The medals had barely been hung on the necks of the German, Serbian and Canadian teams when word began to circulate about Team USA’s savior assembling an Avengers-style group of colleagues to fix American basketball in the upcoming Olympics.
LeBron James, sources not authorized to speak publicly told The Times, is very interested in playing next summer in Paris, bringing with him the top American players in the NBA to undo the disappointment of a fourth-place finish in the FIBA World Cup.
The other names interested in competing in the 2024 Olympics being mentioned in reports: Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum and Draymond Green. Even more from the gold-winning 2020 roster like Devin Booker and Bam Adebayo could help up the talent on the U.S. roster.
Why would they all be so hellbent on playing now after skipping the latest international competition (and in some cases, the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics)? What does it say about the team that competed in the World Cup? And ultimately, will this matter?
The draw to these Olympics is obvious. Patriotism is one thing, but patriotism in one of the world’s best cities for an Olympics that should garner tons of attention and present massive marketing opportunities is another. With a much more palatable time change (Paris is six hours ahead of New York, nine ahead of Los Angeles) than Tokyo (which is 16 hours ahead of Los Angeles) and the presumption that the COVID-19 restrictions from Tokyo will no longer exist, a more “normal” Olympic experience is an easy sell to everyone — both consumer and athlete.
In James’ case, the Olympics would be an international sendoff as he nears an eventual retirement. A summer of good wine, winning basketball and worldwide adoration is certainly up his alley. And you can bet that cameras would be rolling throughout the trip, a ready-made documentary to be packaged and sold whenever he wanted.
Team USA officials have been privately strategizing a James pitch for months, and his recent signals (including an “eyes” emoji on a post suggesting an All-Star Team USA roster with him on it) suggest it might not be that hard of a sell, provided he’s healthy.
And that’s no guarantee. James ended this season dealing with the fallout of the torn tendon in his foot, the trouble from the injury undoubtedly an issue during the Lakers’ run to the Western Conference finals.
For weeks, the version of Team USA that competed in the World Cup was a pretty nice story. While a roster full of NBA players hardly qualifies as plucky underdogs, the roster had only four combined All-Star appearances.
Austin Reaves, undrafted two seasons ago, averaged 13.8 points on 56.6% shooting and finished as the team’s second-leading scorer behind former No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards. The issues, though, were primarily on the defensive end, where Team USA was routinely too small.
The NBA, though, favors centers who stretch the floor and provide space, so it’s not like the league is flush with American-born bigs ready to dominate the glass. Rookie Walker Kessler made the roster, in part, for that reason.
While they still had more high-level talent than anyone they played, they didn’t have the best players in the tournament. And even with James, Davis, Curry and Durant on board, that still will probably be true.
After Tony Parker finished fifth in NBA most valuable player voting in 2012. Americans finished in each of the top five spots in the next five MVP votes. But since the 2019 vote, Americans have been in the top five just 10 total times, with international players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic dominating.
Embiid, who has French and U.S. citizenship, would be a coup for Team USA and could be the surest bet for solving the Americans’ physicality issues in international play. But long term, the lack of U.S. players at the top of the league’s top award speaks to the issues facing Team USA in the future.
The best American players are either too old, too injured (Zion Williamson) or too erratic (Ja Morant) to fully count on, compounding the issue that international competition seems to mean more to other nations.
A James-led group of stars won’t fix the big problems. The game is getting more and more global, with the best talent coming from places outside the U.S. But the Americans can still put together a team so stacked with talent that it can mitigate the other issues it faces.
They’re no longer a lock, that’s been true for a while, but a last hurrah for a James-led group might give the U.S. its best shot in Paris.