For his part of Grantland’s over/underrated feature, Brett Koremenos chose to highight the residual effects of Team USA Basketball.
For the past two Olympics, Team USA Basketball has provided an opportunity for the league’s elite to play in the rare company of players who share their lofty status. In 2008, it was Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant providing a much younger core of LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Deron Williams with lessons and examples of how star players should prepare and think about the game. Most walked away from those summer games with a newfound sense of purpose and, in some cases, those intangible lessons manifested themselves in on-court results.
All warm and fuzzy, that USA Basketball. What with passing all of that sage advice on from one generation to the next. Let’s see some examples, shall we?
With much less fanfare, we are seeing the same effect happen to a new crop of players after their gold-medal win in London, but rather than taking sage-like wisdom from players like Kidd or Bryant, it’s been the influence of James that has been clear. Inspired by their peer’s newfound championship success, Anthony, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook have all started this season with a sincere commitment to becoming better playmakers. Westbrook is averaging a career best in assists per game, and in the Knicks’ new spread system, Anthony is, at times, looking like Dirk Nowitzki with his quick passes out of double teams to open shooters.
Some cracks in the foundation, there, but we’ll hold off until after this next bit…
Durant, however, has been the best example of how the involvement in USA Basketball produces positive change. Always a brilliant scorer, the lanky forward’s career high in PER (28.32) has been a result of a spike in his assist rate. This improvement as a facilitator is the primary reason Oklahoma City is still a strong favorite to win a title despite the loss of James Harden.
Westbrook is averaging 2 more assists per game (while his turnovers remain around 3.5 per) but he is shooting 40% from the field, which if it holds, would be his lowest FG% since his rookie year. One could argue Durant’s spike in assists and Westbrook’s drop in shooting percentage is due to compensation. Compensation, on Durant’s part, for the loss of Harden’s own playmaking; for Westbrook, the 3 extra shots a game he is taking (and missing) that would normally have gone to Harden – but, hey, for narrative’s sake, we’ll continue to the real kicker.
The effect doesn’t just stop there, as Anthony and fellow USA Basketball teammate Kevin Love are showing noticeable improvement on the defensive end of the floor. Anthony’s improvement from “uninterested” to “selectively engaged” hasn’t been nearly as dramatic as Love’s newfound activeness, but it’s a key reason for the Knicks’ surprisingly good start.
For Love, the Olympics this summer might have been a wake-up call. Not often is a player of Love’s offensive ability ever in real danger of losing minutes because of defensive deficiencies, but with Team USA, he was faced with the harsh reality that a lack of defensive effort simply meant another All-Star caliber player would be summoned from the bench to replace him. It’s those types of humbling moments that the Team USA experience has brought, and all they’ve done is make the NBA and its players better.
Woah, boy. Nevermind Carmelo. How could anyone in their right mind say this after watching Love’s performance in Orlando: