On Thursday, Team USA lost another major star in advance of the FIBA World Cup of Basketball when Oklahoma City Thunder forward and reigning NBA MVP Kevin Durant withdrew from the tournament because of physical and emotional exhaustion. After the recent losses of Blake Griffin (possibly because of a back injury) and Paul George (because of one of the ugliest sports injuries ever seen), Durant's withdrawal leaves the heavy favorites to win gold in FIBA's premier non-Olympics tournament with a clearly diminished roster and new worries. Does Team USA still figure to be a dominant squad when the World Cup begins on Aug. 30 in Spain? And does Durant's withdrawal signal a new reality for Team USA as American-born NBA superstars consider the benefits and risks of representing their country on the world stage?
It is certain that Team USA will miss Durant in the World Cup, especially given that Spain, their main competition, can depend on some amount of homecourt advantage. While the MVP and four-time scoring champ regularly dominates in any environment, he's especially difficult to stop in international play because of the shorter FIBA 3-point line and a style of play that makes him even more of a matchup nightmare than usual. He was MVP of this tournament in 2010, breaking several national scoring records in the process, and led the 2012 Olympic gold medalists in scoring with 19.5 ppg, including a game-high 30 in the final vs. Spain. This Team USA roster figured to depend on several new faces and various players needing to prove themselves (for various reasons), but they knew they could depend on Durant serving as a primary scoring option. That fail-safe no longer exists.
That's not to say that Team USA is without options. In fact, it's arguable the team is now more interesting, if also not quite so imposing. Point guard Derrick Rose has been extremely impressive in his first action since the knee injury that ended his 2013-14 season after only 10 games. He now figures to become the team's de facto leader, which should at least provide a fascinating test of his readiness for the full NBA season. Elsewhere, players such as James Harden and Stephen Curry should take on larger scoring loads. Durant is irreplaceable, but the remaining pool of 15 players luckily features enough players to give Team USA the most scoring options of any team in the tournament by a wide margin. It'll take a committee of stars, though, because no one guy can make up for such a fantastic talent.
Stylistically, Team USA should make up for Durant's absence by relying on their big men more than in any of the last three gold-winning major tournaments under Mike Krzyzewski. Under Coach K, Team USA has thrived with its overwhelming athletic advantage, often employing small lineups with NBA small forwards like Durant, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James at the "four" position, or even sometimes as centers. With Durant out, the team has no obvious replacement for that role. Instead, Coach K will likely give even more minutes to 21-year-old All-Star Anthony Davis, a fantastic two-way player who Durant himself said is ready to make a leap to MVP-caliber play. Davis could make a major statement in Spain by taking on a larger scoring load and stands as perhaps the player most worth watching on this roster. Apart from Davis, though, Team USA will call on interior players like DeMarcus Cousins, now likely a lock to make the roster, to step up. Guys like Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee may not do much more than rebound, defend and catch alley-oops, but they also should see more playing time in the event they make the World Cup roster.
This team simply has too much talent not to remain the favorite in Spain — it might take several more marquee injuries or withdrawals to change that status. The more difficult question to answer concerns whether Durant's decision not to play, coming on the heels of so many other players opting not to play in the World Cup and the potentially foreboding injury to George, signals that more players will opt against playing in international tournaments now and in the future. With Team USA now entrenched as perennial favorites after several high-profile disappointments in the middle of the '00s, it's possible that many players won't consider their participation necessary. Furthermore, NBA franchises could put pressure on more players not to play due to fears of another George-like catastrophe.
Or maybe such concerns of a mass exodus are overblown, because this FIBA tournament has rarely been a priority for American basketball players. Apart from 2006, when the national team needed a strong showing to save its reputation (and naturally finished third after a shocking semifinal loss to Greece), the NBA's top stars have almost always opted to pass on playing in non-Olympic years. When Durant dominated competition in 2010, it was in large part because 2008 gold medalists like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade made themselves unavailable. In fact, Durant was playing in his first major international tournament and had to prove himself just as Davis and others do now. The only surprise, really, is that Durant took so long to withdraw from consideration. Reigning MVPs who already own Olympic gold medals usually make this call well in advance of the tournament.
Coach K and Jerry Colangelo have attempted to sell Team USA participation as a matter of patriotic duty and pride, but the squad's makeup has increasingly followed the pre-2006 trends that supposedly led to so many failures on the biggest stages in international hoops. While similar losses have yet to come, it's possible that we will see more when play tips off in Spain later this month. Unless the tournament becomes the sort of soccer-aping behemoth FIBA clearly wants, basketball fans should get used to seeing the World Cup as a sort of vetting period for Olympic teams, with up-and-coming talents getting a taste of international play in preparation for greater glory two years later.
This turn of events may seem terrible for anyone who expects Team USA to win in perpetuity, but it's a perfectly reasonable approach for a nation with an abundance of elite basketball players. Team USA only really faces serious competition in the Olympics and World Cup, which means that it's virtually impossible to vet players' readiness for these tournaments outside of these two events. As long as Americans continue to consider the Olympics to be the preeminent international tournament — which should be for at least another generation, given the continued prominence of the 1992 Dream Team — it makes sense to give players like Davis leading roles in the World Cup. This plan could lead to the occasional loss, but it also figures to keep Team USA at its strongest when the country and players want to win most.
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