The news came down on Thursday, in what many in Team USA Basketball considered a shocking announcement. And it will no doubt affect how the team will be constructed for the FIBA World Cup moving forward.
Oklahoma City Thunder forward and reigning NBA MVP Kevin Durant, the unquestioned leader of a talented American squad, unexpectedly withdrew from consideration for Team USA, citing “physical and mental fatigue.” Up to this point, Durant was likely going to serve as the centerpiece of the Americans’ potent offensive game, as the only sure lock to make the team.
It should be noted that Durant’s ultimate decision came just less than a week after the horrific injury to American teammate Paul George in the 4th quarter of a Team USA scrimmage. His withdrawal also follows those of fellow American All-Stars like LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trail Blazers, Kevin Love (soon-to-be) of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Kawhi Leonard of the World Champion San Antonio Spurs. The four-time NBA scoring champion explained his reasoning in a statement on August 7:
This was an extremely difficult decision as I take great pride in representing our country. I know that I owe it to my USA Basketball teammates to be totally invested in the experience. After going through training camp with USAB, I realized I could not fulfill my responsibilities to the team from both a time and energy standpoint … I need to take a step back and take some time away, both mentally and physically in order to prepare for the upcoming NBA season. I will be rooting for USAB and look forward to future opportunities with them.
Since the news broke, there have been arguments that Durant shouldn’t have backed out on his fellow Americans, especially this late in the selection process. After all, his decision comes just three weeks before the start of the FIBA World Cup, handcuffing a squad still scrambling to field a cohesive unit to go against the likes of Spain and Argentina. Others, still, have gone so far as to question his patriotism, in the wake of what some view as quitting.
While the loss of Durant for Team USA, just three weeks before tip-off of the inaugural basketball tournament, is a significant blow for the squad, it’s hardly crippling. After all, the team is still supremely talented even without the likes of Durant. Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, for example, has looked stellar coming off ACL and meniscus injuries over the last two seasons, with coach Mike Krzyzewski calling him “elite”. This was a former NBA MVP in his own right.
Reports have also claimed Team USA will likely employ a smaller, faster backcourt that is primed to score without Durant in the lineup. This includes talented slashers like Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, and Utah Jazz guard Gordon Hayward.
Additionally, without Durant at the forward spot, this gives other talented players on the roster bubble a much larger chance of securing a spot on the team. For example, Sacramento Kings power forward DeMarcus Cousins has long been considered to have one foot out the door, with a volatile attitude to go along with a strong inside game. If all goes well over the next two weeks, he may have an easier time finding himself in Spain come August 23rd, as a valuable member of the Team USA frontcourt.
As for assertions that Durant looks like an unpatriotic quitter, granted – the decision came as a surprise to much of the American public. However, one must put things into perspective.
Durant had just finished an MVP campaign in 2013-2014 that saw him and his Thunder reach the Western Conference Finals for the fourth straight season. Tack on top of that an MVP performance in the 2010 World Championships and a Gold Medal run with Team USA in the London Olympics two years ago, and it’s hard to argue that the 7-year NBA veteran – who turns 26 in September – doesn’t deserve a bit of a break.
And, again, it’s hard to dismiss arguments that George’s gruesome injury had something to do with Durant’s ultimate decision. Furthermore, considering his extensive resume with Team USA Basketball – and the allusion that he will return to the national team for the next Olympiad – any argument accusing Durant of being unpatriotic simply doesn’t hold water.
In any case, Durant has made a decision – albeit at the expense of Team USA Basketball – that will likely be for the good of the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and most importantly, himself. As for the team? I’m sure they will be fine come tipoff later this month, with the talent they continue to cultivate stateside.