Every four years when Team USA men’s basketball claims the gold medal at the Olympics, a few players come away with an extraordinary narrative bump as they filter back into the NBA. Thanks to a strong performance, a drama-free month or endorsements from the famous coach and high-profile teammates, the player re-enters the NBA with a stronger case for awards, top-tier membership and respect.
This didn’t happen in 2004, of course, because Team USA actually needs to complete the task and win gold for anyone to get a bump. If the Americans fall short, everyone will be tainted with the trace of failure.
But presuming that Team USA runs the table, who is most likely to get that Olympics bump when the league is back in late October? Here’s our best estimate, from low to high likelihood of getting the gold medal boost.
12. Kevin Durant
Durant’s presence on Team USA is frankly bizarre after what happened in July. (Imagine LeBron donning the red, white and blue a month after abandoning Cleveland in 2010.) Nothing positive that happens in this tournament will affect the immense spotlight on KD and the Warriors next season. Everyone will be watching anyway, and most everyone has made up their minds about KD’s decision already.
It will be funny, though, to see the entire state of Oklahoma root for Lithuania over Team USA if they meet in the knockout rounds.
11. Kyle Lowry
Lowry isn’t going to be a high-profile player for Team USA unless something goes horribly wrong with Kyrie Irving, and as an older member of the team, he has little to prove. This will be Lowry’s first and likely last Olympic experience. Like No. 9 on this list, Lowry is damn funny and could earn some wider recognition for his comedic exploits. But surrounded by all this personality, he’s unlikely to draw much attention. Hey, this is the way to do it for veterans: get a gold medal and fly under the radar.
10. Harrison Barnes
Barnes is one of the four players on Team USA with an NBA title and its youngest member. He’s also the only player on the roster who was ditched on the doorstep of a lesser NBA team so that his NBA team could add a better player WHO ALSO HAPPENS TO BE ON THIS AMERICAN TEAM.
Seriously, has anything ever had higher potential awkwardness than Harrison Barnes being on Team USA with two former teammates in Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, plus Durant, the man that just replaced him in Golden State A MONTH AGO? This is like getting dumped by your girlfriend in March and being invited to her wedding in April. Poor Harrison Barnes.
The bright side is that Barnes seems like one of the nicest, most well-adjusted and emotionally stable players in the entire league. He’s Iowa Nice to the core. If anyone can handle the weirdness of the situation, it’s Harry Barnes.
If somehow Durant stinks it up in Rio and Barnes rescues Team USA in a knock-out game, he shoots to the top of this list. The odds of any of that happening are slimmer than Kevin Durant. The more likely scenario is that Barnes rarely plays outside of garbage time, and that when he retires in 12 years, people are shocked to recall he won an Olympic gold medal.
9. Draymond Green
Green would be lower if not for his becoming the Clown Prince of Team USA on Snapchat. Green has nothing to gain here: he’s not a highlight reel player, he’s become widely viewed as a villain and he already embarrassed the team by broadcasting his junk on the internet. (This could end up being the lasting memory of men’s basketball in Rio. Congratulations, Draymond.)
That said, his funny takedowns of teammates (and himself) remind us why we once collectively adored Green: dude is a loose cannon with jokes for days. Ask the Clippers. So, perhaps Green’s non-anatomic exploits on social media can repair his image some.
8. DeAndre Jordan
While it’s really cool to see Jordan develop in such a way that allows him to be a key member of an Olympic team, he’s still going to be fully DeAndre Jordan on this squad. All of those hopes and dreams of being a player that gets lots of touches and plays run for him? It’s a pipe dream with the Clippers and it’s a pipe dream with Team USA. The Mavericks told you so, man.
But at least he gets to play with point guards who aren’t mean to him ... unless he only gets on the court with Lowry, in which case ... yikes.
7. Jimmy Butler
Butler has a very strange season ahead of him with Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade arriving in Chicago. Learning how to co-exist with domineering playmakers this summer might actually prepare Butler well!
He’s also young enough in NBA terms to gain, like, some real benefit from playing with Carmelo Anthony, Lowry and Durant at this stage of his career. A couple of months under Coach K can’t hurt either. If this list were focused on actual benefit from the Olympic experience versus perceived benefit according to the NBA narrative machine, Butler would be higher. This is good for him.
6. Kyrie Irving
Kyrie is possibly the second-best player on the team behind Durant. He’s also the second youngest. He also just won a ring. He did that by helping his team come down from a 3-1 Finals deficit against a record-breaking opponent. A record-breaking opponent with three players on this very Team USA.
You can’t tell me Kyrie isn’t at least tempted to roast the hell out of the Warriors’ dudes twice a day. He’s too nice to say anything to Barnes, but Draymond and Klay DESERVE his jokes after the way they acted during (Dray) and after (Klay) Game 4. Someone on the team needs to document Kyrie’s digs. Is it too late to add Richard Jefferson’s Snapchat to the roster?
5. Klay Thompson
Something tells me that ultra-chill Klay Thompson has a friendly rivalry with Splash Sibling Steph Curry, at least inside his mind. I mean, he went at Steph in the 3-Point Shootout last February. Steph has never played in the Olympics and could be one of those American superstars who makes it through a career without ever winning a gold medal. (This is also Tim Duncan’s plight.)
If Team USA does this, that’s one more piece of hardware Klay would be able to lord over Steph in the invisible roasting sessions #KlayNation writes into their fan fiction. "Those two NBA MVPs are nice. But you can’t wear them out to dinner, huh?"
4. Paul George
George’s mere presence on the Olympic team gives him an enormous boost given what happened the last time he suited up for Team USA in 2014. Every game the Americans play will be a reminder that after shattering his leg in devastating fashion playing for his country, Paul George came right back and gave himself to American again. Not a single person would have credibly criticized PG-13 for sitting this one out and focusing on next season.
But he wants this so much that nothing but suiting up in red, white and blue and playing for gold matters. He’s already the hero of this team, win or lose. Every game is a reminder of that.
3. DeMar DeRozan
Had this been written three weeks ago, DeRozan would have been much lower. He signed a monumental contract after struggling in the playoffs. He’s not a featured player on the team. He can’t even gain any patriotic deference from fans of his club given that he plays for the team in Canada. There’s just not a lot there on the surface for DeRozan to gain.
Except ... he’s trying to give us some memories. He put an opponent on a poster with a 360 in exhibitions. and has been dunking everything in sight. He is Giving The People What They Want. DeRozan is developing an identity as a People’s Champ, an heir to Air Canada, and he’s reminding us that he was once considered among the best dunkers in the game.
The Raptors have gotten all serious the last couple of years because they are "good" and all that nonsense. No. We want dunks. Crazy, emphatic dunks. DeMar DeRozan is delivering. God bless him.
2. Carmelo Anthony
Other than Durant, Melo is the only player on the team with Olympic experience. And he has lots of Olympic experience. He’s become, in some ways, the quintessential Team USA player. He finds refuge in summers abroad, his voice rings loudly among fellow stars and he finds elusive team success. He’s also just flat-out built for the international style of play, with his wild face-up talent and mid-range game.
Durant is much more the featured tweener forward on this edition, but as he’s shown in exhibitions, Melo will still get his points. He’ll also get a third gold medal if Team USA wins, and that gives him a helluva legacy to lean back on six or seven years from now, should he never win an NBA title and given that he’ll never get that MVP. A third gold medal in Olympic basketball (and fourth overall, with the 2004 bronze) may not seem like an amazing achievement, but there isn’t anyone else who’s done it. That matters.
Add in the amazing leadership he’s shown on social issues and there’s a strong case for Melo to be No. 1 on this list of players who stand to benefit most from gold. But everyone who saw this headline and byline knew that No. 1 could be only ...
1. DeMarcus Cousins
Boogie has spent his entire NBA career with a disastrous franchise that never wins. He’s the only Team USA player who has never made the playoffs; hell, his team eclipsed the 30-win threshold for the first time in his career in 2015-16! (They won 33 games.) Boogie hasn’t had sustained team success since his single year at Kentucky ... and his 2014 FIBA World Cup run with Team USA, after which he made two straight All-Star teams and two straight All-NBA squads.
A good showing in Rio would boost him again. A wider audience gets to see a version of Boogie that isn’t pissed off because of team failure and bad coaching, but one who is dominant in the paint and emphatically cheering on equals as teammates. The basketball community has acknowledged Boogie Cousins as one of the top 15 players in the NBA through those All-NBA nods. Rio will strengthen that rep and perhaps push him higher in the conversation.
It also doesn’t hurt that the Kings should avoid early-season drama thanks to the arrival of Dave Joerger as coach. If Sacramento gets itself together in October, November and December, Boogie’s image could be completely remade by Olympic success. And given how damn entertaining Boogie can be, that’s good for everyone.
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