July 15, 2024

LeBron James off Team USA’s bench? Unlikely, but welcome to life on the modern Dream Team

Follow our Olympics coverage in the lead-up to the Paris Games.

Want to hear a plausible, albeit unlikely, scenario where LeBron James comes off the bench for Team USA?

It starts with American coach Steve Kerr’s revelation last week that Joel Embiid and Kawhi Leonard are healthy and expected to be ready for Olympic training camp, which begins Saturday in Las Vegas.

Embiid, the 7-footer who picked the U.S. over France as his team for the Paris Games, shoots nearly 40 percent from 3-point range, blocks nearly 2 shots per game, and is a year removed from being NBA MVP. Based on common sense, eye tests, and other such metrics, he will start.

So will Stephen Curry, who like Embiid has never played in an Olympics before but is the greatest 3-point shooter of all time and also, by far, the biggest current threat from deep on Earth. His NBA-leading 357 3s this season (Luka Dončić was next closest at 284) are a testament. He is the ultimate floor spacer.

The third lock to start is Kevin Durant, who is 6-11, an outrageously versatile two-way player, and the greatest clutch player in USA Basketball history. No one has delivered more, and more often, with a gold medal on the line than Durant, who, in four gold-medal contests (three at the Olympics and another at the FIBA World Cup), is averaging 29.5 points. Beyond that, Durant is the most prolific scorer in U.S. men’s history, with 640 points overall (Olympics and FIBA).

OK, now for the other two starters in this scenario who would edge out the NBA’s all-time scoring champ and a two-time Olympic gold medalist in James.

The first is Leonard, a 6-7 bruiser and former NBA Finals MVP who, when healthy, is both an efficient, prolific offensive player and menacing defender with vice grips for hands. If there is a single reason why the Americans didn’t win the FIBA World Cup last summer in the Philippines (there are more, but hear this out), it is because they allowed a German non-NBA player named Andreas Obst to get loose for four 3s and 24 points, despite Kerr’s pregame instruction to pay attention to Obst. Leonard, fast enough to play the 2 guard on defense, and a cerebral defender to boot, would not allow that to happen to his team.

The other is James’ teammate on the Los Angeles Lakers, 6-10 forward Anthony Davis. Another massive disadvantage USA Basketball had last summer — and for the last few international cycles — was size, a factor that was exploited on the glass and on defense in general. In a loss to Lithuania at the World Cup, the Americans were outrebounded 43-27 and coughed up 17 second-chance points, as well as 14 3s (including nine in a row to start the game). Overall, they allowed 100 points in all three of their losses during the World Cup, which should be hard to do with a roster of NBA talent, in a 40-minute game.

Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis

With defense a Team USA weak spot in the 2023 FIBA World Cup, Kawhi Leonard (left) and Anthony Davis (right) have a case to be a starter in Paris. (Harry How / Getty Images)

Davis is one of the best defenders in the NBA, a commanding presence at the rim and on the glass, and a dominant post scorer. Playing him next to Embiid, against opponents like France (who will have Rudy Gobert and Victor Wembanyama on the floor), Serbia (Nikola Jokić, HELLO), and World Cup-champion Germany would enable the Americans to, right away, mitigate any size disadvantage they would otherwise have with two of the best big men in the sport.

To finish the thought, Leonard is a better perimeter defender, a more committed defender, than James. Davis is taller and also a better defender. The Americans would already have enough offense on the floor, so if Kerr were to base his lineup decision on the pitfalls from last year’s team (only two players off that team, Anthony Edwards and Tyrese Haliburton, made the Olympic team), one could argue that James might be a sixth man.

And yet, this, James coming off the bench, probably won’t happen. I spoke with two USA Basketball sources and both cast serious doubt on the idea. So thank you for going through with this exercise, and I hope you come away from it realizing the difficult task ahead for Kerr and his staff to pick a starting lineup and find playing time for a roster with legitimately 12 stars.

“It’s a great question,” Kerr said last week. “My staff and I have talked about it quite a bit, it’s a good problem to have, but I think I’m guessing that all 12 players on this roster will be in the Hall of Fame someday. So how do you pick five out of 12? The idea is you find combinations that click and you find two-way lineups that can be effective at both ends. So our big job in Las Vegas is to find five-man combinations that fit and to just ask all 12 guys to fully commit to the goal of winning a gold medal no matter what it looks like, no matter who’s playing.”

James, the sources said, will likely play point forward for the Americans as a starter, moving Curry off the ball. He is 6-8 and one of the greatest passers of all time, leading the NBA in assists in 2020. Even at age 39, he averaged nearly 26 points per game for the Lakers last season and shot a career-best (spanning 21 years!) 41 percent from 3-point range. He will make an already unguardable starting 5 … even more unguardable? (Sorry, it’s training camp for me too). He is the U.S. men’s all-time assists leader and is in the top 10 in points, steals, rebounds, Olympic 3s and blocks.

Defensively, it is no secret, James has allowed that part of his game to regress. He often conserves energy on that side of the court, at least in the middle months of a long NBA slog with a full playoff run at the end of it. He will have to be more attentive on that side of the court during the short Olympic schedule, but international rules are on his side, too. He does not have to leave the paint, and is heavy enough to bang bodies with the plodding big men the Americans are sure to face. Most of their opponents will not have four 3-point shooters on the court at the same time, so James will not have to race out to the perimeter as often.

A loaded Team USA roster

Player NBA team Major NBA regular-season awards

Bam Adebayo

Five-time All-Defensive

Devin Booker

Two-time All-NBA

Stephen Curry

Two-time MVP, 10-time All-NBA

Anthony Davis

Five-time All-NBA, five-time All-Defensive

Kevin Durant

2014 MVP, 11-time All-NBA

Anthony Edwards

2024 All-NBA

Joel Embiid

2023 MVP, five-time All-NBA

Tyrese Haliburton

2024 All-NBA

Jrue Holiday

Six-time All-Defensive

LeBron James

Four-time MVP, 20-time All-NBA, six-time All-Defensive

Kawhi Leonard

Six-time All-NBA, two-time Defensive PoY

Jayson Tatum

Four-time All-NBA

Who is in that fifth starting spot next to James — Leonard or Davis? Kerr likes to play smaller when he can, so perhaps it’s Leonard over Davis. But there are six other highly qualified players who are going to be asked to play greatly reduced roles from what they are used to, even on the international stage.

Jrue Holiday was Team USA’s second-most important player at the Tokyo Olympics. One of the best defenders in the world from his guard position, Holiday made ridiculous defensive plays and was also vitally important on offense next to Durant in some really close games. Those three steals in a 5-point win over France in the gold-medal game come to mind.

Holiday’s NBA team won a title in 2021, right before the Olympics, and the same thing happened this year with the Boston Celtics winning last month. When James, Curry, and Durant led the charge of convincing veteran American superstars to declare themselves in for Paris, Holiday was not in that group — but he was coveted by USA Basketball’s staff for the considerable talent, grit, and FIBA-friendly style he brings to the court. At 6-3 and 230 pounds, Holiday can guard “up” if needed, which would theoretically allow Kerr to play Holiday and Haliburton together off the bench. Haliburton is one of the few players on the roster who does not need to score to be effective, and he is the Americans’ fastest player. He could come off the bench, like he did last summer when he posted 45 assists — second most in a World Cup by an American — and spearhead the USA’s offensive attack by pushing the pace and getting the ball to open shooters.

But if Haliburton and Holiday are Kerr’s backup guards, what becomes of Devin Booker, an Olympic gold medalist from the Tokyo Games who averaged 27 points per game in the last NBA season? Or Edwards, USA Basketball’s leading scorer last summer who will surely seek to make his mark on this team with a ferocious training camp performance?

There are two other gold medalists yet to draw a mention here. Jayson Tatum, fresh off his $314 million extension and first NBA championship with the Celtics, probably slides into the role he held in Tokyo when he backed up Durant. Tatum was the second-leading scorer for the U.S. in 2021 at 15.2 points and also knocked down 17 3s for the tournament. Kind of wild that a three-time first-team All-NBA performer can’t crack a starting 5, but such is Tatum’s existence so long as Durant keeps putting on the American jersey.

The other returning member from Tokyo is Bam Adebayo, an undersized center who started all six Olympic games in 2021 and led the team with 5.7 rebounds per game. Adebayo is also one of the best defenders in the world, and he can guard smaller because he is so quick. But with Embiid and Davis on the roster, it is unlikely Adebayo holds onto his starting spot. Kerr will find him minutes, and Embiid’s playing time, especially during pool play and the friendlies before the Olympics begin, will surely be limited to protect his knees. Adebayo can “fill in” there, but a player of Adebayo’s caliber normally doesn’t play such a limited role.

Welcome to the best U.S. team, on paper anyway, since the 1992 Dream Team, and to the tough decisions waiting for Kerr, beginning Saturday.


(Top photo of LeBron James during the 2024 NBA playoffs: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)