Bryant and James of Team USA react during their men's exhibition basketball game against Team Argentina ahead of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Palau Sant Jordi arena in Barcelona

The Inbounds: Team USA and the meaning of London


It’s extremely difficult to measure what winning a gold medal does for a player, outside of you know, giving them the actual object and putting a line on a resume. When most people think Michael Jordan, 99 percent of them don’t think “Olympic Gold Medalist.” They think six-time NBA champion, the Greatest of all Time, or “the guy in the Hanes commercial with his own shoe.” It’s really only in the context of the Olympics that we examine these players. In fact, the members of the 1992 Dream Team are known more for their association with that particular assembly of players than for winning the gold medal. The medal was basically the Kia that they give to Rookies of the Year. You care about the award but you’ve already accomplished more for yourself.

And though the teams are worse through the years, the same can be said for those other teams that won. Their players are proud of their medal, proud of their place in history, proud of what they have accomplished. But that doesn’t define their careers. LeBron James was not certified prior to winning the 2012 NBA title despite having won a gold medal in 2008. It exists separate, and every team is constantly being judged against an impossible standard set by the greatest collection of basketball talent in recorded history and the resulting mythology which has followed them.

So what stands before Team USA as the ball prepares to be tipped in the Summer Games’ basketball tournament? It’s a specific question that shifts with each player.

Kobe Bryant: It’s Jordan, right? I mean, that’s what his career has largely become about. It’s not about Magic, despite the Laker connection, his sights are set on a larger goal. If he can’t match what Jordan did in the time he did, he can match him in as many total areas as possible. Bryant can match Jordan’s two Olympic golds in London, and best him in golds in games featuring NBA players. For Bryant, though, this is also a farewell tour to international competition. You can tell from his interviews that he’s enjoying playing the role of figurehead, the vocal leader for Team USA, and making the rounds once more as the face of USA Basketball. This is Bryant’s last ride, and to go out as anything but not only undefeated, but dominant, would be a travesty to his identity.

Losing, as always, is not an option for Kobe Bean Bryant.

LeBron James: James, and this is going to ruffle some feathers, is very much the ’92 Jordan of this team. In no way am I stacking up the Chosen One with the Greatest of all Time in terms of their basketball talents, skills, or abilities. But in Jack McCallum’s excellent book on the Dream Team (released this month), he writes extensively about how Magic Johnson spoke and acted as the leader, but that Jordan was the better player. It was evident in practice, evident in games, evident in all manners. From what we’ve seen in these exhibitions, we’re seeing the same with Bryant and James. In 2008, it wasn’t just close, Bryant’s game was better suited for international play and his desire to be the firepower was evident. Bryant is much more the floor leader than the leader-by-example in these games so far. Bryant will have himself a game or two in these contests, as he’s still capable of dropping 40 on any fool that comes up against him at the right time.

But it’s James’ all-around game that has anchored Team USA. He’s the best player on the team, and that’s what these Olympics are about. No Dwyane Wade, a Kobe Bryant fading back, Kevin Durant not quite there, Carmelo Anthony still only the dominant player in one phase of the game. James is the nexus, he’s the one player that’s capable of everything Team USA needs. These games aren’t just about adding his second medal, but about winning the games as The Guy for Team USA. On a team that’s limited in areas by injury, James is producing in those areas and more. It’s another step in his evolutionary ladder as one of the best players ever.

That, of course, serves a double-purpose. James has long lagged behind other players in terms of international exposure and popularity. There will be a void when Bryant leaves as the most popular international player and both Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant, along with Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, are in better positions to capitalize on that. But the international fans really just respond to dominance and in 2008, James was much more of a facilitator and all-around player. He’ll still be playing that role, that’s his game, but an emphatic showing and a bit more control over the game offensively and he could take a big step forward. He’s conquered everything else, might as well go for the Continent.

Carmelo Anthony: It’s not difficult to argue that the Olympics bring out the best in Melo. He winds up playing more of a team-centric style which accentuates his shooters touch, and his body is better configured to attack the international forwards than either the small or power forwards in the NBA. His rebounding is better on display because he operates more off-ball, and he seems like quite the cold-blooded killer under the banner of Olympic Rings. Anthony can use this as a launching point for a career rejuvenation, or maybe better termed, a career advancement. He can learn what he’s best at, where he can succeed the most, and more importantly, that his success isn’t dependent on his dribbling. He’s still a star even if he’s not the one with the ball to start the possession. It’s who ends the possession with the ball in his hands and how they perform that matters. He can see how the world’s greatest contribute in multiple ways, and the approach to defense those players have

Make no mistake, Anthony can play defense, and play it well. It’s a willingness and focus issue that keeps him from being one of the premier defenders in the league.

This is also a huge opportunity for him to put himself back up on that pedestal with the greatest in the game. Anthony was considered one of the elite players in the league until a few years ago, and since then there’s been a separation between he and LeBron, Wade, and Bryant, and Rose, Howard, and Durant have leapfrogged him. But without Wade in position, with Bryant coming back a bit, and Durant not ready for the fullest load on an Olympic team, Melo can regain his footing. He has more experience than Durant and a bigger frame. He and Durant have had some prolific shooting nights in the exhibitions, and seeing which of the two asserts themselves as the third cog is going to be fascinating.

Kevin Durant: Rookie of the Year. Three-time NBA scoring champ. Three-time All-Star. Three-time All-NBA. NBA Western Conference Champion. FIBA World Championship gold medalist. And, should Durant and Team USA win gold in London, the kid KD will have an Olympic Gold Medal as the third or fourth best player on the greatest collection of basketball talent in the world.

He won’t turn 24 until September.

The comments above about Durant’s readiness have little to do with his actual game. He’s there. And he’s been putting in shooting nights, though his number have been a little erratic in the exhibitions. It’s more just about age, experience, and role. Durant doesn’t have to lead this Team USA, it’s stocked with leaders. 2010 was a great chance for him to be the leader for a younger team where he was the most talented player on the floor. This is a great opportunity for him to absorb the knowledge of the older players, and to model himself after them. Durant’s old enough to have his own game certified, and young enough to still be able to learn from the rest of the team.

But at its core, London is just another step in his career, another moment where he advances forward, learns more things, sees more of the world, and may be able to usurp the role of “hero” from LeBron with his popularity and how his game manifests. Durant’s likeability is off the charts, and putting it on a scale like this could have serious impacts for his global identity.

Again, not even 24 yet.

The Rest of the Vets: For Chris Paul, it’s simply another good thing he’s done in a career of good things. Paul’s game never quite seems to fit on the international stage for some reason, but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective. It’s also good for him to be around players in game and practice situations that set the bar as high as this team does. He’s in a position to have to translate those habits to the Clippers, and things like this help him with a model for that. It’s also good for his motivation to be around players with championship rings like Bryant, Chandler, and James. It would have been a great opportunity for some development and work with Blake Griffin, had the explosive forward not injured his knee.

Kevin Love gets to mingle with the kind of stars he wants to play with. Not for nothing, but Love and Russell Westbrook, old UCLA buddies, are hanging out. And we all know what goes on at these competitions with the superstar talk of teaming up. Love also gets to put his name under the bright lights, something that’s been a struggle in Minnesota, if he can manage to get consistent playing time.

Dwight Howard is the best center in the league. Andrew Bynum’s probably next. Marc Gasol is up there. But with his performances for Team USA and over the past three year sin the NBA, Tyson Chandler is in the midst of carving out a specific niche for himself in the league. He’s the center you want on your team. He’s not going to get the star treatment or endorsement deals, but Chandler will be remembered and praised for his work in these games. He’s building a legacy without commercials with performances like his with Team USA.

When we look back and realize how under-appreciated  Andre Iguodala is, it will be things like what he gave Team USA in the international competitions that stand out. You also have to wonder if eventually he’s going to get the bug to play with an elite talent of his own.

Like Durant, this is likely to be Russell Westbrook’s international coming out party. He’s been tearing it up in the exhibitions, and with the size luxury afforded to the coaching staff to have him play at the two-guard, he can do even more damage. He’s still going to take a high volume of shots, but there’s enough superior ego on the floor to keep him in check. Refining the fire that burns in Westbrook on the floor by being around players like Bryant is only going to help matters. This is a big moment for Westbook.

You have to wonder how much Deron Williams misses his mentor Jason Kidd, who will be playing across the boroughs from him in Manhattan. But Williams is also in a position to show that he’s still among that elite group. With Brooklyn raising the flag in October, this is the kickstart of what he likely hopes is the Deron Williams’ era. Williams made a name for himself in 2008 by being a better international guard than CP3. We could see the same in London with his ability to defend with more size.

James Harden gets to show Europe how you can cook with a beard.

Anthony Davis: Make no mistake, despite Davis’ limited role on this team, which will consist mostly of carrying bags and getting things for the older guys, and in general taking a lot of crap, this is an invaluable experience for Davis. He’s in a position to be immersed in a culture of winners, surrounded by the players who have been and are willing to do what it takes to be successful. He learns how to handle himself, how to condition his body, how to approach the media, how to mentally approach the game. He gets to absorb Tyson Chandler’s defensive mindset, Kevin Love’s rebounding approach, Kobe Bryant’s preparation, LeBron James’ workout intensity, Chris Paul’s cerebralism. This is the kind of learning experience guys would kill for, and it’s only going to be help him in the long-run. You want to be great? Surround yourself with great. Davis is surrounded by great.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade make fashionable World Series bet

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 30: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat shake hands during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on October 30, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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LeBron James is an Akron guy born and raised, who is caught up in Indians fever like the rest of Northeast Ohio.

Dwyane Wade is Chicago born and raised, a Cubs fan who wants to see the team end its 108-year drought.

So the two have made a World Series bet — loser has to show up at the winner’s arena in the World Series champ’s gear.

After Game 1 — on the night he was collecting his latest ring — LeBron has to feel pretty good.

Either way, the payoff should be good.

Watch Utah’s Rodney Hood with monster dunk over Evan Turner

PORTLAND, OR - SEPTEMBER 25: Rodney Hood #5 of the Utah Jazz goes up for a dunk on Evan Turner #1 of the Portland Trail Blazers in the third quarter of an NBA game at the Moda Center on September 25, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The Blazers won 113-104. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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Evan Turner‘s Portland debut was a rough one: 1-of-7 shooting for three points, and while he did have five assists mostly he looked like a guy still trying to figure out how to play with his new teammates.

Oh, and he got dunked on by Rodney Hood.

That was not on Turner, he was on his man and just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even if he instantly morphed into 1977 Bill Walton he’s still getting dunked on there. Hood had a strong night with 26 points for the Jazz.

Portland got the home-opening win behind 39 points from Damian Lillard.

Andre Iguodala’s flopping game is in midseason form (VIDEO)

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The Golden State Warriors “superteam” is clearly still a work in progress, it’s going to take them some time this season to iron out the kinks. Most of which were on the defensive side of the ball.

But Andre Iguodala‘s flopping game is in mid-season form.

Kawhi Leonard came off a screen and reaching out his hand grazed the… um, midsection of Iguodala. There was light contact. But it’s the delayed reaction sending him into the first row that could earn Iguodala an Oscar.

If the league deems that a flop, Andre Iguodala will get a warning from the league. If he gets a second one over the course of the season, that will cost him $5,000. Iguodala is making $11.1 million this season.

It’s time: Russell Westbrook looks to fill void after Durant’s exit

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Nick Collison (4), head coach Billy Donovan, guard Russell Westbrook (0) and center Steven Adams pose for a photo during the 2016-2017 Oklahoma City Thunder Media Day in Oklahoma City, Friday, Sept. 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — There were few indications before August that Russell Westbrook would be so willing to be the hero downtrodden Thunder fans needed.

For years, the sometimes combustible Westbrook toiled in Kevin Durant‘s shadow. He often was viewed as the talented, selfish player who was as likely to get in Durant’s way as he was to make a winning play. His flashy style seemed at odds with small-market Oklahoma City so when Durant, who seemingly was a better fit in OKC, left for rival Golden State, fear that Westbrook would bolt for a larger market increased.

He didn’t. He chose to re-sign with the Thunder and now that he has answered the call, it’s time to deliver.

“We know a few things about Russell at this point,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. “He’s going to bring his lunch pail every day. He’s going to compete. He’s going to inspire. He’s going to show great conviction and courage to his teammates, to the city, to the organization. And from there, we have to figure out how that comes together.”

That trek begins Wednesday in Philadelphia when Oklahoma City officially tips off the post-Durant era in its season opener against the 76ers.

Westbrook is now the unquestioned leader of the Thunder and player folks behind the scenes knew – the thoughtful, humble, giving man – has more readily come to the surface. He has gone to great lengths to connect with Thunder fans in recent months.

Among other things, he unveiled his new line of True Religion clothing near downtown Oklahoma City and he attended an Oklahoma home football game against Louisiana-Monroe wearing a custom-made Sooners jersey. When he was introduced to the crowd before the Thunder’s preseason home opener, he got the kinds of cheers normally reserved for a return from injury.

Westbrook seems more at ease on the court, too. His preseason play seemed more effortless than electric, with an occasional flourish.

“I want the team to play how they want to play,” Westbrook said. “I mean, it’s not totally up to me how we play. You have to adjust to the team you have and adjust on a night-in, night-out basis on how you want to play. You want to play fast some nights and you want to play slow. I think it depends on the game, on the situation, who is on the floor.”

He is poised to put up astronomical numbers this season as he tries to keep the Thunder among the NBA elite.

Last season Westbrook averaged 23.5 points and career highs of 10.4 assists and 7.8 rebounds. He posted 18 triple-doubles, the most for a player since Magic Johnson had 18 during the 1981-82 season. The two-time All-Star MVP and former scoring champion could do more damage without Durant, but the Thunder don’t want too much pressure on him.

“I think we have to be able to play in a way that’s not just relying on him to do everything and create every single shot, whether it’s him making the shot or making the play for another guy,” Thunder forward Nick Collison said.

Westbrook already has left an impression on his new backcourt mate Victor Oladipo, who was acquired in the trade that sent defensive enforcer Serge Ibaka to Orlando.

“After working with Russ, I can see the intensity in how serious he was about his craft,” Oladipo said. “But one thing that I realized that after guarding him for three years – I can see why he’s so effective at what he does. I definitely stole that from him, and I’m going to take it and run as fast as I can with it.”

How Oladipo and the rest of the Thunder do in keeping up with Russell will determine how much success the team will have. Oklahoma City is no longer considered the team to beat in championship conversations, and that’s fine with Westbrook. He said the team embraces the underdog role.

“I love it,” he said. “I love it, man. I think it’s a great challenge, not just for myself, but for our whole team. I think just from talking to the guys throughout the summer, they understand that. They want to win. They want to get better.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter (at)CliffBruntAP .