Five years ago James Harden draped his arms around the shoulders of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant as they watched the 2012 Miami Heat celebrate their championship on the AmericanAirlines Arena floor. Despite the Finals loss, the future was bright in Oklahoma City.
A few weeks later, the trio represented the Thunder as the only NBA organization with three members on the star-studded 2012 Team USA squad that ripped through the London Olympics.
Since then the NBA has been turned inside out. Before the 2012-13 season, Harden was traded suddenly to the Rockets, a team that just stunned the league again by trading for Chris Paul. They now join the NBA's powerhouse teams alongside the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Think about how quickly this happened.
Just five years ago, those three organizations --- Golden State, Houston and Cleveland -- weren't even in the playoffs. Now they're the frontrunners, just like OKC and Miami were in 2012.
If you're trying to figure out how we got here, just flip back the calendar again and peer across the pond: That 2012 Team USA basketball squad shaped today's NBA landscape.
Get this: Of the 12 players on the 2012 Team USA team, eight have since switched teams. LeBron James was in Miami; Kevin Love was in Minnesota; Deron Williams was in Brooklyn; Durant was in OKC; Andre Iguodala was in Philadelphia; Harden was in Oklahoma City; Paul was in Los Angeles; and Tyson Chandler was in New York. Not only did they switch teams, with the exception of Chandler, but they also moved to organizations where they either immediately or later reunited with a 2012 USA Basketball teammate.
Look at the clustering of that all-world talent. James and Love came together in Cleveland, later joined by Williams. Durant linked up with Iguodala in Golden State. Paul moved to Houston to combine forces with Harden. Two of those clusters -- Golden State and Cleveland -- formed the past two champions. The third, Houston, is trying to unseat them.
And the Rockets might not be done. Another member of that Olympic team, Carmelo Anthony, could be the latest star to align if the Knicks agree to part ways with him.
Rockets GM Daryl Morey was recently asked on SportsCenter to sum up his GM philosophy in one sentence: "Get more USA Basketball team members."
Welcome to modern team-building
Long before they slowly rose above the floor in a cloud of smoke on the AmericanAirlines Arena stage back in the summer of 2010, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were already teammates. The Heat's Big Three shared an even bigger stage as members of the "Redeem Team" that took home gold at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Wade was the leading scorer on that team, Bosh was the leading rebounder, and James was ... well, James, the best player on the planet.
The groundwork for their coming together in Miami was laid even before that. A funny thing happened when Pat Riley and the Heat's brass walked into the 2010 free agent meeting with James in Cleveland. James shook the hands of the Heat's front office members but gave a big hug to Nick Arison, the son of owner Micky Arison. This was a surprise to everyone else in the room, but Nick Arison -- a Duke alumnus who later became the Heat's CEO -- knew James from when they traveled to Japan as part of Team USA in 2006. He was the team manager under head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Arison folded James' laundry back then as the Team USA equipment guy but wanted to put the Heat's laundry on James several years later.
And it worked.
The Heat's Big Three was an unprecedented partnership in many respects, but it also carved out the new blueprint: the Team USA model. Last year, Durant joined the Warriors' superteam, thanks in part to long-lasting bonds with Iguodala and Stephen Curry that were quietly forged on Team USA squads.
Many have wondered about the connection between Paul and Harden, and the thread also leads to the Olympics, where Harden scored 17 baskets on the 2012 London trip and Paul assisted on five of them. Over half of Harden's 17 baskets were made in transition, according to Synergy Sports tracking. In related news: Mike D'Antoni was on the coaching staff, orchestrating the offense.
When discussing the fit between Harden and Paul at a recent news conference, D'Antoni pointed to Team USA:
"It's a little bit like USA Basketball ... you can sit around all day and say why that wouldn't work, but guess what it does, because they want it to work. I know James and Chris want it to work and that's all it takes."
Will Melo be the next Team USA member to move?
Getting Team USA players together has obvious benefits, of course. You need great players to win titles and great players tend to be on Team USA. With AAU basketball and the internet creating lasting relationships long before the NBA, players today are closer than ever. The chemistry built on Team USA squads only strengthens those bonds and has the power to create seismic shifts down the line. Not only are Harden and Paul a championship-quality duo, but they also have the ability to attract their peers.
According to ESPN sources, Anthony would waive his no-trade clause to join two teams: Cleveland and Houston, which are both heavy on 2012 Team USA talent.
In Team USA's 2012 win against Nigeria, Anthony exploded for a team-record 37 points with Love sharing the court for most of that scoring barrage.
Meanwhile, after reviewing film of the 2012 Olympics, one particular play leaped off the screen. It came in the fourth quarter against Australia. Team USA was up 107-80 with about two minutes left. Anthony stripped the ball from a rising senior for the Saint Mary's Gaels, a point guard named Matthew Dellavedova. Paul picked up the loose ball and sprinted down the floor with Harden flanking him on the left side. Flying down the court on a 3-on-2 fastbreak, Paul floated an alley-oop pass high in the sky over Patty Mills' head. Harden caught it and threw it down with two hands.
Anthony ... Paul ... Harden. (The other two players on the floor during that sequence were members of the 76ers and Thunder, respectively: Iguodala and Durant.)
If the Rockets bring in Anthony, it wouldn't be the first time Houston tried to take advantage of USA Basketball camaraderie. In 1996, Houston traded for 1992 Dream Team member Charles Barkley, pairing him with fellow Dream Teamer Clyde Drexler and former MVP Hakeem Olajuwon. That 1996-97 team won 57 games and lost in the West finals to Utah, which sported two Dream Teamers (John Stockton and Karl Malone), who lost to two Dream Teamers Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. After Drexler retired in 1998, the Rockets traded for another Dream Teamer, Pippen, in a last-ditch effort to win it all. It didn't work out.
That Rockets team was the exception, not the rule. The 1992 Dream Team roster saw a completely different fate than the 2012 Team USA roster. Only three players from the '92 squad linked up with one another (Barkley with Drexler, then with Pippen), but that was well after their primes. The nine other players never swapped teams to link up.
Who else might join up? And where?
If Melo ends up in Houston or Cleveland, the only two Team USA players from 2012 London that wouldn't have joined up elsewhere -- not counting Kobe Bryant, who is retired -- are Westbrook and Anthony Davis. It's not implausible that the two would be teammates one day. Westbrook is set to be a free agent next summer and the Brow could demand a trade to Westbrook's team thereafter (he's a free agent in 2021).
This brings us to the 2016 team. The Warriors have leveraged Durant's time with 2016 Team USA teammates Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, not to mention the previous relationship with Iguodala in 2012. So that's already in the books.
There will be five 2016 Team USA members who can be free agents next summer: Westbrook (player option), Paul George (player option), DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan (player option) and Anthony (early termination option). Of course, Westbrook and George have already partnered up in OKC, thanks to a trade engineered by Thunder GM Sam Presti. The 2019 free agents include Durant, Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving and Harrison Barnes (the latter three have player options). In 2020, the list is Green, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan (PO).
It's too early to say who will team up in which city. It took five years, after all, before Paul and Harden joined forces in Houston. But the seeds might already be planted. In 2016, Team USA hired Houston's executive vice president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas to be its international scout, helping put the team together with USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo and supporting Krzyzewski with game prep. Harden and Paul might be recruiting Anthony behind the scenes but don't discount Rosas' standing with Team USA players.
There's another variable, sources say, that might be the driving factor of player movement going forward: Gregg Popovich.
Pop begins his term as the head coach of Team USA this year and his contract lasts through the 2020 Olympics in Japan. (Sidenote: Spurs' VP of basketball operations Monty Williams was an assistant coach on the 2016 USA squad.) Could the Spurs be playing the long game here?
There's no doubt Popovich, who served five years in the United States Air Force, took the job to serve his country and represent Team USA in the Olympics. But outsiders see the immense recruiting potential that will come with it. The players' respect and admiration for Pop is well known. James has called him the greatest coach of all time. It's not a stretch to think the Spurs' next star alongside Kawhi Leonard, who turned down the Rio Olympics in 2016, could be on Team USA in the coming years after getting to know Pop.
In other words, let the games begin.