You have a roster that includes every WNBA scoring champion since 2008, five former WNBA MVPs, and 12 players who boast a combined 58 WNBA All-Star selections.
Now choose five as your starting lineup.
That’s the challenge U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Geno Auriemma faces heading into Rio for the 2016 Olympics. The short answer is that he can’t lose — and there’s little chance his team will lose in its quest for a sixth straight gold.
But the “challenge” raises perhaps the most interesting questions surrounding this year’s group for Auriemma, the 12 stars and any fan playing mock coach/GM.
“We’ve started a different five in every game that we’ve been on this trip,” Auriemma said after the team completed a four-game exhibition tour with its fourth straight win on Sunday. “Will we settle on a five when we get there (Rio)? I don’t know. I’m not sure. The circumstances might dictate. So right now, I like the fact that everyone of them feels that tonight could be me.”
Four players started all four exhibition games: Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Tina Charles. Sylvia Fowles got the nod for the fifth spot against the Select Team. Elena Delle Donne shuffled in for her homecoming at the University of Delaware. Huskie sensation Breanna Stewart took her turn when the team scrimmaged Canada at UConn. And Tamika Catchings — the third tri-captain along with fellow three-time gold medalists Bird and Taurasi — started the final game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
Among those possibilities for a fifth wheel, Fowles offers rim protection and a second post player, shifting Charles to power forward; Delle Donne provides the best floor-spacing option; and Catchings brings the most defensive versatility and experience to the lineup.
One guess: EDD turns into the USABWNT super-sub, along the lines of what Dwyane Wade did for the “Redeem Team” on the men’s side in 2008.
That arrangement worked on Sunday, when the starting group gained little traction early against the No. 2-ranked team in the world, Australia. In came Delle Donne to carry the offense, pick-and-popping her way to 17 points on a perfect 6-of-6 shooting in nine minutes and 25 seconds of first-half action. The U.S. outscored Australia by 17 points over that span.
“Just being myself and doing whatever’s needed,” Delle Donne said afterward. “They were hedging hard on screens so it helped to have a pick-and-pop [power forward]. I was pretty open. I think it’s going to vary from game to game, who’s going to have to step up. The way I’m going to play from game to game will vary. But I’ll just do whatever is asked.”
That same attitude has spread up and down the roster. As Auriemma hedged, “Regardless of whether they are in the starting lineup or not, their role is not going to change that much, and they know that.”
The coach is preaching the same message to every player — “do what [you’re] good at” — and the players have expressed faith in whatever decision the coach makes. So the longer answer to the starting five question is 1) that who comes off the bench is as important as who starts and 2) that no matter the five, the team’s depth will be its biggest strength.
To again take Sunday’s game as an example — the most informative example considering the opponent — starting the Bird/Taurasi backcourt and the Catchings/Charles front line freed up Angel McCoughtry and Brittney Griner to serve as energizers off the bench. Like Delle Donne, they looked to be ideal fits for the role.
McCoughtry provided a change-of-pace punch to complement the finesse of the starting guards, posting 12 points and five rebounds and finishing at +14 in 13:19. When 6-foot-8 Australian center Elizabeth Cambage started doing damage against the smaller lineup, Griner stepped up with 15 points (5/6 FG), four rebounds and two blocks in 13:21, finishing at +19.
“I just want to come out and bring energy. That’s how we wear teams down,” McCoughtry said. “We don’t lose anything by bringing us off the bench.”
“I like coming off the bench, honestly,” said Griner. “You get to see how the refs are calling certain plays. You get to see how they’re moving. You get to see more than you would if you’re on the court.”
Auriemma and his staff have a full week to dissect the tape and plan for every scenario. Maybe they’ve known all along and simply didn’t want to reveal their cards, debuting a new starting lineup at the Games. Maybe the five change from game to game, depending on the matchup.
The only certainty is that the U.S. still has more talent at its disposal than any other country, an embarrassment of basketball riches.
“I don’t know,” Griner said when asked how the rotation would look in Rio. “I’m glad I’m not the coach. That’s tough to make those decisions. But I know all of us are ready whenever we’re called upon.”