Forget for a moment that Lebron James isn’t playing in the Olympics, and that Stephen Curry and James Harden decided they would prefer to spend their respective summers embarrassing small children at basketball camps instead of embarrassing large men in Rio, that sundae of super bacteria, death mosquitos, human rights disasters and lots and lots of poop (actually, maybe don’t forget those things. Just put them aside for a minute). Forget that Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and Bradley Beal – Bradley Beal – all cordially declined Jerry Colangelo’s invitation. While it may be tempting to whine aggressively that these players are egotistical America-haters, please don’t. The United States men’s basketball team is still going to win the gold medal.
There are scant instances where American Exceptionalism is entirely true and warranted; basketball, for the last quarter century, is one of them. As long as basketball has been a Thing, America has been fairly awesome at it, winning gold medals in 14 of the 17 Olympics they’ve competed in. More interesting than the U.S.’s sheer winningness, though, are their winning ways. Ever since professional NBA players entered the Olympics in 1992, the American team has reflected the sport’s strategies and values in microcosm: The 1992 Dream Team embodied the game’s then paint-centric leanings, attempting a meager 96 three-pointers over eight games. The 2004 team dicked its way to the bronze medal, exposing the mid-aught’s affliction with stale hero-ball as well as the fact that Larry Brown can pound sand for eternity. The 2012 team was the first to be versed in basketball-analytics and took full advantage of the Olympic’s shorter three-point line.
As for the 2016 edition, it may not be the bringer of on-court famine and destruction that it could’ve been, but it’s a fine and good team– wait, is that Harrison Barnes? – built on the principles of versatility and skill. Unlike the Dream Team or its subsequent 2012 iteration whose excellence was easily translatable to any place or time, the 2016 team is calibrated for right now. To be sure, each of the 1992 and 2012 teams more or less subscribed to its era’s stylistic conventions, but their talent was enduring and universal. This isn’t to say that the current team isn’t good at basketball – it is – but rather that it’s a study in timeliness, a snapshot that captures the sport’s zeitgeist. The dream teams were Kanye; this one is Drake.
As such, the current men’s team is constructed like a paint-by-numbers book on how to play basketball in 2016. There is nary a 7-footer on the roster, save for Kevin Durant who, like most men, adds a few inches when he’s talking to women –and only two classically mammoth post-dwellers: Deandre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins, a temperamental combination of a mobile home and a Ferrari. On the flip side, Kyrie Irving and once-chubby Kyle Lowry are the only players who could comfortably ride on a commercial airplane. Heavily influenced by the Golden State Warriors’ 73-win romp and vaunted Death Lineup, this is a truly position-less team. Eight of the roster’s 12 players are listed between 6’7 and 6’9, all of whom can either credibly defend four positions on defense or create their own shot on offense, and most of whom can do both. As a result, this team is the truest avatar of modern basketball: an amorphous, switching defense paired with an offense predicated on three-point shooting and targeting whatever lead-footed former Eastern Bloc schlemiel is left marooned on the perimeter. Due to a confluence of injuries and absentees this is a team that’s poised to face a size deficit, but one designed so that it ultimately doesn’t matter.
Too, the national team has revealed the NBA culture’s off-court patterns. In the past, Team USA has been a petri dish for friendships among the players and their resulting super-teams – Kevin Durant’s recent move to the Warriors was set in motion during the 2010 FIBA World Championship. The current team, though, may signal the death of super-teams, or at least our conception of them. In just two exhibition games on Team USA, Klay Thompson, Durant, and Draymond Green demonstrated a shocking amount of synergy and have provided a preview for how truly terrifying the Warriors will be next season, watching them throughout the Olympics you can’t deny that chemistry. Granted, great basketball players will continue to be friends and want to play with each other, but the Warriors have redefined what it means for a team to truly be, well, super, and have set an unmatchable standard. On paper, it may seem nice to have Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony and Joakim Noah, but against the Warriors, you’re bringing piss to a shit fight. Team USA has shown us not only how basketball will be played, but also who will rule it.
And on the merch front, these Olympics are serving as yet another battleground for the Great Sneaker War of 2016, with Nike not-inconspicuously obscuring the kicks of Anta’s Klay Thompson and of Adidas-ians Harrison Barnes and Kyle Lowry in the team photo. Thankfully Steph Curry didn’t come along to debut an Olympic version of his shoes.
Most of all, this year’s Olympic team is evidence that basketball’s most recent evolution is finally complete, that those projected three-point-shooting, position-less line-ups of the future are the present and that “light-years” of strategic advantages have shrunk to more earthly spans. The game has changed, perhaps permanently so. Now, in a swoosh-ful coronation, we are all witnesses.