Team USA Basketball 2012: Does Playing with Superstars Change One's Mentality?
Playing with stars isn't exactly a new or unusual phenomenon for most members of Team USA.
LeBron James regularly runs with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. Kobe Bryant enjoyed a successful, but contentious partnership with Shaquille O'Neal and has since had the privilege of playing with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum on the Los Angeles Lakers.
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden have used the 2012 London Olympics as another opportunity to strengthen a triangular bond first formed with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The same goes for New York Knicks teammates Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, and would've been the case for a pair of Los Angeles Clippers had Blake Griffin's knee injury not left Chris Paul "on his own."
The list goes on, but the fact remains: None of America's 12 Olympic representatives will return home to a roster that can so much as hold a candle to the one that's currently gunning for gold, as far as sheer talent is concerned.
Which, in reverse, means that these dozen alpha dogs must and presumably do assume roles under head coach Mike Krzyzewski that differ demonstrably from the ones they fill in the NBA.
From Star to Scrub
In essence, the experience of an All-Star—or, in the cases of James Harden and Anthony Davis, a soon-to-be-All-Star—joining a cast composed of his most gifted peers is not unlike that of a high school phenom moving up to a college program replete with primo prep players, or that of a collegiate All-American starting over again as a scrub in the NBA.
Chances are, the player in question is no longer better than the rest of his teammates. In the case of Team USA, this is true 11 times out of 12.
LeBron James is clearly the best player on and the leader of this year's squad, as he showed once again with his triple-double (an Olympic first) against Australia on Wednesday. Kobe Bryant held at least one of those two titles on the 2008 "Redeem Team," but has since taken a backseat to LeBron, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, among others.
However, this doesn't mean that members of USA Basketball need necessarily fall in line behind the leader, as they would on a professional club team. There are still specific duties to be carried out, but because most of Team USA's players are so versatile in their talents, those duties don't necessarily need to be dished out to one player or another.
That is, unless you're Tyson Chandler, who's in London to rebound and defend in the post, or Anthony Davis, whose job is to catch lobs and waltz around as the world's tallest, lankiest, unibrowiest victory cigar.
Sharing the Burden
Other than those two, just about anyone from among this bunch is capable of carrying the scoring load, handling the ball and/or creating shots for his teammates for a short stretch, a quarter, a half or even an entire game. Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant have taken turns catching fire from game to game, and Kobe finally had his shot at lighting up the scoreboard with his 20 second-half points against the Boomers.
Seeing 'Melo, the Durantula and the Black Mamba racking up buckets isn't an unfamiliar sight for anyone who follows the NBA. Those three are among the most prolific scorers in basketball, so seeing them do what they do best is nothing new.
But because they're playing together, rather than leading their teams against one another, none of the three has to worry about carrying the scoring load from game to game, or even for an entire 40 minutes. Team USA fared plenty well before Kobe exploded against Australia, and hasn't needed 'Melo and Durant to find the zone every night, either.
So long as someone's got the look and/or everyone is chipping in, Team USA can, will and should blow out just about every opponent it faces.
For "ball hogs" like Kobe and Carmelo, this is quite an adjustment. Their forces of habit typically tell them to shoot the ball whenever and wherever possible as a means of ensuring team success.
But with so many other capable contributors on the squad, going one-on-five becomes both a reckless individual act and a danger to the shared pursuit of victory.
On a similar note, having so many superstars on one squad makes it that much easier for any one player to have a field day. Opposing defenses must pick their poison on any given night, inevitably leaving at least one or two of the NBA's elite with wide-open shots and the opportunity to catch fire that each such attempt represents.
Finding (and Filling) a Niche
With so many players able to lend much more than just a helping hand in one way or another, it's practically required for every American to sacrifice his game in one way or another, or to redirect one's energies into other on-court pursuits, all for the good of the gold.
LeBron is a perfect example of this. He's a superb scorer who's averaged nearly 28 points per game during his NBA career.
But Team USA doesn't need him to do that. Kobe, Carmelo and Durant are all comparable in that department. Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, James Harden, Deron Williams and Chris Paul are no slouches on the scoreboard, either.
As such, James has committed himself to being a post player and a facilitator on offense, all the while manning just about every position on the defensive end.
With LeBron playing the role of people pleaser, CP3 and D-Will have essentially been relegated to handling the ball, initiating the offense and floating to the perimeter for open shots on kickouts.
That is, when they're not busy forcing turnovers and getting to the rim in transition.
And while K-Love is a spectacular perimeter shooter, he's most valuable to Team USA as a big man who can bang in the post and chase after rebounds, as he so often has in London.
Taking Can-Do Spirit Home
The point being, when you're a great player on a team comprised of great players who can do what you do as well as or better than you can, it's imperative to do what you do best when needed and to find other ways to contribute the rest of the time.
Whether this notion of sacrificing one's game for the greater good actually carries over from international competition to the NBA is anybody's guess, though there's some anecdotal evidence to support it. LeBron and Carmelo both cracked their respective Conference Finals after winning gold in Beijing in 2008, though James' Cleveland Cavaliers fell well short of their ultimate goal of an NBA title while Anthony's Denver Nuggets benefited tremendously from the mid-season addition of Chauncey Billups. That same season saw fellow US Olympians Kobe and Dwight Howard go head-to-head in the Finals, with Spanish silver medalist Pau Gasol helping to push Bryant's Lakers over the top.
The spoils of victory for Team USA were even more apparent after winning gold at the 2010 FIBA World Championship. Lamar Odom went on to earn the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award, Durant and Westbrook guided the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Western Conference Finals, and Love played in his first All-Star Game, among other notable accomplishments.
Surely, some of America's internationals would credit their subsequent successes to their respective experiences with USA Basketball, and some already have. Those who've parlayed playing for Team USA into bigger and better things in the NBA have seemingly been emboldened by the boost of confidence that comes with a player's renewed sense of belonging among the world's best basketball players. In the same breath, their games have grown with the humility that comes with having to subjugate one's own selfish pursuits for the greater good.
The former can help a given player to elevate his own level of performance. The ladder, meanwhile, can and often does help that player to elevate his entire team, to be reminded that basketball is best played as a team game, and that group success trumps everything.
And if a player should be so fortunate as to return from active duty with Team USA to join forces with another collection of All-Stars in the NBA, then the transition will presumably be even more of a cinch.
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