Coach K invokes power of versatility on Team USA

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comJuly 8, 2012 

— LeBron James chuckled Sunday when a reporter asked him what position he’ll fill on Team USA in the London Olympics.

“I don’t have a position. Just put me on the floor,” James replied.

“My role is the same as it is in Miami: Do whatever it takes to win. If we need to play big, then play big. If in the course of the game we need to play small, then do that. Play point guard. Guard the point guard. That mindset doesn’t change.”

That is precisely what Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski needs for Team USA to win another gold. There’s been a lot of talk about this no longer being the team Krzyzewski wanted. Injuries eliminated three potential starters in center Dwight Howard, shooting guard Dwyane Wade and power forward Chris Bosh.

That doesn’t mean they’re toast. Krzyzewski injects the word “versatility” into every description of this team. That’s not wishful thinking, and it’s not exclusive to James, the NBA’s regular-season and Finals MVP. With New York’s Carmelo Anthony and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, he has players whose skill sets are as wide as the Grand Canyon.

That would be an advantage in any situation, but it particularly fits Krzyzewski’s approach. From his first seasons at Duke, Krzyzewski cast aside labels. Other than point guard, he never believed in calling a player a “small forward” or a “shooting guard.” And he never bought into the numbers system where a center is a “5,” a power forward a “4,” etc.

He once explained that when you lean on labels, you feel obliged to replace your starting “4” with the next best “4.” When, in fact, the next best “4” might be the fourth-best player on your bench.

Krzyzewski would rather put his best five options on the court and make the other team adapt to him. This squad certainly provides that opportunity.

Let Durant elaborate.

“Carmelo can bring the ball up and play (center). LeBron can play 1 through 5. Me? I don’t know if I can play the 1, but I can go 2 through 5,” Durant said before Sunday’s practice on UNLV’s campus.

“It’s going to make up for a lot. People say we’re not tall enough, don’t have a big front line, but quickness makes up for that. We get out on the break, and who’s going to stop us?”

Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo, who hired Krzyzewski before the 2008 Olympics, says the element critics miss is this group is all grown up: James, Anthony, Chris Paul and Deron Williams were all 21 or 22 when that team won in Beijing.

“They’re now in the prime of their careers: Bigger, stronger, better basketball players,” Colangelo said.

The last roster spots on this 12-man squad went to two power forwards – Kevin Love and Blake Griffin – and shooting guard James Harden. Asked why Team USA wasn’t more intent on finding another center to complement former Charlotte Bobcat Tyson Chandler, Colangelo was blunt:

“There are a lot of 7-footers who can’t play. There are a lot of 6-9, 6-10 guys better than those 7-footers. We’ve seen Griffin go up against (Spain’s Marc) Gasol. Matchups go two ways – they have guard our quickness, our speed.”

That’s where Krzyzewski comes in. He envisions an offense that is hard to scout because it lacks tendencies. It lacks tendencies because James, Anthony and Durant won’t be pigeon-holed into just doing certain things.

“The way we’re going to run offense is not 1-2-3-4-5,” Krzyzewski said.

“The offense that we’re trying to run gives them actions they can improvise. No one is married to a certain spot on the floor. You don’t want to do that to these guys. (The) main thing for us is spacing and versatility in what we can do.”

The handicappers question whether this team can match what Krzyzewski had in 2008 in Beijing and in 2010 during the World Championships in Turkey. Again, Krzyzewski won’t be limited by labels.

“Those teams didn’t have (Kevin) Durant or (Russell) Westbrook. It’s a different team,” Krzyzewski concluded. “We’ll see if it becomes better, but it could be.”

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