In the wake of the Paul George injury and the aborted scrimmage two weeks ago, Team USA's preparations for the FIBA World Cup have largely flown under the radar. However, on Saturday night, the United Center was filled with fans as the good guys faced Brazil in an exhibition game, a tune-up for the real competition. Team USA won handily 95-78, but the real victory is that the American side has begun to figure itself out. Oh, and Derrick Rose is bringing it back harder than Justin Timberlake.
Before anything else, keep in mind that Team USA is no longer a Dream Team of superstars in their primes. The oldest players are technically Kyle Korver and Rudy Gay at 33 and 27, but the main rotation is strictly 25 and under. After George's unfortunate exit, there are only three players left who are clear leaders on contending teams: Stephen Curry, our very own James Harden, and Rose. Damian Lillard and DeMar DeRozan might belong among them, depending on your tastes.
Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, and DeMarcus Cousins are no doubt franchise players as well, but have no playoff experience. In contrast, the London Olympics version of Team USA featured LeBron, Durant, Melo, Paul, and Kobe. The sole "role player" on that team was Tyson Chandler, who was just a year removed from anchoring a championship defense in Dallas.
Speaking of defense, Harden has supposedly improved his defense while practicing with the national team. He started in the small forward position against Brazil as Coach K went with a smaller line up - Davis at center and Kenneth Faried at power forward - to outrun and outshoot Brazil's guards, while preventing their mobile big men Nene and Tiago Splitter from abusing the pick-and-roll. Harden did extremely well defending the post, but his laziness and aversion to lateral movement still showed against hard screens and face-up situations.
Playing SF should have masked Harden's ball-watching tendencies and made him appear quicker on that side of the ball, but it's clear that his defense still needs work. It might not be a question of effort at this point - the problem could simply be that he doesn't know how to play defense. Defense wins championships, and Dwight Howard alone isn't enough if Harden and Terrence Jones are going to continue being sieves on the perimeter. Perhaps Ariza will provide a boost, and hopefully Beverley's knees aren't too fragile for his brand of defense.
And speaking of championships, Team Brazil has more NBA championships than Team USA. Let that sink in for a moment. Yes, that single ring comes courtesy of Splitter, but it is symbolic of our national team rebuilding with younger players. The only holdovers from 2012 are Harden and Davis, but Davis is barely 21. At this point, one would expect Harden to step up as the leader of the team. However, he may have missed his chance to do so over the last two games, and instead, it seems like Rose and Curry have asserted themselves as the big dogs on Team USA.
Harden is only 24, but he's already had two chances to get what wasn't there in OKC: a team to call his own. The Rockets are firmly his team, but maybe - just maybe - Harden's experiences at the World Cup will show him not to take success and rank for granted. The others are playing to silence their detractors. Rose is done, Curry is too fragile, Davis is too weak. And Harden isn't a leader. Is Harden going to let that slide?