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.