Team USA Basketball

USA vs. Tunisia: Why Every Game Matters for LeBron James and Kevin Durant

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 12:  (L-R) Kobe Bryant #10, Kevin Durant #5, LeBron James #6, and Chris Paul #13 of the US Men's Senior National Team watch the action during a pre-Olympic exhibition game against the Dominican Republic at Thomas & Mack Center on July 12, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The United States won the game 113-59.  (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
David Becker/Getty Images
Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2012

Going into the Team USA basketball team's matchup against lowly Tunisia, many are viewing the contest as nothing but an inconvenience for the world's No. 1 ranked team.

There is no question about whether the United States will win. The only question is by how many points. The Tunisian squad is the only team in Group A to not have an NBA player on its roster and is playing in their first Olympic Games.

They will undoubtedly be overmatched by Team USA from tip-off and a 30-point blowout would serve as a disappointment for the Americans.

The overarching goal for coach Mike Krzyzewski will simply be keeping vital players healthy while keeping the team in sync for their eventual medal round run.

But for Team USA stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant, their goal cannot be the same.

It's widely known that NBA commissioner David Stern and his ownership group are pushing to make the Olympics an under-23 endeavor, with their ultimate goal being a World Cup of Basketball (via Yahoo! Sports).

The NBA looks at FIFA's cash cow World Cup and the MLB's burgeoning World Baseball Classic (started after the Summer Games cut baseball) and rightfully becomes bitter that the IOC rakes in millions every four years largely because of NBA players.

So regardless of how "stupid" (via ESPN) NBA players feel an Olympic age restriction would be, it's coming before the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

That means we're likely seeing James and Durant for the final time on the biggest of international stages.

That means every single game, no matter its insignificance to the gold medal cause, matters for James and Durant's international legacy.

For James, a three-time Olympian, this is finally an opportunity to be the best player on Team USA. In Athens, James was simply a wide-eyed 19-year-old on a bad team. In Beijing, he was a second banana to Kobe Bryant's brilliant run.

But London is his Olympiad. LeBron has won three NBA MVPs, an NBA championship and a NBA Finals MVP in the four years since Beijing. All that is missing from James' basketball legacy is an Olympic performance for the ages.

For Durant, this will be his only chance at Olympic glory. The 23-year-old star has already proven his international acumen by becoming Team USA's leading and most reliable scorer thus far.

But barring something unforeseen, there is almost no chance that we remember the London Games as Durant's. LeBron is playing better than ever and is putting together an all-around performance on par with anything we've ever seen in international play.

However, the Olympics could be a legacy altering experience for Durant in another way— marketing dollars.

As we have seen with Kobe's undoubted reign as the king of international marketing, foreign audiences value one trait over everything: winning.

London marks Durant's formal introduction to that untapped market. If he can continue his scoring barrage in these Summer Games and the Oklahoma City Thunder ascend further up the stratosphere next season, Durant will take his place next to James and Bryant as the NBA's three most marketable faces.

That's what these Summer Games mean to the world's top two players.

For James, basketball immortality.

For Durant, a Brinks truck full of marketing dollars and his only shot at a gold medal.

Every minute of every game, those two things are hanging in the balance as the world watches—probably for the last time.

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