In recent years, Team USA used to worry about who was "the man."
And Team USA lost to just about everybody, jacking "hero" shots over the outstretched arms of defenders, then predictably going into scoring droughts, and coming in sixth, or third, or in some place nobody remembers much nor cares about.
So it is a great thing that the players this year genuinely seem to be not at all concerned about who wins the individual challenge. Article after article has told us that Coach Mike Krzyzewski has the team focused on all the right things, and it is reflected in the kind of play that should not only make Americans proud, but should make basketball fans from all over the world tip their caps.
Championship mentality. The players have it. The coaches have it. The organization has it.
Fans and reporters ... we don't have to have it for the team to win gold, thankfully.
Because, as always, we're still all hung up on answering that old distraction-from-what-really-matters of a barstool question: Who's the best?
Always that rarest of players, one better than the hype, LeBron James is now the best basketball player in the world. What has happened at the Beijing Olympics is the beginning of James' Most Valuable Player campaign for 2008-09. He always could pass. He always could attack the basket more relentlessly than anyone. The Cavaliers forward's emergence as a devastating defender completes the picture. Kobe Bryant is still the top lockdown defender on what seems to be an unbeatable American team. But Bryant's forced shots on offense and poor 3-point shooting keep him from being more than the third-best player on the team so far, behind James and Dwyane Wade.
... when the offense has stagnated -- as it did in the first quarter Wednesday, when Australia trailed by just 25-24 -- it has typically been with Bryant forcing shots. Is that trying to find pimples on the Mona Lisa? Perhaps. But the numbers will show just how much better and more consistent James has played.
James has better statistics in every relevant category. He has averaged more points (15.8 to 14.7) by taking 13 fewer shots and nearly half as many 3-point shots as Bryant (36 to 19). James has grabbed more rebounds (31 to 17), dished more assists (25 to 10) and turned the ball over less often (10 to 12). And he has been to the free-throw line more than twice as often (20 to 9), reflective of James's greatest strength here and Bryant's greatest weakness.
James has shown that no defender in international play can keep him from driving to the basket, so he has barreled down anyone in his path. Bryant has played with too much finesse, flipping up turnaround shots and 3-pointers instead of attacking the basket or looking to pass to his teammates.
From where I'm sitting, watching a team playing so beautifully, by all means praise James, who has always been selfless and has lately been everywhere all the time like never before. Praise anybody you want, even Kobe Bryant.
No one has played poorly. It's a happy story. Everyone has been doing what is required, and then some.
The only question I really have is, will LeBron James stop telling us how selfless he is (Thamel quotes him saying "I'm probably the ultimate team player. I'll sacrifice whatever for the success of the team.") long enough for us to give him the Selfless Player of the Summer award?