In the fourth quarter of the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal Game, the Redeem Team was in danger of finding very little redemption. The 11 NBA All-Stars–plus Tayshaun Prince–sent to Beijing on a mission to reassert the United State’s position atop the global basketball food chain had lost its 14-point lead.
With 8:13 to play, Spain’s Rudy Fernandez drilled a three-pointer to make it a two-point game, 91-89.
This was not good. The Americans had yet to be tested at the tournament, and it was uncertain how they would respond to a threat. The gold medal was in serious danger of going to a country with a naptime.
Before any panic could truly set in, though, Kobe Bryant put the Spaniards to sleep.
It started on the Americans’ next trip down the floor. Kobe took a pass on the right wing, put the ball on the deck and stuck a floater in traffic. What followed was one of Bryant’s most brilliant performances. He scored or assisted on 18 of the U.S.’s 27 fourth quarter points, and the Americans won, 118-107.
If there was a takeaway from that gold-medal game it was that even a team of All-Stars (plus Tayshaun Prince) needs a star.
Four years later in London, it was LeBron James. With the Americans leading Spain by just six with 3:05 to play in the gold medal game, LeBron scored on back-to-back trips to make it a three-possession game. Spain never threatened again and the Americans won another gold.
Which brings us to 2016. Who should the Americans build around for Rio? When the Spaniards wake from their siesta, in whose hands should the ball be?
Just as James took over for Kobe four years ago, it’s time for Kevin Durant to emerge as the Americans’ go-to guy.
You may be skeptical. Why pass over the best player since MJ (ever?) when he will be just 31 years old in 2016? Well, first of all, those 31 years come with an asterisk. When you consider that James has been an NBA starter since he was 19 and then factor in the 158 (and counting) playoff games, James, by that point, will have essentially put 15 NBA seasons on his cramp-prone legs. Durant, on the other hand, has only been in the league since 2007 and his 73 playoff games should put him around 10 full seasons by 2016.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves predicting the physical condition of those with superhuman physical gifts. For argument’s sake, let’s assume both players will still be in prime condition. Even then, there’s reason to build around the NBA’s No. 2 player for the upcoming Olympics.
Durant has been the world’s top scorer for the past five years, and he’s only been getting better at it (his 32.0 points per game in 2013-14 was a career high).
Scoring is the name of the game at the Olympics. Despite a 40-minute regulation, the past two gold-medal games have totaled 225 and 207 points.
This is in part because of FIBA’s shorter three-point line. After the 2008 Olympics, the line moved back from 20 feet, 6.1 inches to 22 feet, 1.7 inches, but that’s still a foot and 7.3 inches shorter than in the NBA.
Strong shooters become even more dangerous on an international stage, and this plays right into the hands of Durant, who calls on his jumper far more often than does James. (In 2013-14, Durant took 29.1 percent of his shots from deep, compared to James’ mark of 22.6 percent.)
Let’s also not forget that Durant has already proven himself capable of leading the red, white and blue. In 2010, the U.S. was looking for redemption in another international competition. After winning the 1994 FIBA World Championships, the U.S. came up well short in 1998 (third place), 2002 (sixth place), and 2006 (third place). Even so, the U.S. didn’t bring out the big guns for the 2010 competition in Turkey. Dwyane Wade stayed home. CP3 stayed home. Carmelo stayed home. Kobe stayed home. LeBron stayed home. Even Tayshaun Prince couldn’t be bothered.
The U.S. squad bound for Istanbul was appropriately nicknamed The B Team. But what followed could only be described as The Fall of Constantinople 2.0.
On the U.S.’s undefeated march to the title, Durant averaged 22.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. In the U.S.’s blowout win over Turkey in the championship, Durant scored a game-high 28 points and was named the MVP of the tournament. The 30 points he scored in the gold-medal game in London two years later only add more evidence that Durant can be Mr. Reliable for the Americans.
The move to build around Durant also makes strategic sense. It’s said that the key to beating the U.S. is to pound the interior where the Americans are–relatively speaking–weaker. But the U.S.’s perimeter defense is far from perfect.
In the 2010 championship game, Turkey’s Hedo Turkoglu went four-for-four from three, finishing with a team-high 16 points. In the 2012 gold-medal game, Spain’s Juan Carlos Navarro scored 21 points, the 6-4 guard also hitting four three-pointers.
The Americans are sure to encounter talented wings (dare I say Andrew Wiggins?) again in 2016. With Durant shouldering the offensive burden, LeBron could devote even more energy into being a hound on the defensive end.
With LeBron harassing the opponent’s top wing and Durant exploiting his defender (and the shorter three-point line), the Americans should be good for another gold in 2016.
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