This summer had an added benefit for basketball fans with the treat of watching Team USA trouncing the rest of the world on their way to yet another Olympic gold medal. We usually see these superstars only play together in the glorified exhibition game known as the All-Star Game, where they only try somewhat hard in the final quarter when there still really isn't much at stake anyway. But in international tournaments, we see these stars playing together on one team for one common goal.
Apart from some blowout games in the tournament that didn't test them too much, there were a couple of tight games that were very competitive until the last moments of the fourth quarter. It was in those times where LeBron James shined brightest. He had plenty of help from his friends, notably the scoring champ Kevin Durant, but the MVP found little resistance from anyone in his way to grabbing his second gold medal.
Now that he's back home on U.S. soil, we gathered all the Hot Hot Hoops writers to look back on his performance these past couple of weeks in London, as well as write about how he will ultimately be viewed among the other greats who wore the Team USA jersey. We also look ahead to the next big test for LeBron James...
Defending the crown.
Is this the last time we will see LeBron James in a USA uniform? If so, where does he rank in USA basketball history?
Mnelik Belilgne: Not likely. LeBron is 27 years old, just entering his prime and will be 31 in the summer of 2016. Similar to Kobe Bryant, LeBron takes enormous care of his body and conditioning and it's nearly impossible to think a team couldn't in some shape or form use his talents. Whether he'll be the team captain playing an integral role or just be there for veteran leadership will likely depend on his progression as a basketball player and future health.
It's hard to say where Lebron ranks individually but he certainly is near the top. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are the only current NBA players to represent their country in 3 Olympics and along with Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Kobe Bryant, have 2 gold medals. Perhaps the 2016 Olympics will serve as motivation for Lebron to attempt to pass Kobe and his peers to be one of the most accomplished players in USA basketball history. That is of course assuming none of them return as well.
Diego Quezada: Barring injury, LeBron James will probably play. He'll be 31 years old in 2016, when he'll still have his athleticism in all likelihood. The fact that he could become Team USA's first four-time basketball Olympian would probably appeal to him as he continues his ascent in basketball lore (although Carmelo Anthony would also achieve that feat if he makes the team). If he doesn't participate in Rio de Janeiro, he will be known as the best player on the 2012 gold medal team. Dwyane Wade was the leading scorer on the 2008 team, and he and Kobe Bryant made clutch baskets in the final game then. But this year, LeBron James was the one continuously making plays with the game close, whether it was against Lithuania or Spain.
Surya Fernandez: If Kobe can still play in the Olympics and knowing how LeBron has stayed healthy throughout his career I wouldn't doubt for a second he doesn't have at least one more gold medal run in him. Playing in four Olympics and getting another gold medal would make a very convincing argument to place him at the top of the list of all-time USA basketball legends.
David Dwork: I think that if it's up to LeBron, we'll see him in Rio in 2016. Hopefully the US continues sending professionals to represent us at the Olympics, especially considering other countries have no problem sending the pros. It's hard for me to rank LeBron among all the amazing players to put on the USA jersey. There have been so many epic performances that you don't want to put one above another. I also think that people don't remember individual player performances as much as they do the accomplishments of teams.
Who was the Team USA's MVP?
Diego: Although Kevin Durant led the team in scoring, James was undoubtedly the MVP of this team. He worked exceptionally well with Carmelo Anthony and Durant, setting them up with bullet passes for wide-open 3s. In the semifinal game against Argentina, James had seven assists, five of which were assists to 3-pointers. He took over offensively when he needed to -- like making the dunk and 3 against Spain or the crucial baskets against Lithuania -- but also took on the challenge of continually guarding power forwards and centers throughout the Olympics. He defended Pau Gasol in the gold-medal game, something he only did as a member of the Heat one time because Chris Bosh was out.
Mnelik: CO-MVP = Durant/LeBron/CP3
By the numbers it's Durant. He lead the team in minutes and points, was 2nd in rebounds and steals and oh by the way broke the USA record for most points accumulated with 156.
From a leadership perspective, it's LeBron James. He was USA's vocal leader, best defender and facilitator, leading the team in assists.
Intangibly, it's Chris Paul. Nobody on USA flew under the radar more while continuously making game changing plays on both ends of the floor while also leading the team in steals
Look at the gold medal game for instance; With LeBron in foul trouble and forced to be sidelined, you could see the panic and fright from the coaching staff. Meanwhile Chris Paul saved USA in that 4th quarter, taking over the game on both ends of the floor and his teammates gave him the game ball after the victory. Conversely, when you check the box score, you see Durant with a game high 30 points and 9 rebounds. You can't go wrong with either of them.
Surya: It wasn't just how he played but it was the continuation of his elevated level that he played for the Heat and how he took a noticeably bigger leadership role. The pinpoint passes to his teammates may have made the highlight reels but just as important was how he communicated with them on defense and the way he was able to help Team USA with their height deficit and guard multiple positions.
This is a team with serious talent despite missing some superstars that could have all helped out in their own way. I thought Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony had their big moments as well. But no one was more vital to the cause than LeBron. Take him out of the roster and you realize what an impact he had on the team and how irreplaceable he was.
Would the USA have been stronger with a bigger frontline or did they convincingly prove they can win with "small-ball"? Would they have won gold either way?
Mnelik: USA could have certainly used Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh or even Blake Griffin but winning is the only thing that matters. Spain was as big as any team in the world and USA was able to prevail playing athletic, perimeter based small ball. As LeBron James put it- "We know that this team is one of the greatest teams ever assembled".
David: Team USA was perfectly fine the way it was. It's hard to imagine them playing a lot better then they did, and for us Heat fans it's not that difficult to buy into a team winning by playing ‘small ball'. It's also hard to imagine them not winning gold, regardless of whether they went with more big guys on the roster.
Diego: If Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh were healthy, they definitely would've made the team and proved to be valuable assets. Unfortunately, Team USA didn't have any two-way players at PF/C. Tyson Chandler doesn't have an offensive game, and as a result was just a token starter in the Olympics. Although Kevin Love is a great rebounder and a skilled offensive player, he is a bad defender. Seeing him attempt to guard Pau Gasol in the third quarter of the gold-medal game highlights that he still should develop his defense. And when Chandler and Love were out, opposing big men like Luis Scola easily posted-up Durant or Anthony.
Team USA still won the gold medal, though. The 3-point line is not as far away in FIBA, and having so many shooters helped Team USA become a lethal offensive team. Team USA won the gold similar to how the Miami Heat won the championship, with athleticism and versatility, not brute force down low. But as FIBA continues to move closer to the NBA (we've already seen the paint area move from a trapezoid, the shot-clock go to 24, the 3-point line continue to move farther away from the basket, etc) it may be more impactful if so many big men can't play in the Olympics.
Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant mentioned that playing on USA raises your skill set and overall game, stating that their best seasons came after the 2008 Olympic games. Do you think the 2012 Olympics will have that effect on LeBron & do you expect him to elevate his game next season?
Diego: We should see LeBron play similar to the way he played in the Olympics this NBA season: mainly distribute the ball and take over when it's necessary. Durant and James worked so well together, which is surprising since they're not teammates. On the crucial dunk James made in the fourth quarter of the gold-medal game, the lane opened up for LeBron to drive because Durant came to James at the 3-point line, pretending to get a hand-off and taking his man with him. Erik Spoelstra should incorporate some of the LeBron/Durant plays into the Heat offense with Wade and LeBron. But LeBron will have so many 3-point shooters to feed on the Heat, exactly like what happened on Team USA. Anthony and Durant mainly took catch-and-shoot 3s off of LeBron passes, which is exactly what Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis can do.
David: Just the thought of LeBron having a better year next season then he did last season is pretty unbelievable. Kobe Bryant was the NBA's MVP the season before the 2008 Olympics, and he might be saying that he had a better year the season after the Olympics, but his stats say otherwise. He had less points, rebounds, assists and every other main stat category. I still wouldn't be totally shocked if LeBron came back next year and topped last season because not only is he in the prime of his career and still improving, but he also has a ton of talent around him.
Mnelik: I do. The more you watch LeBron James play the more of a privilege and honor you start to feel. It's just so rare for someone as physically dominant and gifted as him to be so unselfish and so committed to making his teammates better. Surrounded by the most talent in his career, LeBron flourished in his role as facilitator on USA and one can only imagine how much more confident he'll be next season as a player, a teammate and a champion.
After getting the monkey off of his back and making history by winning the NBA finals, Finals MVP, regular season MVP and now gold medal, do you worry about LeBron's motivation and drive going forward?
David: I think its hard not to think about that because when you finish a year on such a high, it's hard to imagine things getting any better. I'm anxious to see what ends up happening though. This Heat team wants to leave a legacy, to be known as one of the best teams ever, so the way they come back and play this season will show if they can back up those words.
Mnelik: I don't. He's simply too good to fall behind his expectations. So much is and was expected of him from the moment he entered the NBA in 2003 and LeBron is fully aware of it. Simply put, Lebron James is playing to prove he's one of the greatest basketball players that ever lived. His journey has just begun.
Diego: I'm not worried about LeBron's motivation at all. Although a lot of people said he redeemed himself after winning the title, he knows that if he just goes two years without winning a title (when Wade's prime may be over) the media scrutiny will come back. LeBron wants to be known as one of the greatest ever, and he needs to win a few more to be considered in that category. I don't imagine LeBron's motivation will be an issue as long as he plays.
Surya: You want me to question his motivation since the NBA Finals loss last year? If anything, he might be even more motivated now that he's got his first taste of being an NBA Champion. Should the core stay healthy throughout the playoffs, they will still need big time games from LeBron. There is always motivation to build on your legacy.