Five months after Paul George’s gruesome leg fracture spiked the hand-wringing and hysteria over Team USA participation to new heights, a glimpse at most of teammates on that national squad suggests it might not have been so risky after all.
Player after player from gold-medal winning group in the 2014 FIBA World Cup is having the best season of his NBA career. Several have emerged as early candidates for 2014-15 Most Valuable Player consideration, and a number of them will be able to stage an informal reunion in New York in February at the 2015 NBA All-Star Game.
OK, the regular season is barely one-third over, so some of the overuse and burnout issues cited by critics of Team USA (and other national team involvement) might be lying in wait. But get a load of the benefits flowing so far to some key participants – and the teams for whom they work:
- Houston’s James Harden is the NBA’s leading scorer with a career-high 27.2 points per game.
- Stephen Curry’s 26.2 PER is his best, and the Golden State Warriors sit atop the league’s standings at 24-5.
- Klay Thompson, Curry’s teammate, has been averaging 21.3 points and hitting 43.1 percent of his 3FGAs.
- Denver’s Kenneth Faried posted 26 points and 25 rebounds against Minnesota Friday, after going for 20 and 14 against Brooklyn earlier in the week.
- DeMarcus Cousins, around a 10-game bout with viral meningitis, put up some of the best number of his career, including 24.7 ppg, 12.3 rpg, a 28.6 PER and 112/102 offensive and defensive ratings.
- Rudy Gay, Cousin’s teammate, has hit the reset button on his career with a personal-best 19.9 PER, a 54.8 true shooting percentage and a new three-year, $40 million contract extension.
And then there’s Anthony Davis, the man-ster from New Orleans, who unofficially has become known as The Player Most GMs Would Choose to Start a New Team. Davis is averaging 24.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 1.7 steals. He notched his fourth game of at least 20 points, 10 boards and five blocks Saturday in Chicago, and has 17 double-doubles, a 32.5 PER and a 61.6 true shooting percentage.
Pelicans head coach Monty Williams was an assistant on Mike Krzyzewski’s summer staff, so he was able to monitor Davis’ workload and preparation first-hand. His one scary moment? When Davis dived for a loose ball and went over the first row at United Center in Team USA’s tune-up vs. Brazil in August. Said Williams: “That’s when I wanted to talk to him, like, ‘Dude, tone it down a bit. We’ve got a season.’ ”
Otherwise, Williams firmly is in the camp of those who favor participation over trepidation.
“When Paul George went down, that argument kind of exacerbated it, I guess,” Williams said. “When one guy breaks his leg – and it was a bad injury – I think people wanted to look at all the negative aspects of playing in the summer. But I don’t see any.
“You can get hurt playing anywhere. Guys are going to play all summer long. If you check around the league, they play in L.A. at the Clippers’ practice site. They play in Houston, they play in Chicago. So why not play and practice with the best? And get coaching and travel and see the world and play for your country? Because like I say, guys are going to play regardless.”
Kevin Durant withdrew from Team USA not long after George’s injury. Kevin Love also declined as trade rumors swirled, his status too uncertain to mix in a possible injury, with the rumors themselves a possible distraction. San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have come back hurt or tired from their national team commitments, and Dallas owner Mark Cuban mostly has criticized the process for how much financial risk NBA teams bear for the IOC’s benefits.
But Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau, also on the Team USA staff this summer, was eager to have Derrick Rose play – or put himself at risk, depending on your view – to shake off rust from a layoff of nearly two seasons. He is convinced participation in the program helped Rose in 2010 and didn’t worry about his franchise guy’s health, even though Rose had played just 10 games for Thibodeau from April 2012 through this summer.
“I thought, his MVP year, that summer helped him a lot,” Thibodeau said Saturday. “He came into camp in great shape. He hit the ground running. And it was a terrific year for him.
“There’s a great history with USA Basketball, when you look back at Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird, all of those guys. I think it’s important. It’s good for the game and it’s good for the players.”
It has been good for most of them this year, so far.