s MVP-worthy style of play is the most electrifying player in modern soccer – the Brazilian wonderkid Neymar. Both of them are polarizing to a certain extent, but the positive impact of their exciting skillsets cannot be denied even by the loudest of critics.
2. Attacking Midfielder: Steph Curry
Every once in a while, sports fans get blessed with a new prodigy stepping on the scene. In 2006, we got Lionel Messi who turned the world of soccer upside-down. In 2013, Stephen Curry emerged, redefining the game of basketball as we knew it.
Players like Curry and Messi are critical for the popularity of their respective sports. Fans can easily identify with them since they don’t overly rely on their physical attributes, but rather on their technique and natural talent. That is precisely what makes the game much more appealing both to the hardcore fans and the casual audience.
Curry’s style based on his remarkable flair and feel for the game makes him the type of athlete that can completely shift the flow of the game with a single lucid move. Add in his nifty dribbling skills, flashy passing and killer instinct from long range, and you’ve got yourself a perfect candidate to don that number 10 shirt that every soccer player yearns for.
1. Striker: Kevin Durant
With Westbrook, Harden and Curry, it would seem that the offense of this NBA team is all set for taking over another sport. There is, however, more space to add another attacking threat, arguably the biggest of them all.
With the two of the leading passers feeding him the ball from the sides and his teammate drawing the focus of the defense behind his back, Kevin Durant would have plenty of opportunity to score.
Just like Zlatan Ibrahimović in his prime, stopping Durant would be an arduous task even for the toughest of defenses.
While his overwhelming physicality would cause enormous problems in soccer, it’s his natural talent for cold-blooded scoring that would bring the opposition to their knees. KD can and will destroy you whichever method he picks: iso-plays with him as the primary ball handler, set actions with him lurking off the ball, bangers from outside or flawless positioning and finishing inside – his skillset translated to soccer instantly makes him an unstoppable force.
Oh, and since he would literally be head and shoulders above all the surrounding players, set pieces given to Team NBA would be a complete nightmare to defend against.
Here’s what it would look like:
On the surface, basketball and soccer might seem like two completely opposite sports. Once you dig a bit deeper though, the similarities at their core become obvious. Players looking to achieve world-class status have to reach and maintain extreme levels of physical fitness (or compensate for the lack of it with natural talent) and work hard to become highly skilled in every facet of the game.
Another aspect that comes into play due to the popularity of both sports is the need to possess sufficient mental strength to handle all the pressure that comes with the high internal and external expectations. After all, basketball and soccer are the two most popular sports across the globe, so it’s evident that the crème de la crème in both sports have to share certain characteristics.
The 11 players selected to represent the NBA at the World Cup in an alternate timeline, where basketball skills directly translate to the ability to play soccer, weren’t picked by chance.
Under the assumption of investing equal amounts of time and effort, it’s reasonable to think that each member of this lineup would achieve star status in any other sport. If their progression curve in soccer came even remotely close to their basketball development, this team would have the potential to dominate any other national team on the global stage.
The 4-2-3-1 formation featuring the majority of NBA superstars easily becomes a lock to take the World Cup by storm in this scenario. By faithfully replicating the craft of their proposed soccer equivalents, James, Durant, Harden and co. would have a great opportunity to redeem the current national squad and bless the US with another Dream Team to put on a pedestal.