It was July of 2010, early in Team USA’s training camp in Las Vegas ahead of the FIBA World Championship in Istanbul, and Danny Granger was watching something he knew was special.
The future of the NBA was taking shape right in front of his eyes.
More specifically, Granger was watching Russell Westbrook play a style and pace of basketball unheard of at the NBA level and do it “on another level” physically than anything he’d seen before.
Granger was familiar with Westbrook from working out together and playing against each other over the years in Los Angeles’ vibrant offseason pickup hoops scene, which was and is filled with NBA players. But as the national team’s scrimmages unfolded that year, he found himself marveling at the intensity with which Westbrook ran the press defense that U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski had imported from his Duke playbook.
That type of defense isn’t supposed to work against NBA players. But what we previously knew about what style of basketball worked, on either end of the floor, wasn’t going to matter much for what would come over the next decade. And there in Vegas, Westbrook wasn’t even letting players get past half court. Time after time he’d attack down the court, take the ball away and do what he wanted with it.
“We’re talking about doing that against pros,” Granger says. “We played against young guys for a few scrimmages, and Russ was just stealing the ball. Layup. Dunk. Layup. Dunk. Run back. Dunk. Steal. It looked like he was playing in college.”
Westbrook was about to enter his third season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The early part of his NBA career had been up-and-down, showcasing an unrefined version of the devastatingly effective two-way wrecking ball of a point guard he would become later on. But it was clear from the beginning that he would thrive in the national team environment.
“We knew about his athleticism, but I think what we learned was how good he could be on defense,” recalls Rudy Gay, at the time a Memphis Grizzlies forward heading into his fifth season, also making his first Team USA appearance. “You know how good an athlete is on TV, but when you see him in person, you see him in practice, you see what he did for us in a game, it was another thing.”
And it wasn’t just Westbrook or that pace or style he was playing. It was everything about what was happening at that training camp and with that team.
It wasn’t as star-studded as the 2008 “Redeem Team” had been, but that national team would quietly go on to become the most influential of the modern era. The group’s DNA is present in nearly every facet of the past 10 years of NBA history.
The headliner of 2010’s national team was a 21-year-old Kevin Durant, who had just finished his third season in the NBA. Durant was not yet the household name he would become but was already regarded so highly by USA Basketball that Jerry Colangelo, the former Phoenix Suns executive who has run the national team program since 2005, says he came “very close” to making the 2008 Olympic squad as a teenager.
Among those playing alongside Durant and Westbrook in Turkey was Westbrook’s former UCLA teammate Kevin Love, as well as highly touted young guards Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry and Eric Gordon. They were joined by three long, versatile wings in Granger, Gay and the Philadelphia 76ers’ Andre Iguodala. Their only true center was Tyson Chandler, who had been traded that summer from the Charlotte Bobcats to the Dallas Mavericks. Just two players on the team were over 30: Denver Nuggets point guard Chauncey Billups and Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom.
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And they didn’t just win gold. They dominated the tournament.
“I don’t think we knew we would jell the way we did,” Iguodala says. “We were too young to have that ego that you see a lot of teams have. We didn’t have any of that. We went balls-out, basically. That was a tremendous recipe with Coach K and the way he coaches. We were full-throttle, running through the walls. The way we meshed and the way everyone accepted their roles, it was really special.”
So special, in fact, that it established the model USA Basketball has stuck to ever since: Superstars play in the Olympics, and the next generation is groomed in FIBA competition.
“The U.S. is the only country where the Olympics is more important than the World Cup,” Colangelo says. “So you have your star players who all want the exposure of playing in the Olympics, and the World Cup has been more for young guys looking for their opportunity to be able to play in the Olympics, like a training ground.”
Never more so than in 2010. Four future league MVPs and a future Finals MVP were among the stars being trained in that group. Relationships were being built that would lay the groundwork for the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty and an era of player empowerment that’s redefined the league’s power dynamic. And a small-ball style was being normalized that has since become the default.
The last decade of the NBA’s story cannot be told without that team.
Following the men’s national team’s 1990s heyday, the NBA’s biggest names gradually stopped playing for the national team. The last hurrah was a squad featuring Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd and Gary Payton that cruised to the gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Team USA finished an embarrassing sixth place in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and then won bronze at both the Athens Olympics in 2004 and the FIBA World Championship in 2006. As salaries and endorsement opportunities exploded for the top players in the league, their priorities in the summer began to lead elsewhere, and that string of disappointing finishes in the early part of the 21st century dimmed the appeal.
The program also lacked organization. Players would receive invites mere weeks before summer training camp, when oftentimes they had already made other commitments. Colangelo took over the program following the 2004 Olympics and brought in Krzyzewski to replace Larry Brown as head coach. Together, they changed the recruiting approach—now, players would commit early to being part of USA Basketball for a two-year cycle that included the FIBA World Championship and the Summer Olympics. Teams were picked from the same pool of around 40 players for each cycle, even if they differed year to year.
Krzyzewski’s track record and reputation at Duke made him a formidable recruiter for the top names, and an early coup was securing a commitment from Kobe Bryant for the 2008 Olympics. By then, 2004-06 holdovers LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony had blossomed into the NBA’s biggest stars. It was a perfect storm of timing and circumstance, and the Redeem Team successfully restored the cache that USA Basketball had lost in the previous decade.
“Kobe and LeBron made it cool to play for your country again,” says Jay Triano, an assistant on Krzyzewski’s 2010 staff who’s now with the Charlotte Hornets. “And when the best players in the game believe that, everybody believes it.”
After playing deep into the summer in Beijing, the entire Redeem Team took the 2010 tournament off. Bryant had initially committed to play in Turkey but backed out before training camp, instead opting to give his body a break following a third straight run to the Finals with the Lakers.
James, Wade and fellow Redeem Teamer Chris Bosh, meanwhile, were focused on their free agency in the summer of 2010. Their earth-shaking decision to team up in Miami had been in the works since they played together at the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan, highlighting the national team’s potential to double as a breeding ground for superteams (more on this in a bit).
The formation of the Heat’s Big Three and James’ infamous ESPN special instantly made him one of the NBA’s premier villains. That public backlash and the emerging so-called “team-up culture,” in its own way, set the 2010 national team up to capture the hearts of basketball fans in a summer filled with controversy. The day before The Decision aired, Durant announced his five-year, $89 million extension with the Thunder via a tweet, and his perceived humility contrasted with James’ bombast became an easy talking point for pundits. He was the perfect face for a group of likeable youngsters and steady, relatively unsung veterans.
Even without any of the Olympians in the mix, the NBA had no shortage of talented players for the national team to choose from. Durant was already being positioned as the post-LeBron face of the league, so he was a no-brainer. His star had been steadily rising in his first three seasons, and he had just won the 2009-10 NBA scoring title. But for all intents and purposes, the FIBA World Championship tournament was the moment he became Kevin Durant, the future Hall of Famer and all-time great scorer and all-around player he’s been for the past decade.
“I had never seen anybody dominate basketball games the way he did that whole entire tournament,” Iguodala says. “We had him at the [power forward], and it was like a stretch 4 before everybody was doing that. Teams didn’t know who to put on him. He’s seven feet tall, he can score inside and outside. It was one of the basketball displays that I think gets overlooked because we didn’t have a household name quite yet. But he became it.”
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Iguodala, Rose, Love and Westbrook were already in the system, having spent the summer of 2008 on the Select Team, a group of younger players that scrimmaged against the national team during its Las Vegas training camps. Granger, coming off his first career All-Star selection in 2009—when he was also named the league’s Most Improved Player and was fifth in the NBA in points per game (25.8) and second in threes per game (2.7)—got a push from Indiana Pacers team president (and Dream Team alum) Larry Bird.
Among the final cuts from training camp were Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge, Oklahoma City’s Jeff Green and Boston’s Rajon Rondo. Amar’e Stoudemire was in the running for a roster spot, but he’d signed a $100 million contract with New York in July, and the Knicks, already worried about his history of knee injuries, asked him to stay home. Two other bigs, the Warriors’ David Lee and the New Jersey Nets’ Brook Lopez, also withdrew during camp, leaving the team thin up front. Rather than reach deeper into the pool of similar players, Colangelo and Krzyzewski adjusted their strategy by reinventing the roster around multipositional players.
Odom, 30 at the time, was the only one with previous national team experience, having been a member of the ill-fated 2004 Olympic team. He was uniquely suited to bridge the gap between the traditional roster makeup and this new experiment. He could play either frontcourt position, rebound and pass, acting as something of a Swiss army knife on two consecutive title teams with the Lakers in 2009 and 2010.
“We had a crazy mix of talent,” Gay says. “We had D-Rose and Russ, who had similar skill sets, but then you had people like Eric Gordon and Steph, who could shoot. It was a great mix of players.”
Just how great, maybe no one could have guessed.
“You don’t know until you see Russell win MVP, Steph get MVPs, KD getting MVP, Derrick Rose get an MVP,” Iguodala says.
You might not have guessed in 2010 just how predictive the unorthodox makeup of the team would be for the next decade of pro basketball either.
The team largely eschewed traditional positions, with just one old-school center in Chandler and one conventional power forward in Love. Chandler and Durant were two of only three players on the roster over 6’10”, the other being Odom, who was more of a point forward than any easily classifiable position. Length and switchability were a priority.
“That’s how the NBA is now,” says Granger, who was out of the league by 2015 because of injuries. “I played a little bit of 4 when I played, but if I was playing in the last four, five years, I would have played a lot of 4. The way the NBA has changed, it’s gone to where you want guys who can do a lot of different things rather than someone who’s kind of set in a mold.
“That team we put together, the way we played and that concept, they were kind of bringing that concept to international basketball. It was ahead of its time. Not all the teams had picked up on it.”
When Krzyzewski gathered his staff before the 2010 tournament, he told them: “We have the best basketball players in the world, but I don’t know if we’re the best FIBA players in the world.”
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The makeup of the U.S. roster was uniquely suited for the European game, which emphasized ball movement and often saw wings and big men deploying guard-like skills. Love, the most traditional power forward on the roster, was an uncommonly gifted passer for a big, on top of being a threat to shoot from beyond the arc. Most of the other players also had skill sets that transcended their conventional positions and allowed them to play in many different lineups.
Krzyzewski stressed team play and made everyone learn the international game, which can be a tough needle to thread when coaching players who have had so much individual success in the NBA. And he coached them hard.
“We had an exhibition game where we didn’t play particularly well,” Granger says. “And Coach K brought us into the locker room, and you’d never know he was talking to all these All-Stars. You would have thought we were college kids with the way he was going at us. But he’s the type of guy who has everybody’s respect, so he can talk to you like that and you won’t take offense. And we responded.”
There was no lack of talent across the 2010 tournament field. Spain returned many of the same players from the Olympic team the Americans had barely beaten in the 2008 gold-medal game, including Ricky Rubio, Marc Gasol and Rudy Fernandez. The French team boasted two NBA starters, Nicolas Batum and Boris Diaw. The host country, Turkey, had Hedo Turkoglu and Ersan Ilyasova.
“You never take anything for granted in international play,” Colangelo says. “Players who are coming off the bench in the NBA go back to their home countries, and they’re MVPs. It’s a different game. They feel a thousand percent more confident playing in those kinds of surroundings rather than playing on an NBA roster. So you don’t take anything for granted. All-Star teams can get beat.”
Team USA attacked the international field by going small and switching everything. Durant’s shooting and ball-handling ability at his size (6’10”) made him virtually unguardable in the FIBA tournament, just as it has throughout his NBA career. But the national team surrounded him with lengthy wings who could guard multiple positions just as well or better than he could.
“One day in practice, we had Iguodala, KD and Lamar standing across the free-throw line with their arms out,” Triano remembers. “And Coach K looked at it and went, ‘Who wants to play against this?’ And he had Tyson Chandler at the rim and Russell Westbrook in the middle. They were playing sort of a 1-3-1 zone. And if I’m Spain, I don’t want to see this. We had so much length.”
Durant’s biggest performance came in the only close game the U.S. faced in the entire tournament, a 70-68 Aug. 30 win over Brazil in the group stage in which he led all scorers with 27 points. None of Team USA’s other games in Turkey were within single digits. Durant was sensational in the knockout stage: 33 points against Russia in the quarterfinal, 38 points against Lithuania in the semifinal and 28 points against Turkey in the Sept. 12 championship game.
“We were playing through him the entire tournament,” Rose says. “I never got a chance to play against him in high school, so for me to see a tall guy play that way, it was amazing. All the tall guys on my team, Joakim [Noah] and all of them, they didn’t dribble that way or play that way. KD made the game easier for everybody else because he makes everybody guard him different. He had the skills to do that. And he wanted it. He wanted to be able to change the game and be a generational player.”
Other players had their moments too. Gordon came off the bench to lead the U.S. in scoring in two games in the group round. Rose started every game at point guard and got to the rim at will. Love, after two up-and-down seasons in Minnesota, blossomed in the tournament as a big-time rebounder and knockdown three-point shooter at 6’8″. The following season, he made his first All-Star team and took home the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
A mostly young team also learned a valuable lesson in work ethic from the two veterans, Billups and Odom. That’s what every young player takes away from their first national team experience. Triano says Durant saw it with Bryant at 2008’s training camp; in subsequent years, younger players like Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving have looked at the likes of Durant and Carmelo Anthony on their Olympic teams and realized the same thing: This is how good you have to be, and this is how hard you have to work to get there.
“Before games, I used to look at how Chauncey would take care of his body,” Rose says. “Lamar used to do his situp routine right before games, just working his body. I used to look at that like, ‘Man, these guys are on a whole other level.’ I was a kid at the time, so I was like, ‘Man, I don’t gotta do that right now. I can just go out there and dunk.’ But things I overlooked when I was younger, I wish I would have done.”
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At the beginning of training camp, Krzyzewski told his team: “We have to get Team USA back to being a power.”
By the end of a dominant run in Turkey, it was clear they’d done just that.
One player who didn’t get off the bench much that summer was Curry, who had just wrapped his rookie season with the Golden State Warriors. At the time, he was still an undersized prospect with a sweet three-point stroke but questionable ankles, playing an overcrowded position on the national team. It would be years before he would become the greatest shooter in the history of basketball and one of the most important, transformational players of the modern era.
“Steph had some flashes,” Granger says. “He didn’t play that much. But when he did get in, and in practices, looking back in retrospect, I see the Stephen Curry that we know now. When you look at some players, especially young players, and the way they do certain things, they have a way about the game. They see a play before it’s about to happen. They can add their own style and their own flash to it and still be successful.
“He had some plays where we were like, ‘Whoa.’ You could see the Steph Curry we know now in the making.”
But if Curry’s play in the tournament that year didn’t make him a crucial part of Team USA’s run, the relationships he was forging off it did.
The close bond that developed between Iguodala, Curry and Durant is the most lasting legacy of the 2010 national team. The three often attended chapel together before games and stayed in close contact afterward. Three years later, in 2013, Iguodala signed with Curry’s Warriors as a free agent, becoming the last major piece of the team that would win the 2015 title and post the best regular-season record in NBA history the following year.
Iguodala took a backseat to Durant and Odom during the 2010 tournament, which was an adjustment for the 26-year-old. In Philadelphia, he was a borderline All-Star and the Sixers’ leading scorer in each of the previous four seasons. On the national team, he became the defensive glue guy, a role he wasn’t used to but one that paid off later in his career, even earning him Finals MVP with the Warriors in 2015.
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“Being in Philly, I felt like I was playing exceptional basketball,” Iguodala says. “Once I moved over to Golden State, people were surprised, like, ‘How’d you accept that bench role?’ Well, I’ve been in that situation a few times before. USA Basketball helped me. It helps you be able to add value in places the normal eye couldn’t see.”
In the summer of 2016, Iguodala and Curry were part of the recruiting contingent that helped the Warriors land Durant in the most significant free-agent move since LeBron’s Decision (one that, ironically, made the once-Teflon Durant just as hated by the general public as James was when he joined the Heat).
The deep friendship between those three, stemming from their time together in the summer of 2010, was a catalyst for a successful pitch.
“We spoke about that summer when we all went up to the Hamptons,” Iguodala says, recalling the famous meeting that helped the Warriors seal the deal with Durant. “Everybody talks about the Hamptons trip and the ‘Hamptons Five,’ but that was where it started. I’ve never seen him have as much joy as the 2010 team, up to that point.”
By the time Durant joined the Warriors in 2016, his place as one of the game’s all-time greats was cemented. He made the leap to superstar status following the 2010 FIBA tournament, and he and Westbrook would build on that breakout summer to lead Oklahoma City to its Western Conference Finals run in 2010-11 and then the NBA Finals in 2011-12.
The FIBA title was their first time winning at the professional level. All of their subsequent success can be traced back to that summer.
The 2008 and 2010 national teams set a tone for the unchallenged success the U.S. would have internationally right up through its disappointing showing at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. But gold medals are almost beside the point of that 2010 team’s true long-term impact.
The four future MVPs and the seeds of the friendships that would make up the modern-day Warriors are just the start of it. Love had a breakout season in 2010-11 and became a perennial All-Star after that, first in Minnesota and then in Cleveland. Odom won Sixth Man of the Year that season, his last with the Lakers. Chandler, fresh off being traded to Dallas, played an integral role in the Mavericks’ first-ever championship, beating the Heat’s nascent superteam in the 2011 Finals. To get there, they defeated the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals—the first time Durant and Westbrook made it that far in their young careers.
And Rose built on the momentum of his strong showing in Turkey to lead the Bulls to the best record in the NBA and become the youngest MVP in league history at age 22.
“It was a springboard for sure,” Rose says. “I was able to play the same way that I played in Chicago, but I had the best players. My job was easy.”
The stars who would turn the Thunder of the early 2010s into one of the best teams to never win a title. The relationships that would build the Warriors team that has defined the last five years of the NBA. The positionless, small-ball style that would become ubiquitous in the league. It can all be traced back to one summer in Turkey.
In the moment, no one could know how much was about to change. But those watching it up close certainly had an idea how special it was.
Says Rose: “Playing with that collection of guys, it’s definitely my best experience while I’ve been in the league.”
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers’ Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.