Team USA Basketball — as both a B-side to the NBA brand and a prestigious, standalone entity — exists in a strange place, lockout or no.
Participation in the program brings its own potential reward, but a gold medal will never be an NBA title. It’s an achievement that is entirely separate from the highest domestic accomplishments, and to most NBA players, is by definition lesser than hoisting the Larry O’Brien. Winning in international competition is great, but it just isn’t the same; it’s a nice way to train and play basketball deep into the summer, but to most, involvement in the Team USA program is considered a career supplement — and little more.
Selling the league’s biggest stars on their continued involvement in Team USA basketball has proven difficult enough since Beijing. Though there were handfuls of valid and semi-valid excuses for the almost full turnover of the roster between the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 FIBA World Championships, one can’t help but wonder if Team USA’s reboot has already exhausted its opening salvo. The biggest marketing opportunity on the horizon is gone, the nation’s basketball dignity has been returned, and the league’s best have their Olympic gold. That could mean that most of Team USA Redux’s first generation is more or less done with international competition, a reality made clear by the younger squad that took gold in Turkey in 2010.
The incarnation of the team that takes the floor at next year’s Olympic games could again be significantly different from the previous model, but the roster will assuredly be filled with NBA talent, regardless of the possibility of a prolonged lockout. According to David Aldridge — in a column posted on the skeletal remains of NBA.com — a few notable program alumni can be penciled in to lead the charge, even if the entire team probably shouldn’t be expected to return:
Still, the 2012 roster will be comprised solely of NBA players. Kobe Bryant is a yes whatever happens, according to a source close to the 34-year-old; Bryant badly wants a second gold medal to go with the one he won in ’08. Kevin Durant, who led Team USA to the gold medal at the 2010 World Championships in Turkey, would probably go if selected even if the lockout were still in place, a source close to him said Sunday. The source added, though, that circumstances could change in the next year. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have yet to have discussions about what they would do in case the lockout is ongoing, according to a source; ditto for LeBron James, according to another source with knowledge of James’ thinking.
James and Wade were dominant in the 2008 Olympics, but the USA Basketball program is deep enough to compete without them. USA Basketball was structured with this kind of flexibility in mind; even if James, Wade, and Bosh opt to stay home, a squad spearheaded by Durant and Bryant would still be the clear favorite in 2012, bolstered by other rising NBA stars hungry for their first Olympic competition. Derrick Rose, Andre Iguodala, Russell Westbrook, Rudy Gay, Kevin Love, Steph Curry, and Eric Gordon could all look to follow up their FIBA World Championships success with another round for Team USA, and that’s to say nothing of the oodles of other talented players who weren’t included on the 2010 roster.
The beauty of USA Basketball’s new (if you could call it new, at this point) infrastructure is its continuity, an attribute which has less to do with the players’ continued involvement and more with the sustained system in place. The players aren’t going to be able to return for every competition, but the program remains, young talent continues to flow in, and the roster renovations come in stride.