Preparation for the FIBA World Cup has begun in Las Vegas, with a preliminary roster of 19 NBA stars battling for the chance to represent the USA next month. While there are some holdovers from the 2012 Olympic squad, many big names won’t play in for Team USA this summer, whether due to injury (Blake Griffin), fatigue (LeBron James) or being in the midst of forcing a trade to another team (Kevin Love).
This leaves Kevin Durant as far and away the biggest and best name on the squad since he first joined the program. It’s great news for Durant, Team USA, the Oklahoma City Thunder (and perhaps, in a few years, the Washington Wizards) and the NBA as a whole, because leading this team will help Durant supplant LeBron as the world’s best basketball player.
Sure, Durant won last season’s MVP award, which makes him ostensibly the league’s best already. But as good as Durant is, few would take him over LeBron right now. Besides his incredible two-way game, LeBron is a seasoned veteran with championship experience, and he single-handedly made the Cavaliers a title contender by re-joining them earlier this month. No other player could do that — not even Durant.
But it’s always been assumed that one day, Durant (25) would take the mantle of BEST from LeBron (29), and now that Team USA is his, expect that leap to take place next season, for a few reasons.
First, and most importantly, playing on Team USA changes a man. Ever since USA Basketball decided to get serious about dominating the world again, suiting up for the red, white and blue appears to be a career-altering experience. The 2008 “Redeem Team” essentially changed the way guys like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (just to name a few, at random) saw the NBA landscape. Stars like Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony got the chance to experience winning on the big stage. And almost everyone agrees: Playing under coach Mike Krzyzewski, alongside their friends (who happen to be world-class basketball players) and for international glory is an unparalleled bonding experience.
Of course, Durant has already made his mark on the global basketball scene — he was the MVP of the 2010 “FIBA World Championship” (the previous name for this same tournament), and most would agree that he led a “B” team that also lacked LeBron, Carmelo, et al. But Durant was just 21 years old, and that team had veterans like Chauncy Billups, Lamar Odom and Andre Iguodala to help carry the leadership load.
This is Durant’s team now, and on Day 1, his confidence and leadership skills were on full display as he communicated with his teammates on defense and encouraged others after big plays. Check out this mic’d up video from the first practice:
It’s one thing to be “next,” as Anthony Davis (who is, you guessed it, 21) has been proclaimed. But Durant is now, and being the best player on the best team in the world is a role he will embrace over the next month.
Secondly, Durant and James will return to the NBA game under much different circumstances. While Durant will be brimming with confidence, James will be adjusting to his new life in Cleveland. James has to work on chemistry with his new teammates and conforming his game to complement a mostly young and inexperienced roster. We should still expect MVP-caliber numbers from LeBron, but he is moving, willingly, into the next phase of his career — one where he isn’t expected to shoulder the load quite as much as he did in his early Cleveland days, and to some extent in Miami. Running with Team USA would have been a great warmup for that.
Meanwhile, Durant is entering the “If not now, when?” phase. Oklahoma City has been on the cusp of greatness for years, and it will take Durant bringing his game to the next level for the Thunder to get over the hump that is the Western Conference — not to mention whoever makes it out of the East. There has never been a better time for Durant to seize power, with the Spurs one year older and most other Western powers either standing pat (see: Portland, LAC) or taking a step backwards (see: Houston).
Almost everyone that plays under the Team USA banner, for some of the game’s best coaches and alongside the NBA’s best players comes out a more complete, unselfish and fundamentally sound player. Expect Durant — already the league’s “best” — to reach the highest ground this year, thanks to his participation, and LeBron’s lack thereof. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Photo via screencap