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USA Basketball’s roster is full of big stars, even without Kawhi Leonard

LAS VEGAS — LeBron James called Stephen Curry last fall with a simple proposition: Let’s go to France together.

The basketball superstars have known each other since James, then 23, made it a point to watch Curry play for Davidson in the 2008 NCAA tournament. Their friendship blossomed into a healthy rivalry from 2015 to 2018, when James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and Curry’s Golden State Warriors became the first teams in NBA history to face each other in four consecutive Finals. Although both have represented the United States in major international tournaments, they have never been on the same team unless it’s an NBA All-Star Game.

What’s more, James had won Olympic gold with Kevin Durant and Curry had won two titles with the Warriors alongside the 35-year-old Phoenix Suns star. The trio realized the 2024 Paris Olympics were an opportunity to join forces for the first time and leave their multiple Finals battles behind.

“I’m looking forward to getting out there with Steph and enjoying those moments,” James, 39, said Sunday while attending USA Basketball’s four-day Olympic training camp. “The game of basketball isn’t forever. You don’t want a relationship to be ruined by (the media’s) portrayal of ‘LeBron and Steph — they should never smile and they should hate each other.’ Even though me and KD have faced off and me and Steph have faced off, I can’t listen to the fake narrative.”

Los Angeles Lakers star James, who has not played internationally since 2012, said he first consulted his wife, Savannah, who gave him the green light for the summer vacation. Curry was drawn to the chance to win his first Olympic gold medal and play for Warriors coach Steve Kerr. Durant needed no convincing: Victory in Paris would make him the first men’s basketball player to win four Olympic golds, after leading the Americans to victory at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

“He’s almost 40 years old and he’s still playing at an elite level,” Durant said of James. “That inspires me. … I know it’s important to a lot of people to be the one guy who did (something historic). That stuff never really hit me. The great thing for me is the journey. Knowing that I have those memories to lean on at any given time is more amazing than looking at medals or championship trophies.”

With the addition of these three names, Team USA Basketball quickly built one of the deepest and most successful rosters in its illustrious history. The Americans, who replaced six-time All-Star Kawhi Leonard with Derrick White on Wednesday after he returned from a knee injury, have 11 players who have earned All-Star nominations, four former NBA MVPs, three former Finals MVPs and seven NBA championship winners. And then there are Kerr and his assistants Erik Spoelstra and Tyronn Lue, who have both coached a combined seven NBA championship teams since 2012.

The Americans will bring an embarrassment of riches to Paris as they seek their fifth straight gold medal. After wrapping up training camp on Tuesday, Kerr’s team will play five warm-up games before the Olympic opener against Serbia on July 28. The first warm-up game is Wednesday against Canada at T-Mobile Arena.

To win the gold medal on Aug. 10, the Americans must advance from a four-team group and then win three straight games in the knockout round. Medal candidates in the 12-team field include France, Canada and Serbia, but the Americans are the overwhelming favorites.

“You see this team?” Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo exclaimed. “The rest of the world is trying to catch up, but if you put a team together like this and we play the right way, it’s going to be hard to beat us.”

The excitement around the team is at its highest level since Kobe Bryant, James and Durant won gold at the 2012 London Olympics. Hundreds of fans cheered at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino as Curry and Durant made their way through USA Basketball’s temporary headquarters. Autograph hunters braved 117-degree heat on the final day of camp, and tickets for Wednesday’s show were listed for more than $500 on major league resale sites. Vice President Harris even made a cameo appearance at Tuesday’s practice, shaking hands with James and posing for a photo with Curry.

“It’s a really great feeling,” Curry said. “I had nerves the first practice and I’m sure it’s going to be the same in the first game. It’s surreal with who we are on this team and all the struggles we’ve had throughout our careers. (James, Durant and I) bring that energy together as teammates. It’s probably the only time I’ll ever experience that.”

Faced with the ever-present prospect of gold or bust, Grant Hill, USA Basketball’s executive director, and Kerr looked for context to complement their superstar enthusiasm. At the Tokyo Olympics and the 2023 FIBA ​​World Cup, the Americans fielded versatile but underachieving teams that at times looked inadequate.

The Americans lost to France in their opening match in Tokyo before winning a rematch in the gold medal match. In the World Cup, the Americans, who were heavy favorites, lost to Lithuania, Germany, and Canada in a disappointing fourth-place finish.

When Kerr put this team together, he showed videos from World Cup defeats to explain what needed to change. A survey of this year’s competition further reinforced the need to add frontcourt reinforcements. France will field unanimous rookie of the year Victor Wembanyama and defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert in an impressive combination. Serbia is expected to be led by three-time MVP center Nikola Jokic, and Greece has two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

To prepare for these matchups, USA Basketball has recruited Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, who is also eligible to play for France and Cameroon. Embiid, the 2023 MVP, will team with Anthony Davis and Adebayo to form a perfect interior rotation. Given that they are all comfortable on the perimeter, Kerr will be able to use super-big lineups with two of the three playing together.

“It’s hard to bully me,” Embiid said. “It’s hard to bully (Davis and Adebayo). I just get the ball in the post and wait for Steph, KD and LeBron to cut.”

The Americans have excellent size across the board. Kerr can use the 6-foot-9-inch James as a playmaking forward when he wants to press, and Durant will be joined on the wing by Jayson Tatum, who has excellent length and size. Jrue Holiday and White serve as solid defensive complements to Curry and passing point guard Tyrese Haliburton in the backcourt, while Anthony Edwards and Devin Booker round out the roster as scoring guards who can space the floor.

James joked that USA Basketball has assembled “the greatest AAU team of all time,” but Kerr is preparing for “a tremendous challenge.” He made it clear that he and Curry “won’t be playing 36 holes of golf on game days,” like coach Chuck Daly and Michael Jordan’s Dream Team did when they waltzed through the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

In a reminder that unforeseen challenges can arise, Durant suffered a minor calf injury that kept him out of training camp and Leonard withdrew before the first show. Still, the Americans will travel to Paris with high hopes and great faith in their leading men.

“We’ve got LeBron, KD and Steph,” Edwards said. “I don’t think anybody can beat those three on the court by themselves. You put two regular guys together and we’re good.”

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