Before the coronavirus outbreak became so widespread, the Utah Jazz not only had the remainder of the NBA regular season and playoffs to look forward to, but also having five players with at least theoretical shots at playing in the 2020 Olympic Games.
“Theoretical,” being the optimal word here.
After all, with the 2020 Olympics having been relocated to the summer of 2021, and no sense yet of the possibility of resuming the NBA season and postseason presently on hiatus, and how that will impact next season’s slate, nothing is guaranteed.
Still, should the schedules line up, we can presume that Rudy Gobert will be suiting up for his native France, and that Joe Ingles will be playing for Australia — both of which have already qualified via their finishes in the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
Croatia was set to host a six-team qualifying tournament in late June including Germany, Russia, Mexico, Tunisia, and Brazil, with the winner earning one of the four remaining berths for the Olympics. Should that tourney ultimately take place, and should Croatia prevail, Bojan Bogdanovic would also likely have a spot.
As for the fourth and fifth guys, well, the Jazz’s starting backcourt of Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley were named among the 44 so-called “finalists” for Team USA — which has also already qualified — all the way back on Feb. 10.
Conley … won’t be on Team USA unless a ton of players ahead of him all get injured or sick or uninterested in heading to Tokyo for a mass gathering of thousands of athletes.
Mitchell, meanwhile, after becoming an NBA All-Star for the first time this year, and also having taken on a starring role for the USA’s beleaguered World Cup squad last summer, has a definite shot to be playing in the Olympics.
Exactly how much of a shot remains a good question.
Had this basketball calendar played out as scheduled, six players (LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, and Paul George) would have been presumed locks for Team USA, according to various reports. That’s half the roster right there, leaving just six more spots.
Of course, things have not gone as scheduled for obvious reasons, but each of those players remains a good bet to still play for Team USA. So, in all likelihood, six roster positions remain. That’s not a lot. While Mitchell’s participation in the FIBA World Cup works in his favor, as does Team USA coach Gregg Popovich’s newfound familiarity with him, there remain multiple serious impediments to his ultimate inclusion.
The key questions:
Considering that the situation has changed so drastically, how likely are Popovich and USA Basketball Men’s National Team managing director Jerry Colangelo to stick with that 44-man group of finalists? What players who definitely would have missed the 2020 Games due to injury might be more likely inclusions now that the Games have been kicked down the road a full year? What kind of positional competition will Mitchell be facing? How much will prior Olympic experience factor into roster composition? And, given that USA Basketball has largely eschewed the only-All-Stars roster construction prevalent from the Dream Team era, which “specialists” might prove to be competition?
Let’s take a look at a few of those, and how they impact Mitchell’s chances.
Injured players potentially returning
There are five big-time names here that pose a threat to Mitchell’s chances, and all of them were among the 44-person list of finalists. Two-time league MVP Stephen Curry had missed most of this season due to a broken hand, but had returned for a game in March. Kevin Durant, a league MVP and Finals MVP, was going to miss this entire season due to a torn Achilles, but who knows how he might look a year from now? If at all near his former self, the 2016 Olympic team member will be in consideration.
Warriors sharpshooter Klay Thompson, recovering from a torn ACL, is one of the league’s premier 3-and-D players when healthy. Nets point guard Kyrie Irving, who is recovering from arthroscopic shoulder surgery, is a six-time All-Star with previous World Cup and Olympic experience. And Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, considered one of the NBA’s top shooting guards, had just made his return from a ruptured quad tendon in his right knee not long before the shutdown.
Other positional competition
You may have noticed that the NBA is loaded with quality guards. Certainly, Mitchell is among them, having just made his first All-Star Game. But he’s got plenty of company. Among veteran shooting guards sure to get consideration are Washington’s Bradley Beal (one of two players in the league averaging more than 30 ppg this season); the Suns’ Devin Booker, another first-time All-Star this year, who was averaging 26.1 points and 6.6 assists; and the Bucks’ Khris Middleton, a two-time All-Star, a 3-and-D specialist, and one of Mitchell’s teammates on the 2019 World Cup team.
Lest you think Mitchell’s ballhandling and scheme-directing responsibilities for the Jazz give him some kind of advantage, well, they can’t hurt, but with All-Star point guards Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, World Cup teammate Kemba Walker, and former league MVP Russell Westbrook in the mix (and with James, Harden, and Lillard all likely team members), it also may not matter as much.
It’s been established that there’s no shortage of big-name stars in consideration for Olympic roster spots. But there’s plenty of younger talent who could be in the mix as well. The Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were both on the World Cup team, and the former became an All-Star this season; Miami’s Bam Adebayo and New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram were also first-time All-Stars, and among the 44 Team USA “finalists.”
Meanwhile, there are three players not on that 44-player list who have become three of the biggest stars in the league this season — second-year Hawks guard Trae Young, and rookies Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, of the Pelicans and Grizzlies, respectively.
While early iterations of USA Basketball were simply collections of the biggest stars in the NBA at the time, more recent versions have been constructed with the idea that pure abundance of talent is not sufficient to overcome a lack of fit. Given that, recent groups have increasingly included players who may not be stars, but who are exceptional at filling highly specific roles.
That’s likely to be the case with the 2021 team, and their inclusion could potentially come at Mitchell’s expense. Boston defensive pest Marcus Smart proved his worth on the World Cup squad as a guy capable of credibly switching onto and defending bigger opponents. Spurs guard Derrick White — another World Cup teammate — has also earned plaudits for his defensive versatility. And Nets wing Joe Harris has proven to be one of the league’s best catch-and-shoot 3-point bombers in the league.
A look at the players that Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell is in competition with to earn a spot on Team USA’s roster for the Tokyo Games to take place in summer 2021:
• Anthony Davis
• Paul George**
• James Harden
• LeBron James
• Kawhi Leonard
• Damian Lillard
Injured players returning
• Steph Curry
• Kevin Durant**
• Kyrie Irving**
• Victor Oladipo
• Klay Thompson**
• Bradley Beal
• Devin Booker
• Kyle Lowry**
• Khris Middleton*
• Chris Paul
• Kemba Walker*
• Russell Westbrook
• Bam Adebayo
• Jaylen Brown*
• Brandon Ingram
• Ja Morant
• Jayson Tatum*
• Zion Williamson
• Trae Young
• Joe Harris*
• Marcus Smart*
• Derrick White*
* 2019 FIBA player
** 2016 Olympics player