Earlier this week, USA Basketball concluded a four-day “mini-camp” in Las Vegas. The squad is preparing for next year’s first-ever FIBA World Cup in Spain. Noticeably absent from the 28-man roster that participated in Vegas is Miami Heat forward LeBron James. Although not formally invited or even expected to attend the camp, Yahoo! Sports Marc J. Spears reported that James’ career representing his country is likely over. Should James, who has worked so tirelessly to sit upon the NBA throne, end his affiliation with USA Basketball?
Risk Versus Rings
James has a well-established conditioning program that keeps him in phenomenal shape. During a career that has seen more than its share of physical contact, LeBron’s fortunate avoidance of injury is a testament to the program. He will definitely not be participating in the 2014 FIBA World Cup. However, ESPN’s Marc Stein reported that USA Basketball Executive Director Jerry Colangelo “remains hopeful” James could suit up in the red-white-and-blue for the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. LeBron would be 31 if he eventually chose to take his talents to Rio de Janeiro. Not old by any means but maybe not a spring chicken in basketball years. And while age might not be a factor, as the Heat continues to extend their runs into the NBA postseason, wear and tear could be.
Expert opinions seem to vary regarding continued participation in Olympic play and its effect on players’ health. While rest is vital, there isn’t any conclusive evidence showing that a player risks injury as a result of the Olympics. In fact, Kobe Bryant, a two-time participant and no stranger to long playoff runs, actually supported players’ involvement. His argument is that NBA athletes will be playing anyway as part of their offseason conditioning programs and the risk might be greater. Added to his point is that Olympic athletes will be better coached and have access to professional trainers that could mitigate potential risks.
As superior a physical specimen as James is, it would seem that adding one more gold medal in 2016 wouldn’t affect his pursuit of additional NBA championships.
The Legacy Continues
Since his free agency departure in 2010, James has had to rebuild the public support that is deservedly his. Two NBA rings and two more MVP trophies have helped erase the regrettable outcry that stemmed from “The Decision.” A third gold medal (as well as the 2004 bronze) provides the finishing touch. Proving himself yet again on the world stage is not only patriotic but a savvy move by James to continue building public support as his career wanes.
Even within the context of the NBA fraternity, James could continue to build respect from his peers. Like Bryant in the 2012 Summer Games, James would serve as the elder statesman in Brazil, only more popular and congenial. As an established veteran, the Games are an opportunity for James to mentor other players (and potential Heat free agent acquisitions) in limited game action. His presence, demeanor and incredible work ethic would both inspire younger players and be a frequent topic in the media.
The Rio Olympics would boost public perception, from fans and players alike, as he strengthens his case for the mantle of the Greatest Of All Time.
Passing the (Olympic) Torch
Lastly, LeBron’s choice could jeopardize the USA’s gold medal chances as the current team seems to lack the star power to win it all. The recent mini-camp roster included a few NBA All-Stars but was mostly comprised of second or third tier players. Without James, the best player at Rio would be Kevin Durant, “the face of USA Basketball going forward” as labeled by Colangelo. Another “two or four” members with previous Olympic experience improve the odds but bringing back the gold is far from assured.
James was part of the 2004 USA team that under-performed at the Athens Olympics. It was that disappointing bronze-medal result that led to a revamped approach to international play and subsequent gold medals in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
The so-called Redeem Team’s success may be lulling USA Basketball organizers with a false sense of confidence and fielding a team with Durant and other B-List players smacks of 2004 all over again. Until the new generation of NBA players reach their peak, the priority for Colangelo and Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski is clear. The key step to a third consecutive gold medal is finding a way to bring back LeBron and enticing him to join the squad in Rio.
By Tallahassee Heat Fan