EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Kevin Durant, LeBron James lead Team USA Olympic squad for perhaps last ride

Jul 6, 2024, 7:22 PM

Gold medallists Kevin Durant #5 of the United States and LeBron James #6 of the United States celeb...

Gold medallists Kevin Durant #5 of the United States and LeBron James #6 of the United States celebrate on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Men's Basketball on Day 16 of the London 2012 Olympics Games at North Greenwich Arena on August 12, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — Twelve years ago, Team USA head coach Steve Kerr was a TNT broadcaster two seasons away from his first coaching experience.

Twelve years ago, Stephen Curry was coming off his third NBA season, one before his breakout began. Kawhi Leonard had just finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting. Anthony Davis was just selected No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft.

Twelve years ago, Tyrese Haliburton was 12 years old. Anthony Edwards was in the fourth grade. Joel Embiid had moved to the United States just two years prior and would soon commit to the University of Kansas.

And twelve years ago, Kevin Durant and LeBron James were teammates for the first time in London, doing so as undoubtedly the two best players in the world. They had just come off their first of three NBA Finals competing against each other, the true start to the best on-court rivalry the league has had since Bird and Magic.

Twelve years later, Durant and James get to be teammates again, presumably one last time for a 2024 Team USA squad that will serve as a celebration for what the two have contributed to the game of basketball.

“It’s awesome,” James said Saturday. “The fact that we are still at this stage of our career when we can still go out 12 years later and still be performing at a high level and represent Team USA, it’s a salute to our commitment to our craft, to us staying relatively healthy. … Our game has translated from 12 years ago to now and it’s always great to team up with one of the greatest to ever play this game in Kevin Durant. I’m looking forward to that and it will be another fun ride.”

Is this ride the last one? Even just one day into training camp, the possibility that it is hangs over the process.

Durant acknowledged he is cognizant that this could be one of his last experiences with James on the basketball court in general, not just as a teammate, before pausing a few seconds to absorb his thoughts.

“He’s just meant so much to the game of basketball, especially in my career, since I was in high school following him,” Durant said. “He’s almost 40 years old and still playing at an elite level which is inspiring to me as well. Every chance I get to be around ‘Bron, even if it’s just having a quick bite to eat or just seeing him randomly for a couple of minutes, his energy is contagious. So to spend real time with him —  he’s experienced so much in this league. I know the conversations that we’re all gonna have are gonna be incredible so I’m looking forward to it.”

James returning after missing the last two Olympics and at a time when international basketball has never been in a better state will be a fitting last hurrah if that’s indeed what this is. If anyone over the last couple of decades should represent the final boss of basketball in the top international tournament at at time like this, it’s Durant and James.

Lots is made of how the rest of the world has “caught up,” and rightfully so. The phrase, however, is too loosely used and a discredit to what a fully operational Team USA juggernaut would do. This roster serves that purpose.

The inclusion of that pair and Curry is enough as it is. That’s seven of the eight MVP winners from 2009-16. But the supporting cast is absurd and it feels ridiculous to even label it that. Embiid just won his own MVP last year. Then you add on previous First Team All-NBA members from this current decade like Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, Davis and Leonard.

That’s two-thirds of the roster covered before even getting to Bam Adebayo, Tyrese Haliburton, Jrue Holiday and Edwards. Any of those four would be the best player by far for half the field.

James is arguably the greatest player the NBA has seen. Durant is not far behind on the all-time pecking order and for many is the top scorer in the league’s history. Durant is 3-for-3 on golds while James’ bronze in 2004 inspired the assembly of the legendary redeem team that led to him picking up his two golds. Durant should already be certified as the best men’s Team USA competitor ever and this upcoming Olympics will erase any doubt of that if there is any in the first place.

You can imagine what it is like for some of the younger crew like Haliburton.

“I’m not gonna lie, it’s pretty dope,” he said. “When I was a kid, watching those guys play in the Finals every year. … The more time I’m around them, the more I’ll hear stories and stuff — that’ll be really cool because those are the things I probably wondered about when I was 15, 16. Just to be around those guys, it’s a surreal experience. Getting the outlet today and looking ahead and seeing Book, LeBron, Joel, Ant — it’s like, what?”

Having those two in place with the Olympic experience they have is quite the luxury for Kerr. He noted how the first couple of days are focused on rule changes and such but that’s an education James and Durant do not require.

“These guys have been through it, so they can help,” Kerr said. “And there’s nothing better than internal leadership when you are a coach. When you have players who are guiding other players, it makes the job so much easier. … The experience that those guys have is crucial because the challenge is we’re playing their game. We can’t expect to play our game because we have to adapt to the FIBA game. That’s not an easy challenge.”

Curry shouldn’t go unmentioned in this, either. He’s 36 years old and his first Olympics will serve as him checking the last box left on his career to-do sheet that is right in range of James and Durant as well.

Much discourse was had over the last year regarding how Curry, Durant and James have been the faces of the league for so long, with a transition of eras underway as their careers reach the twilight years.

Durant got a feel for that in practice on Saturday.

“I feel like the guys that’ve been in the league for 10-12 plus years that have experienced things and have built up a resume for themselves that is hard to match but then you see the younger players like Ant, JT. … You see guys that are building up who they are in this league and you know they gonna reach that pinnacle too and have they own mountain somewhere where they just sitting up there alone as well,” Durant said.

In a way, these Olympic games will be poetic for that transition. Durant and James are no longer in the conversation for the man at the top of the mountain. The discussions actually revolve around international talents like Serbia’s Nikola Jokic, Slovenia’s Luka Doncic (who did not qualify) and Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The landscape of the game is changing. But together, Durant and James can dole out a final humble reminder for who once used to run this and how big those shoes really are to fill.

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