NEW YORK – Once the steel, blue roller door rose to the top, and the 12 players who will represent the country at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro stood behind the backdrop of a playground, there was no need for any more leaks, statements, speculation or reasoned deduction. USA Basketball finally has its team, one that would've looked significantly different had the games been almost anywhere except Brazil.
Concerns over the Zika virus, crime and overall disorganization made the process of selecting the group tasked with extending the world's longest-running basketball dynasty a little more different than usual for Team USA architect Jerry Colangelo. In many ways, Colangelo had most of the roster chosen for him as several of the NBA's most magnetic and marketable stars declined invitations for various reasons.
"We could literally just go down the list," Colangelo told The Vertical on Monday after the Olympic team was unveiled at Dunlevy Milbank Center in Harlem. "It wasn't difficult, [it was] challenging, because typically it's about injuries. It's about contract negotiations or personal issues that might keep someone out. I think Rio is because of circumstances that were a new challenge. And we had to deal with that."
The U.S. men's team might be lacking the superstar tally of previous Olympic teams that Colangelo has fielded since assuming control of the program more than 10 years ago, but it still has enough talent to continue America's dominance of international competition since 2008.
Finals MVP LeBron James will spend his summer resting and doing his championship victory lap, but the man behind the NBA Finals' series-clinching jumper – Kyrie Irving – is around to represent the Cleveland Cavaliers. Two-time MVP Stephen Curry needed time to recover from various ailments but the man who preceded Curry with MVP honors – Kevin Durant – decided to chase his second gold medal. Chris Paul joined James in resisting the urge to win an unprecedented third gold medal but Carmelo Anthony decided to provide the Redeem Team link for this squad. One of the two players without All-Star credentials – DeAndre Jordan – made first-team All-NBA. And, after point guard after point guard denial forced him to dip outside of his original 31-man Olympic pool, Colangelo still found an All-NBA player in Kyle Lowry.
"That says something about our depth," Colangelo told The Vertical. "I'm glad we have the blend that we do. I think it's significant and I'm glad it played out that way. New blood sometimes, it gives you a rise. I know Coach is really excited about the team."
So, no, this is neither the Dream Team nor the Team of Leftovers. Even without Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge or Damian Lillard, this is still a very capable unit and the prohibitive gold-medal favorite. It has a mercurial talent whose reputation could use a little rehabilitation in DeMarcus Cousins, two players drafted in the 30s who willed their way among the top 30 players in the league in Draymond Green and Jimmy Butler, and easily the most triumphant redemption story since professional players were allowed to play for Team USA in Paul George.
Before concerns over mosquito bites kept players away, fears of a catastrophic injury like the one George sustained during tryouts for the FIBA World Cup in 2014 was viewed as a deterrent to participating in international hoops. George's career has bounced back fully since his right leg snapped in that nasty collision with a basket stanchion. The strain of working his way back to All-Star form nearly led George to decline his invitation, so that he could rest – but sitting out since the Indiana Pacers' first-round playoff loss gave him the perspective he needed to complete some unfinished business.
"That's what it came down to. When I broke my leg, it's almost like I owed myself another chance. I owed that to my leg for that, to win a gold medal," George said. "That's what this is about. If I went through that whole process, went through the rehab, went through the tedious work. This is the second go-round for me, a second chance. I at least owe myself to win a gold medal."
Colangelo likes to describe USA Basketball as a family, and that connection was probably proven in the aftermath of George's injury, when Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski visited George in the hospital. Shortly thereafter, Colangelo guaranteed an Olympic spot for George without knowing if he would ever recover. "Sometimes, you need to do what's right. And I believed at the time it was right," Colangelo told The Vertical. "I think it is a great story about perseverance. The fact that he was able to continue his career and not miss a beat. And the fact that he had this carrot always out there for him … it was really important for him to be a part of an Olympic team."
This run will also carry some special meaning since it will be the last international competition for Krzyzewski, the Hall of Fame coach from Duke who has led Team USA to four consecutive gold medals, including the past two Olympics. Colangelo has already lined up a replacement and transition plan for San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, so Krzyzewski actually means it this time when he says it's the end. Irving, who played one season at Duke but remains close with Krzyzewski, couldn't resist the chance, despite a grueling season that ended with his first NBA championship.
Irving could also become the fourth player to win an NBA title and Olympic gold in the same summer, joining Michael Jordan (1992), Scottie Pippen (1992, 1996) and LeBron James (2012).
"I never felt like I had to do it, I wanted to do it. It's a dream opportunity that I wanted to take advantage of," Irving told The Vertical. "When I found out about the guys that were playing, I felt pretty confident in who we had and I know USA Basketball does a great job of maintaining relationships and I've been talking to Coach since dang near last year, talking about playing in the Olympics. I think he had an inclination that I was going to play. I wanted to be the point guard on his team."
No NBA player has specifically cited Zika as the reason for backing out but Colangelo acknowledged that he had conversations with participants about what to expect. Zika can cause birth defects and has been linked to the neurological disorder Guillain-Barre. Colangelo didn't feel the need to put pressure on players to participate or attempt to alleviate fears. "We just educated everyone," Colangelo said. "Everything about Brazil has been education, prevention. But communicate with your guys. Tell them. There's no secrets. No one wants to be responsible for someone else's decision. We all have to make our own decisions. And we're all comfortable with what we know."
Cousins was too focused on adding an Olympic gold medal to the World Cup gold he won two years ago to be debilitated by concerns over something he couldn't control. "We have our own worries in the States. It's Zika in the States," Cousins told The Vertical. "So, I feel I'm protected by the most powerful, so me running around in fear, that's not me. I feel I'm well protected. And if it's meant to be, it's meant to be. If not, I'm happy with that, as well."
Green said he respected the players who opted to spend their summers doing other things, but added he couldn't bypass the chance. "I'm my own man and someone else's decision doesn't have an impact on mine. I said I was here last summer if I made the team and that was the case this summer," Green told The Vertical. "I'm not one to say no to something like this. This is a chance to play for your country, honestly. Everybody has their own reasons and I don't knock anyone for their reasons. Everybody is different. It's a dream come true to have this opportunity and I'm thankful for it."
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