Every year in October and November, as another #USMNT campaign comes to an end and meanwhile NBA season cranks up, my mind wanders to the overlap between a 90 minute soccer player and a 40 MPG basketball player. There are a ton of similarities in the games (spoken from the perspective of very mediocre high school dual sport achievement) in spacing, passing and defensive positioning- not to mention conditioning. Other than the glaring obvious height differential between the best athletes in each sport, it's easy to imagine alternate universes where the best NBA players are instead the best soccer players.
Just for fun, and with two huge caveats below, it's time to imagine a 2014 NBA Players on the Pitch roster.
There are no national allegiances (i.e., this is not a USMNT)
And there is little reflection of actual soccer background for any of the players below- though I'd welcome any points in the comments. Instead we'll make a single assumption- namely, that instead of a lifetime of 5 on 5, our guys have played a lifetime of 11v11, and their corresponding ball handling or shooting touch on 94 feet would roughly correlate to 120 yards. In other words, a tiny assumption that shooting touch and ball handling would translate from hoops to the pitch.
With that, here's the lineup and the rest of the 18:
GK: Anthony Davis
CBs: Joakim Noah, Anderson Varajao
Outside Backs: Andre Iguodala and Kevin Love
Outside Mids: Goran Dragic, Lebron James
Center Mids: Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler
10 Shirt: Russ Westbrook
Striker: Steph Curry
Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Manu Ginobili, Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Lance Stephenson
In camp: Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard
I'm building this team around two complimentary centerbacks that I've wanted to see on the court on the same team. Bonus: they're already equipped with soccer ready hair. The Sweeper- Joakim Noah- is a rugged Defensive Player of the Year with a win-or-go-home mentality and constantly improving offensive arsenal. And the stopper brings savvy positional defending, great passing and underrated midrange scoring. Let's see if Anderson Varajao's pick-and-roll play translates to set pieces in the other half.
They'll play in front of backstop Anthony Davis- a 6'11" athletic freak who just demands an important role on the field. Since we're still trying to figure out how basketball skills translate to soccer, it's possible that training camp will show us to shuffle these three around, and try the gloves on Noah or Varajao. Pretty sure you're not scoring on this 21 foot wall unless you have Ronaldo, Rooney and James. The obvious issue is speed out of the back, and my homer (huge Cavs fan) of Varajao could easily be overturned by sliding the left midwinger back to the most important position on the field, the offensive-minded centerback.
We're going with a 4-5-1, and our trio of center mids are arranged by their defense to offense balance.
Jimmy Butler is an top notch defender (a top guard in defensive win shares, if we're looking at the advanced metrics) and tough two-way player who we'll try to plug into the Jermaine Jones role; minus the penchant for red cards, Kyle Beckerman may be a better analogy. Just ahead of him, Chris Paul serves as the true point guard - a Michael Bradley, not flashy but a heady, efficient, accurate playmaker (the league's highest assist rate - by a lot), and an advanced metrics winner (#6 in total winshares). We just know we'll win more often with him at the point. And the playmaker, the 10 shirt, will be Russell Westbrook. The highest usage rate in the league, explosive passing or scoring. His hand injury won't slow him down around the 18.
Up front, we're going with the lone striker, fearless and high percentage gunner Steph Curry. An assassin finisher and surprisingly efficient defender- not something USMNT fans are used to seeing from the top of the formation.
With the spine set (and likely alterations noted) our strategic wings and backs will include:
On the right, Lebron James (outside mid) and Kevin Love (back) are going to pair up as a fast forward threat, as they're learning to do in Cleveland right now. Love will get to the other end line and use his outlet pass acumen to lob crosses in to Curry, Westbrook, or his midfield partner James, sneaking into the box in waiting. Love isn't going to be as rugged an outside back as I like, but he'll pluck every rebound off the posts or out of the air that Noah and Varajao don't nab. James is the ideal midfield compliment to Love, willing to hang back if needed to cover Love, an explosive scorer from anywhere, and fit enough to cover the entire field well beyond stoppage time. Let's face it, with him in that spot, the offense could very well run through the right flank.
The left side is held down in the back by All-NBA Defender Andre Iguodala, an international veteran and the consummate role player in a star studded lineup. Goran Dragic, a lefty and high PER, emerging two-way player, gets the unlikely nod over fellow southpaw James Harden in midfield. Safe to say Paul George would get a start in one of these spots if healthy.
Lance Stephenson: Gives you an irrational confidence (credit Bill Simmons) guy who can defend (a top-2 guard in the NBA in defensive win shares) but also score off the bench. He could start in place of Butler, too.
John Wall: A likely half time or 60 minute sub to jumpstart an offense from the wing, with his end-to-end speed, in the way that Klinnsman used Deandre Yedlin in the World Cup.
Kyle Lowry- the backup with a similar rationale to Chris Paul, and more equipped to run the full 90 as he chews up minutes in Toronto.
The bench is bolstered by a quartet of savvy veterans with championship DNA and an international flair to their games that has to - HAS to - situationally translate to key contributions in the latter stages of big matches.
Kobe (for the ice in his veins), Dirk (an all-time true shooting percentage legend and the most prolific international scorer in the NBA's history), Ginobili (lefty playmaking and underrated defense), and Shawn Marion with his savvy two-way play and ability to cover the Messis and Ronaldos of the world.
Serge Ibaka, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden. These 3 guys are in camp and, on our Klinnsmaniest of days, probably make the roster over the Kobe, Manu and Dirk. Leonard is clearly going to explore for a bigger role in the future on our Players on the Pitch roster.
Quick note: Who's the backup goalie? Throw gloves on any of these guys and their going to accel with their great hands, lateral quickness, and demand of excellence. I'm probably going to ask Lebron to slide in first if Anthony Davis goes down. If in camp Lebron's Howardesque vocal leadership proves necessary from between the posts, Davis gives way to LBJ. Kawhi Leonard could also be seen as the goalie of the future- though slightly older than Davis. May inevitably Davis becomes a stopper, Leonard the goalie.
Who knows how this lineup would fare compare to the USMNT, 2014 edition. There'd be a ton of athleticism on the pitch. And we'd get to see how it translates from one sport to the other.