LeBron James entered the Summer Olympics as the presumptive best player in the world, but can we say the same eight games later?
Of course, these games aren't a perfect barometer for ranking talent.
Minutes are scarce by NBA standards, roles are unique and there's no question that guys playing for a team like Spain or Argentina have a greater opportunity to shine than James Harden, Andre Iguodala or Anthony Davis. The United States' depth translates into a pretty good 12th man.
For that matter, some of the NBA's best and brightest didn't even show up for the games.
But, with the season drawing ever closer, now is as good a time as any to take a look forward and rank the NBA's best based on their 2011-12 performances and, where applicable, what they accomplished at the Summer Olympics.
These rankings say a bit about who you'd want on your team and the impact each guy makes on every game, but they also take into account skill and overall ability. And yes, that means it's a bit guard-heavy given the current state of the league's big men.
Of course, everyone has a slightly different measure by which they define the best, and that's perfectly alright.
That said, here's one look at how the league's 10 best currently stack up.
You could make an argument for a lot of guys at this spot. Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Dirk Nowitzki, Andrew Bynum and LaMarcus Aldridge all come to mind.
It would be a lot easier to make those arguments if you didn't watch the San Antonio Spurs wreck the Western Conference for all but their last four games of the postseason. Parker's stats won't tell the full story thanks in large part to how frequently this team was blowing out the competition.
Nevertheless, he scored and facilitated in perfect balance and made the right decisions almost without fail, turning a supporting cast of little-known shooters into one of the very best teams in the league.
Few guards are better at running the pick-and-roll, and even fewer are as good as Parker when it comes to scoring in the paint. His exceptional footwork, end-to-end speed and arsenal of shots make him one of the most dangerous offensive threats in the game.
With all the attention LeBron James has received of late, you just might have forgotten how important Dwyane Wade was to the Miami Heat's championship run.
Yes, he had some off games, but he also had some absolutely classic performances, including a 41-point Game 6 to close out the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. It should also go without saying that Wade remains one of the best backcourt defenders in the game, a top-shelf playmaker and a guy who can rebound and block shots far better than most his size.
With a summer to rest up and get healthy, Wade should be back and as good as ever to start this season.
Dwight Howard is the most dominant big man in the game, but he's also one of its most overrated.
Before even acknowledging what he can and can't do on the court, we'd do well to remember that the distractions caused by a season's worth of public trade demands single-handedly derailed the Orlando Magic's 2011-12 campaign. It's hard to overestimate just how damaging that sideshow was to an otherwise solid club.
As far as his on-court exploits go, yes, he's an exceptional shot-blocker and the best rebounder in the game. Give him credit for that.
His offense, however, is limited to the paint, and not even all of it. If he isn't in position for a dunk or baby-hook shot, it won't be pretty. If he gets to the free-throw line, it will be downright ugly.
That makes him a liability at the end of close games and tarnishes an otherwise impressive repertoire.
Perhaps he yields more defensive impact than anyone else in the game right now, but that still has a lot more to do with his physical tools than his ability to truly play the game.
Rajon Rondo is arguably the best perimeter defender among NBA point guards, and there's a good case to be made that he's also the league's best distributor.
The opening argument for that case is the 11.7 assists he averaged last season.
Rondo is also one of the most well-rounded players in the game, if not the very best outside of LeBron James. Beyond his passing and defense, he's a tenacious rebounder and an above-average scorer.
His perimeter shot needs work, but his mid-range game has grown leaps and bounds, and he can do plenty of damage at the rim.
Deron Williams is the second best point guard in the league, but so much of his value has absolutely nothing to do with the position he plays.
Yes, he's an exceptional passer, but Williams is also one of the game's very best scorers. With some additional help on the Brooklyn Nets, he's set to remind everyone what all the fuss is about (in the event the 57 points he scored against the Charlotte Bobcats in March didn't already do that).
When not making plays, Williams can use his strength and footwork to get into the paint and finish at the rim or via a variety of floaters. He can also shoot from anywhere.
Though Williams has been known to take possessions off on the defensive end, look for that to change now that his team has a legitimate shot at making noise in the playoffs. He has the physical tools to make quite an impact.
It's not Carmelo Anthony's fault that Amar'e Stoudemire is paid more than $20 million a year to get in his way.
Outside of Kevin Durant, Anthony is still the game's best pure scorer, and he's underrated in almost every other facet of his game. His passing is better-than-advertised, but there's a reason he'll never notch a ridiculous number of assists.
How many guys would you rather have taking the shot?
Anthony gets to the line, scores inside and is as dangerous in isolation as anyone not named Kobe Bryant. He's also a decent defender when he wants to be, and he's an outstanding rebounder for a guy typically used at the small forward position.
Carmelo has taken a lot of flak in his day, but he just might prove his detractors wrong this season.
He certainly did so in the Summer Olympics, averaging more than 16 points and nearly five rebounds per contest.
Chris Paul is quite simply the best all-around point guard in the game.
Given just how essential a top of the line floor general is in today's game, it's hard to overestimate the value this guy brings to the table.
He controls the flow of every contest, defers whenever possible and takes games over when needed. He's the best passer in the NBA (though not always the flashiest), and he can score from anywhere on the floor.
There's also something to be said for his pesky defense and ability to disrupt an offense in the backcourt.
When healthy and determined, Chris Paul is as good as it gets.
At this point, there's not much separating Kobe Bryant from someone like Chris Paul, but there's one question that should resolve any deadlock pretty readily.
If you were trying to win a championship this year, who would you want on your team?
Bryant remains one of this league's best and most versatile scorers, and he's hardly one-dimensional. His perimeter defense remains at times stifling, and he's an exceptional playmaker.
Though he found himself taking a few too many shots for the Los Angeles Lakers last season, that had a lot more to do with what head coach Mike Brown asked of him, along with the fact that L.A. never had a point guard who consistently got Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol involved in the action.
You can't blame Kobe for that.
He's had the finest career of any active player by a longshot, and he's still one of the very best.
There are more than a few arguments on behalf of the claim that LeBron James is the best player in the world (those are addressed on the next slide).
Suffice it to say, there's no question he's the most well-rounded and versatile basketball player on the planet. If that's the final metric by which you assess NBA talent, by all means, put him in your No. 1 spot.
It goes without saying that James has reached his prime, that his three MVP awards are well-deserved and that he's found a perfect role on the Miami Heat.
But, let's not get too carried away. LeBron's ability to score relies heavily on whistles putting him on the line and a drop-step move the NBA inexplicably refuses to recognize as traveling.
Still, James is an excellent defender and one of the league's very best passers. There's a reason for all the hype, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon. If LeBron isn't the best in the world, he's as close to it as he possibly could be.
But alas, someone just edged him out with a 30-point gold medal game, reminding us that the ability to score in the clutch can't be underestimated.
You'll hear some of LeBron James' apologists suggest that Kevin Durant is "just a great shooter" as if this game isn't fundamentally about putting a ball in a basket. Even if it were true that KD was first and foremost a shooter, that would hardly be an argument against his talent.
Without shooters, it's a lot harder to win gold medals and NBA titles alike.
Just ask Shane Battier and Mike Miller.
Some will also contend that LeBron deserves this spot on account of the fact that he's the NBA's MVP, that he's supremely well-round and that he does as much for his team as anyone in recent memory.
These arguments are all sound, but they aren't reasons the guy is the best player in the world.
For one thing, James is asked to play with the ball in his hands far more often. Though Durant is a capable playmaker, James is more accustomed to the role. The Oklahoma City Thunder keep the ball in Russell Westbrook's hands whereas LeBron's second-fiddle (Dwyane Wade) spends more time off the ball.
In other words, don't mistake Durant's reduced assist totals for an inability to pass. He's an underrated passer, and the rest of his game is underrated too.
When playing alongside James, albeit during a limited sample size of just eight games, Durant actually came away with three more blocks, two more steals and one more rebound. James may have the superior all-around game in general, but the difference has more to do with hype than substance.
There's a reason the 2012 MVP race was relatively close to the very end.
But, of course, Durant makes his money as a scorer. He is quite simply the very best in the world, and that's saying something when it comes to a game that's decided by scoring points.
It isn't decided by no-look passes or fast-break highlights. It isn't decided by versatility and the convenient ability to guard four positions.
Doug Collins' musings aside, we'd do well to remember that games are won and lost on the basis of whether the ball hits the bottom of the net. None does it better than Durant. His jumper is as pure as they come, and he's got one heck of a quick first step along with an unheralded ability to finish at the rim.
Oh, and he can shoot it from absolutely anywhere. It's no accident that he made 34 of his 65 three-point attempts, a ridiculous 52 percent rate, in his eight Olympic games.
Yes, James got the best of this duel in the NBA Finals, and he had the better all-around season, but Durant has quickly emerged as this league's best player.
If his on-court exploits don't convince you, just remember that his teammates will never have to worry about the guy jumping ship when the going gets tough. He signed his extension with a small market, and you better believe that kind of loyalty will pay dividends in time.
The 27-year-old James may have won the battle, but the 23-year-old Durant will win the war.