CHICAGO — Team USA used to be made up of amateurs. Now it's a small party of basketball's elite, and a quick look inside may show us where the game is heading.
The 1992 Dream Team signified the first time many NBA superstars (including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Karl Malone and Magic Johnson) took the court together—except for All-Star games. That famous instance expanded the imagination of the game, giving way eventually to the reality of a handful of superteams competing at the top of the league.
The seed of the Miami Heat’s Big Three of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade was said to be planted in 2008 with Team USA at the Beijing Olympics. That free-agency coup has changed the way we view the league, and interactions between players during the offseason have earned our extra scrutiny. Especially now that Kevin Love, with whom LeBron struck great chemistry during the 2012 Games in London, is reportedly being traded to James' new/old team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
So with Team USA in 2014, the collection of pre-existing ties and uncanny chemistry may point the way toward what’s next in the league’s power alignment.
There’s lots of carryover at the team’s camp. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski has had Kyrie Irving and Mason Plumlee as players at Duke University. Assistant Tom Thibodeau coaches Derrick Rose with the Chicago Bulls, and he formerly coached shooting ace Kyle Korver in Chicago, who’s also on hand.
Assistant Monty Williams, head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, leads Anthony Davis through the regular season. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson—better known as “The Splash Brothers”—are teammates on the Golden State Warriors.
Until last month, James Harden and Chandler Parsons played together with the Houston Rockets. Now Parsons is with the Dallas Mavericks, and whatever beef the two had over the breakup (including when Harden referred to all Rockets not him or Dwight Howard as “role players,” per Joaquin Henson of The Philippine Star) appears to be over. Harden and Parsons are as buddy-buddy as they come when practice ends, chatting warmly and laughing.
Other Team USA members share a more abstract sort of bond. Davis and DeMarcus Cousins haven't played together, but they're both University of Kentucky alumni, and with Rose they all share the distinction of having played under John Calipari, who coached the Memphis Tigers when Rose was an NCAA freshman in 2007-08. And Davis and Rose are both beloved sons of Chicago.
“It felt great. I’m happy to be playing in front of friends and family,” Davis said about his homecoming effort, a 95-78 exhibition victory over Brazil at the United Center. When asked about playing with Rose, Davis said, “It was a lot of fun. The things that he does, you can’t control. For us to build on each other, after only these few weeks… that chemistry says a lot.”
Davis is sure to be offered every dollar the Pelicans can find for him in the coming seasons. And it’s rare for a star to leave his draft team before playing through two big contracts, amounting to almost a decade of tenure made possible by a number of wrinkles in the collective bargaining agreement, which favors incumbent negotiators. But Davis’ steely, intense outlook and unparalleled potential as a defender—in combination with unavoidable sentimental reasons—make him a dream fit in Thibodeau’s blue-collar program with the rising star's hometown Bulls.
Like Davis, Curry is not set to leave his current team anytime soon. He has three seasons remaining on his deal in Golden State. But the fact that he recently spoke out about a possible return home to play with the Charlotte Hornets—his father Dell Curry’s team—is revealing.
"My dad played there for 10 years, and people around the Greater Charlotte area in North Carolina have done a lot for my family growing up, so you always think about it,” Curry said on The Doug Gottlieb Show, per Diamond Leung of Bay Area News Group. “Everybody dreams about or thinks about what it's going to be like to play at home.”
If Curry, perhaps the greatest three-point threat in the history of the game, leaves, any number of his American teammates would be happy to follow him to Charlotte or anywhere else. Imagining him consistently next to a big man like Davis, Cousins or fellow USA teammate Andre Drummond is a basketball fantasy as rich as any.
And as Wade, LeBron and Bosh taught us in 2010, fantasies need not be exclusively talked about. In an age of increasing player agency and roster change, sparks made over the summer could very well be the germ to the next NBA juggernaut.