In the midst of the NBA dead zone between all the major free agent moves and the beginning of training camps, focus among the basketball-starved has shifted towards Team USA and what it might look like when it tries to defend the title it won in Turkey at the 2010 FIBA World Championships. (Which has now been rebranded the FIBA Basketball World Cup, presumably because "FIBA Cup" would have been too intuitive and harder to confuse with other international tournaments.)
Word is LeBron James isn't going to be included in the squad and might even sit out the Olympics, which as Deadspin's Andy Hutchins points out is only significant because LeBron is the best and most scrutinized player of his era. He wasn't present for the 2010 World Championships either, nor were Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, and Dwight Howard, and for that matter, James has already played in four major tournaments for the U.S., which is more than almost anybody. The guy might want to start recharging in the offseason following his now-perennial deep playoff runs. You know it's late July when NBA scribes are throwing half-hearted subliminal messages at LeBron for basically no reason at all.
There is reason, though, to pay attention to who makes Team USA's World Cup squad because participation in the between-Olympics tournament, specifically for young players, is the fastest path to landing on the first-choice squad in two years' time. Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis are considered locks at this point, but with a larger-than-usual returning class -- Kevin Durant and Kevin Love have committed, and Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, and James Harden are all still young enough that they're likely to be interested -- Marc Stein thinks no more than two or three of the guys who played alongside Irving and Davis in last Thursday's relatively incoherent intrasquad scrimmage will make the World Cup team.
From that same Stein article, there's a quote from Paul George that explains why the competition even for spots on what's essentially a B-team are so intense: "You see all the guys like LeBron [James] and [Carmelo Anthony] and KD. They all took that huge jump [in their careers], and it's because of playing for the USA team."
You might recall that in 2010, the World Championships squad featured Rose, Durant, Love, and Westbrook, who were all 21 at the time. That team demolished the rest of the world, who were for the most part fielding full-strength lineups. Rose went on to win the MVP during the 2010-11 season. (The voters were punishing LeBron for switching teams.) Westbrook's PER rose from 17.8 to 23.6 while the Thunder took a huge step forward, losing to the Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals. Love nabbed a rebounding title and announced himself as one of the league's best power forwards.
The reason we ask athletes to explain sports phenomena for us, even when they're not particularly articulate about it or we're asking them an impossible question that doesn't have an easy answer, is because their opinion carries a certain authenticity that a talking head or sportswriter lacks. But we tend to pick and choose what explanations we like, which creates a sort of echo chamber effect that unfolds like this: A player answers a question in a certain way, enough writers and pundits like that answer and so it becomes part of The Narrative, and then more players buy into The Narrative and parrot what the initial player said, and we get this unceasing cascade of increasingly amplified versions of the initial explanation.
The talk surrounding the 2010 World Championships was like this. The meme that was repeated by the media and players from the 2010 team became that playing in Turkey was a transformative experience for everyone involved. (I can't prove that every time this happened, Rajon Rondo calmly but firmly muted a nearby television set with his fist, but in my heart, I know it to be true.) By the time the season ended with Team USA participant Tyson Chandler holding the Larry O'Brien trophy aloft, the squad had gained a certain mystique, as if the locker room showers in Turkey emitted some talent-enhancing elixir.
I can't recall nearly as many players claiming the 2006 World Championships, where Team USA dropped out in the semifinals to Greece, as a transformative experience. But the stats bear out that James, Paul, and Howard all had markedly improved 2006-07 campaigns. It's hard to say whether young stars are helped immensely from playing internationally in their early 20s, or if they're simply making the significant improvements great players tend to make a handful of seasons into their careers. But the precedent is there, at least, and it serves as a compelling sales pitch for Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski as they try to continually replenish America's talent pool.
USA's Basketball's task isn't exactly the same as, say, U.S. Soccer or Rugby, who have to promote the sport in addition to poaching hyphenated Americans from all over the globe. America already likes basketball and has more talent than any country in the world, but Colangelo and Coach K were brought in to stabilize a federation that was in disarray after finishing sixth in the 2002 World Championships and third in the Athens Olympics. We know that interest in the national team can wane among NBA players, or perhaps even worse, the guys that show up for a tournament think they can more or less walk through it. At the senior level, the U.S. still fields what are far and away the most talented teams in any tournament they enter, but they need to keep the pool of NBA stars continually stocked and get those players to practice with one another on a semi-regular basis.
There was a suffocating amount of sloganeering surrounding the 2008 Redeem Team that played in the Beijing Olympics, to the point that its participants were unjustifiably sainted in the same way the teams that underachieved in 2002 and 2004 were vilified. (It's also worth noting that four players -- LeBron, Wade, Boozer, and Carmelo -- played in both Athens and Beijing; it's not as if everyone from the lean years was blacklisted.) This rebranding and restructuring of the national team was achieved through Nike marketing guile -- check the understated clips of Team USA practicing over Marvin Gaye's ingeniously slow, soft rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner"-- and some vague, back-to-basics platitudes from players and coaches. USA Basketball got back to what it was great at: Perpetuating American exceptionalism through fielding sharply focused, embarrassingly superior teams.
The overhaul of USA Basketball corresponded with a mid-decade NBA image shift during which the league notably told players they couldn't dress as they liked in press conferences anymore. The NBA was perceived, in too many circles for the league's taste, as full of tattooed, fundamentals-shirking thugs. In what has proven to be a lucrative overcorrection, it seems a conscious effort was made to marginalize complicated mistake-makers like Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury in favor of a stately, antiseptic sort of star.
Durant is the realization of this paradigm: A player as uncompelling off the court as he is brilliant on it. Which isn't to disparage Durant, the Thunder, or the 29 other teams who would take him in a heartbeat; it's not Durant's job to be anything other than great at basketball, and any multi-million dollar corporation, as a general rule, would just prefer its employees never do anything controversial. I have thrown myself headlong into draft coverage the past few offseasons, and what strikes me is how boring every interview is as each prospect spouts the same work-hard, team-first clichés for eight minutes straight. It seems that agents and coaches are increasingly clear with young talents: There's no earthly reason for you to be interesting.
This is all well and good for the powers that be: Team USA is stocked with willing participants, the NBA is as popular as it's ever been, and advertisers are thrilled to have assets they can market to just about anymore. Some of the obscene gobs of money even make their way into the players' bank accounts. Everyone's sated, and no one's offended. It's smart business practice. But the game is richer for having players who occasionally clash with authority or say ill-advised, funny, or painfully truthful things. It gives us a window into what it's like to be an incredibly famous and talented human. The product USA Basketball and the NBA have worked together to create is slick and entertaining, but sometimes feels like a competition among collections of carefully maintained personal brands. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. What's unnerving is that there sometimes seems to be nothing wrong at all.