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A couple months ago basketball fans assumed the USA men's team bound for the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August would be led by the NBA's two brightest stars, LeBron James and Stephen Curry — even more so after they squared off in the dramatic seven-game NBA Finals, in which James' Cleveland Cavaliers denied Curry's Golden State Warriors a repeat of last year's championship.
Lo and behold, both those superstars have unexpectedly opted out of playing for what arguably would have been the greatest cavalcade since the original Dream Team — headlined by legends Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — that won the gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
So now the big question is: Will this less-than-dreamy basketball team — a 12-man squad of all-stars featuring Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors, Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks and Kyrie Irving of the Cavaliers — ultimately deliver a third-straight gold (sixth since '92), while also satiating NBA devotees and Olympics viewers, as well as the sponsors and advertisers of the Rio Games, airing on NBC and its affiliated networks Aug. 5–21?
"We're extremely excited about the team we will field for the 2016 Olympics," said Jerry Colangelo, managing director of the USA men's national team, when the sport's governing body, USA Basketball, announced the lineup on June 27. "We've got a great mix of talent, scorers, past gold medal winners and outstanding youth."
Unlike most other USA Olympic teams, whose athletes must qualify at trial events, basketball's Olympians are chosen from a 30-player pool assembled by USA Basketball. Helmed by Duke University head coach Mike Krzyzewski, the Rio roster also includes Harrison Barnes (Warriors), Jimmy Butler (Chicago Bulls), DeMarcus Cousins (Sacramento Kings), DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors), Paul George (Indiana Pacers), Draymond Green (Warriors), DeAndre Jordan (Los Angeles Clippers), Kyle Lowry (Raptors) and Klay Thompson (Warriors).
"We have great shooters and explosive scorers, we're big and athletic, and I think we'll really be able to defend," Coach K, as he's known, remarked at the rollout event.
But … there's no LeBron or Steph, nor other anticipated superstars, such as Russell Westbrook (Thunder), Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs), James Harden (Houston Rockets) and Chris Paul (Clippers). They each had personal reasons for declining, mostly injuries, but also resting bodies worn down by an 82-game regular NBA season and in some cases long playoffs runs.
None publicly cited the mosquito-borne Zika virus, security or environmental concerns or some of the other problems currently plaguing Brazil. Other prospective USA Olympians — notably top-ranked pro golfers Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth — have turned down Rio, too, some unabashedly blaming Zika.
Reactions to the NBA no-shows have been mixed. Critics point out that only Durant and Anthony were on the victorious team at the 2012 London Games and that half of this team has never played in an international competition on the senior level. "There's no use beating around the bush," wrote Ben Golliver on Sports Illustrated's website. "This is a B team or, if you're feeling particularly generous, a B-plus team."
That's not how the folks at NBC Olympics see it, though. "When you lose individuals on a team that is otherwise stacked and really good, it doesn't feel as impactful," said the unit's president Gary Zenkel, comparing the missing NBAers to the golfers, who compete as individuals. "So to us the USA basketball team and the tournament is going to be as exciting as it's ever been."
Executive producer Jim Bell, who oversees what goes on the air during the Games, downplayed the hoops squad's lack of luster. "Granted, those are two pretty big names," he said of James and Curry, "but there will be two really big names there to fill their sneakers," alluding to Durant and Anthony.
Bell also pointed out that the NBA is "essentially a cable sport these days." Indeed, a majority of games are broadcast on TNT, ESPN, ESPN2 and NBA TV. And except for the gold-medal final game airing on NBC on Aug. 21, the rest of the men's Olympic tournament will be shown on cable's NBC Sports Network.
Nonetheless, it remains to be seen if men's basketball in Rio will garner the high ratings NBC enjoyed in London four years ago. There, the men's gold-medal game vs. Spain drew 12.5 million network viewers, making it the most-watched final since the 2000 Sydney Olympics (16.3 million) and more than double the viewership from Beijing in 2008 (6 million). Coverage of the preliminary games on NBCSN were relatively strong as well, averaging more than 2.6 million cable viewers.
John Miller, chief marketing officer for NBC Olympics, maintained that sponsors and advertisers that have paid multimillions to promote their brands across the NBC broadcast, cable and digital platforms are more interested in attracting the massive audiences who crave gymnastics, swimming, diving and track and field rather than the relatively fewer viewers who watch basketball.
"Remember," he said, "the Olympics is one of the two sports, along with the Kentucky Derby, that skews female, and quite honestly for them, it's far more about the journey and less about the result. It's the traditional sports fans who will watch basketball.
Still, prime-time host Bob Costas said he'll absolutely address the absence of James and Curry when setting up the men's gold-medal contest. Yet viewers will need to put it in Olympics-history perspective, he added. "The Dream Team was one of the great things in our lifetime in sports," he asserted, "because it was the first time there was this collection of extraordinary Hall of Famers the world wanted to see. Now it's become something different."
Rick Burton, a former chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee and now the David B. Falk Distinguished Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University, concurred with SU alumnus Costas. "I don't know if that [1992 Dream Team] hasn't spoiled us over the years," Burton said. Since then, "I've never had a sense that [NBC] really played up the men's basketball teams." Plus, sponsors theoretically don't care who wins, Burton suggested. "What they want is great content, eyeballs, people who are linked to their brands."
Regardless of the varied opinions on the makeup of this year's team, the consensus among pundits is that these USA ballers are a lock to "threepeat" in Rio. As for the shiny stars who won't be shooting? Think of it like going to the Broadway hit "Hamilton," whose Tony Award-winning creator and lead actor, Lin-Manuel Miranda, recently left the musical, turning over the lead role to his longtime alternate, Javier Muñoz.
"You're not going to get a lesser show," Burton said, "but you're going to be a little disappointed that the guy you thought was really good — the equivalent of LeBron — is not going to be there. It'll still be great."
— By Bob Woods, special to CNBC.com
This story has been updated to reflect that Kevin Durant is with the Golden State Warriors.