Predicting Which Team USA Stars Will Coast in 2012-13 After Gold Medal Triumph
There's some evidence to suggest that NBA players tend to see an uptick in performance after participating in international tournaments, most notably the Olympics. Something about the thrill of competing with and against the best players on the planet and the confidence gleaned therein seems to be a boon to those who take their talents overseas during the offseason.
At least, that's how the story goes.
The rigors of competing for one's country can also have deleterious effects on one's performance—physically, mentally and otherwise. Some wind up wounded by the experience, while others come home too exhausted to deal with the grind of an 82-game season, not to mention the training camp beforehand and the potential postseason play later on.
This isn't to suggest that international competition is necessarily "bad" for the NBA or that players are prone to shirking their domestic duties once they return home. Just about any attempt to pin down the exact cause(s) of an Olympic "hangover" will likely yield an all-too-wide array of potential explanations.
Whatever those explanations may be, expect some of them to prove valid in the cases of these five members of Team USA during the 2012-13 NBA season.
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Carmelo Anthony has, at times, been held up as the poster child for post-Olympic success, even though his play has dropped off after each of his previous two trips to the Summer Games. His numbers slipped marginally during the 2004-05 season, after 'Melo brought home bronze from Athens, though he'd yet to establish himself as a reliable 25-point-per-game scorer by then.
The more noticeable decline came after the 2008 Beijing Games, when Carmelo's scoring average dropped by nearly three points while his field goal shooting declined by a shade under five percent.
In Carmelo's mind, that might've been his finest season, since he helped lead the Denver Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals in 2009.
What that ignores, though—at least if you take 'Melo's suggestion at face value—is the effect Chauncey Billups' arrival had on the Nuggets' fortunes that year. Mr. Big Shot returned to the Mile High City in an early season trade that sent Allen Iverson to the Detroit Pistons and promptly turned a middle-of-the-pack playoff team into a legitimate contender in the West.
Unfortunately for 'Melo, Chauncey won't be by his side this time to make him look good after bringing home the gold. Instead, Anthony will have to rely on Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd to run the point with the New York Knicks, who might also need him to do a little less if they're to go farther as a team.
Unless he can pop off for 37-point games on a consistent basis. That might be enough to put the Knicks on the brink of, say, the second round.
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Just across the Brooklyn Bridge, Deron Williams figures to have plenty of issues of his own to deal with next season. He's spent the last season and a half essentially in cruise control, seemingly attempting to avoid exerting himself to much with the terrible then-New Jersey Nets.
That is, if 20.5 points and 9.6 assists can be considered "cruising."
Now he returns to the Tristate area amidst an entirely different set of circumstances—a new building, new teammates and the new, heightened pressure that comes with playing for a team in a major city that's expected to compete for the postseason.
Can D-Will flip a switch when he gets back to Brooklyn, or at least keep turning the same machinery that got him through the Olympics? Even if he can/does, will the results be enough to catapult the Nets toward the top of the Eastern Conference?
Or will Williams become just the latest star athlete to be scapegoated by the New York sports tabloid machine when he can't carry an injured Brook Lopez and the aging duo of Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace past the second round of the playoffs? And will the Brooklynite hipsters be left to lament what could've become of their Nets had Dwight Howard not wound up in LA?
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Speaking of Dwight Howard in LA, Superman's second coming with the Lakers should ultimately make Kobe Bryant's impending decline that much more palatable for everyone involved.
Including (and especially) Kobe. If all goes according to plan in LaLa Land, the Black Mamba's scoring will decline considerably from last season's 27.9 point-per-game average as he cedes (some of) his ball-dominating responsibilities to Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and, of course, Dwight.
Indeed, coasting might actually be a good thing in Kobe's case. Not that the Lakers don't need Kobe to play hard, as he always does, but rather that, with his 34th birthday upcoming, they'd rather he conserve his "limited" energy for the most important moments in the most important games down the stretch. An approach similar to the one he took with Team USA at the 2012 London Olympics would be ideal, so long as he omits most (if not all) of his unsuccessful one-on-five possessions.
Would Kobe mind? Not if the end result is the same as it was last time he came home with Olympic gold, when he led the Lakers to a five-game series win over (ironically enough) Howard's Orlando Magic in the 2009 NBA Finals.
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Dwight's move to LA sent waves from one end of Team USA's bench to the other, with Andre Iguodala catching the most direct brunt of the action. He was the only American Olympian directly involved in the deal, as he'll now suit up for the Denver Nuggets instead of the Philadelphia 76ers as a result.
The stress of moving to a new city and acclimating himself to a new organization with new teammates may well take its toll on Iggy's performance on the court. His statistical productivity has declined in recent years, though largely as a result of his ever-reduced role in the Sixers' offense.
He figures to fit in well with the Nuggets, though the transition figures to take some time. He's just the sort of athletic, jack-of-all-trades-type player that Denver could use, even if it also solidifies the team's identity as a collection of good-but-not-great players attempting to compete with the star-studded big dogs in the top-heavy Western Conference.
But how might AI react to playing shooting guard every day after spending so much of his time in Philly at small forward? How will sharing space on the floor with Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler affect Iguodala's game?
And what effect might the change in altitude have on Iggy's body?
How Iguodala answers those questions (and others) will likely determine how successful his first season in Denver turns out to be.
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Then again, at least Iggy can all but guarantee that he'll be in the playoffs, regardless of whether he plays like an Olympian.
The same can't quite be said of Kevin Love with the Minnesota Timberwolves. GM David Kahn did fairly well to dump Wesley Johnson and bring aboard Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko and Russian sensation Alexey Shved.
But the T-Wolves won't likely see the light of late spring unless Ricky Rubio returns in time and in good enough condition from last season's torn ACL.
That can't be too encouraging for K-Love, who expressed his frustration with losing in the NBA and Minny's attempt to avoid mediocrity during an interview with Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports in early July. Granted, Love's comments came during Team USA's pre-Olympic training camp, when he was surrounded by guys who'd been to the postseason and was the only member of the squad (other than rookie Anthony Davis) who'd yet to experience the playoffs as a pro.
The hope for the T-Wolves, then, is that Love's time in London fuels his fire for victory and doesn't become a cause for greater resentment amidst defeat.
Because, as Kahn knows, there may be plenty more of that on the horizon.
How might Love react to more losing? He can't opt out of his contract until 2015, so if Minny doesn't turn the beat around soon, will he start pouting? Might he scale back his on-court efforts a bit, choosing instead to save his energy for when the T-Wolves can cement a spot in the playoffs?