He was the shield. The one thing that meant no matter what else happened, this tournament was elite. Withdrawals through injury, fatigue, or lack of interest have plagued the World Cup as they so often do. This edition however stood firm. It had its shining star, the man who could sell this tournament to casual fans irrespective or who stood beside or against him.
Kevin Durant isn’t just the reigning NBA MVP, he is universally regarded (at least by anyone whose surname isn’t Bryant) as one of the top two players in the game today. The US team still has star power, indeed superstar power in the form of James Harden and Derrick Rose, but Durant brought this roster’s profile to another level. Harden and Rose can carry the identity of a team. KD was the brand of the tournament.
On a competitive level, Durant’s withdrawal is certainly interesting. Spain’s shot at beating this American team was seen as slim prior to his announcement on Thursday. The hosts are certainly better placed now to give the Golden Generation a fitting send off. A failure by USA to win in September would also be the gain of FIBA Americas as they would have to play there next summer to qualify for the Olympics, and make the scramble for places below in the competition all the more intense. If all of these things happened with Durant in the competition, it would be fantastic for the sport. Without him, it merely dilutes the international game.
Look at the reality of the competition now. There is still little doubt that the USA will dominate its group and ride roughshod over anyone it faces on the road to Madrid. This is a strong American team, not close to its best but still one that will tear apart those who stand before it all the way through the semi-final round. This tournament, like it or not, was always going to come down to one game. Spain, the hosts and the one team that brought everyone to the party, vs the USA with its mega star Kevin Durant. Now its Spain vs a really, really, good USA team that will probably still win.
It’s not Spain’s fault and if they are crowned world champions on home soil, they should celebrate it like they beat a team with prime Jordan, Russell, Wilt, LeBron, Oscar, Kobe, Bird, and whoever else from the annals of hoop history one chooses to lob into an all-time USA roster. Spain are taking this World Cup as seriously as any team can. They are obsessed with lifting the Naismith Trophy and should they do so, irrespective of who they beat, they should be celebrated.
Outside of Spain however that simply won’t cut it. Durant was the attraction. Durant made international basketball in a non-Olympic year matter. FIBA want the World Cup to be the be all and end all of international basketball. A switch to Under 22 for the Olympics has been mooted before, so too has expansion of the tournament but the IOC has no interest in enabling that although a 3×3 push for Olympic presence is gathering momentum and stands a legitimate shot.
FIBA see the success of the one participation sport that truly beats it in international appeal, heck this competition was influenced by the very existence of the FIFA World Cup in the first place. It’s also moving and expanding because of it. FIBA knows that holding the top event in its sport gives it greater relevance and with it comes control. It also recognises that working with the NBA is its best shot at making the biggest competition it runs matter.
Making the world accept that FIBA gold matters more than Olympic gold is another matter entirely. The fans still see the Olympics as by far the biggest deal and so too do the players. Getting the NBA MVP to play in the biggest event under its auspices was a big deal in the long game, particularly when almost all of the other sure-things for Team USA’s 2016 roster said no. Now they must sell a tournament on the strength of James Harden, who is a great second man for a brand but not yet capable of carrying as the leading light, and a rehabbing Derrick Rose. It really shouldn’t be all that bad but KD is and was everything. The timing of his withdrawal, with mere weeks until opening tip, is awful. Team USA can parry this blow, the World Cup needs a standing eight count.