If there were more than one Kevin Durant, very few previously inaccessible light bulbs would go unchanged, that creepy kid in the treehouse would probably have a few more members in his "Framily" and Team USA wouldn't be in quite such a pickle heading into the FIBA World Cup.
Alas, there is only one KD.
And that KD withdrew from international competition last week, citing a very understandable case of physical and mental fatigue.
Nobody has played more minutes over the past four seasons than the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar and reigning MVP, and if anyone deserved a break, it was him.
Still, Durant's absence fundamentally alters Team USA, forcing something of a reinvention on the fly. Per ESPN.com's Marc Stein:
Durant was Team's USA most fearsome matchup nightmare. Among this assemblage of the internationally untested, Durant was the squad's most vocal behind-the-scenes leader, too. He was going to be the ultimate X factor in Coach K's playbook to offset the absence or loss of any other Team USAer, because no team in the world—not even big, bad, bulky Spain on Spanish soil—has a counter for KD when he's in full flow.
Other than that, though, no big loss.
A New Leader
Derrick Rose won't have to wait until the start of the 2014-15 regular season. He'll get a shot to prove he's ready to lead on a big stage right away—assuming, of course, that he's actually prepared to do that.
In terms of physical readiness, signs point to yes.
The mental side of things will present a separate challenge. It's one thing to get back on the court after sitting disconsolately on the sidelines for two seasons, but it's quite another to convince a collection of alpha dogs that you're the leader of the pack.
Rose will have to earn the leadership position Durant vacated, which may not be easy. Nor is it easy, though, to look past the credentials that say he's fit for the gig. He's the only former MVP on the roster now, and nobody else in camp holds the distinction of being the best player on a team that led the league in wins twice in a row.
Granted, those two seasons came before guys like Damian Lillard had played a single NBA game, but that just means Rose will have to work a little harder to prove he's the leader—which is fine. Leadership on a team like this should be hard to earn.
And hey, if Anthony Davis wants to fast-track his NBA ascent by playing so well for Team USA that his leadership becomes undeniable, I don't think anyone would complain.
Speaking of Davis, Durant's departure puts even more pressure on a frontcourt that has been the team's biggest uncertainty since camp began in July.
The most significant advantage KD provided—other than being the best player in the entire tournament, of course—was the matchup nightmare he created as a stretch power forward. With Spain looming as the primary threat, Durant's quickness and skill would have been the perfect counter to the sheer size of the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka.
Pulling at least one of those bigs away from the bucket, opening up cutting lanes and perhaps even forcing Spain to go small are now options that have mostly disappeared. If the Spaniards want to go big, the U.S. lacks the personnel to dissuade them.
Unless Rudy Gay, Durant's replacement on the roster, makes the team and does at least a B-plus KD impression, the U.S. will have to play more conventionally.
That means Andre Drummond, DeMarcus Cousins and Mason Plumlee will have bigger roles, especially on defense. And it should go without saying that all three now have a much better chance of actually making the squad.
Kenneth Faried may get a shot to show off the improved jumper he's been working on, and his chances of surviving the next cut shot up with KD's departure as well.
Oh, and we probably shouldn't proceed any further without the following obligatory rhetorical: Why, again, was Paul Millsap sent home?
At any rate, Team USA can get away with virtually whatever lineup it wants against most of its World Cup competition. Guys like Chandler Parsons and Klay Thompson could probably play power forward against Finland and the Dominican Republic in group play.
When the inevitable clash with Spain arrives later in the tournament, though, size is going to matter.
Emphasis on "Team."
Maybe replacing Durant won't be about someone like Rose stepping into an alpha role—fun as that would be to watch. Instead, perhaps we'll see Team USA pull together and rely on contributions from everyone to compensate for the loss of its superstar.
Already a team dominated by point guards, the U.S. squad could lean even more heavily on Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Lillard for replacement scoring. The points Durant would have logged must come from somewhere, and with all the talent on the roster, why not spread the burden around a bit?
Two-point-guard lineups were already going to be common. Now, I'm guessing it'll be extremely rare to see the U.S. field a five-man unit that doesn't feature two facilitators.
Thompson's defensive contributions on the wing will be even more important now, and guys like Lillard and Irving will have to compete on both ends—something neither has shown much willingness to do in their NBA careers.
And if the whole "team" concept doesn't work out, the U.S. still has James Harden, whose one-on-one game makes him a scoring threat nearly as reliable as KD. International basketball isn't as iso-heavy as the NBA game, which means we won't see Harden stop the ball and attack on his own for a half-dozen possessions in a row.
But if Team USA finds itself needing a bucket down the stretch, it can count on The Beard to get one. And who knows, maybe his already unfair Eurostep will get some kind of extra boost when he tries it on actual European soil.
Goal: Still Golden
Losing Durant hurts.
Losing him after Paul George's injury hurts more, as the U.S. doesn't have any star-caliber two-way wings on its roster anymore. Short of picking up the red phone (protected by safety glass) in coach Mike Krzyzewski's office—a phone that has a secret line out to Akron, Ohio in my imagination—there's no replacing Durant.
Saying KD's withdrawal is fatal, though, is far too strong a statement. The goal for Team USA remains gold, and just as before it still has more collective talent than any other two teams in the tournament combined.
And would it really be so bad if the U.S. had to approach this thing by committee?
Since the Dream Team in 1992, Team USA has been about stars subjugating egos to work together. And until recently, there wasn't a whole lot of thought given to chemistry or role-playing. The more recent approach by USA Basketball prioritizes fit over raw talent, which in a somewhat unexpected way has prepared this club to survive without a true cornerstone.
There's still size. There's still shooting. There's still even a potential leader waiting in the wings.
Gold remains the goal (and the most likely outcome), and maybe it'll be more satisfying when it comes as part of a real group effort.
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