USA Basketball has been so dominant for so long that any discussion of "what's at stake" for the National Team invariably winds up slanting toward "what's to lose." Indeed, Monday will mark the eighth anniversary of USA's most recent, and only, loss since coach Mike Krzyzewski was appointed in 2005. USA has rarely been challenged during those eight years -- winning by an average of 32 points in the 2012 Olympics, 25 points in the 2010 World Championships and 28 points in the 2008 Olympics -- and any defeat during the upcoming World Cup would bring with it equal doses of disappointment, frustration and shame. Winning gold is generally assumed, it likely won't be celebrated as much as it should be, and any result short of that standard is an abject failure.
That's life as the established favorite boasting by far the most talented roster, even though Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Paul George won't be part of the chase for gold and the tournament will be held on Spanish soil.
The run-up to the World Cup has provided little drama on the court. USA prevailed in its three exhibition games by an average of 33 points, and its opening round games look like they will also be a series of cakewalks. Such a one-sided training slate should buoy confidence in a reshaped roster that will be led by the likes of James Harden, Anthony Davis and Stephen Curry, but it also makes the prospect of a loss that much more dramatic. What good are blowout wins over Slovenia and Puerto Rico if the USA can't get it done against the host country with gold at stake?
With that "gold or bust" reality in mind, the following is a look at five USA players with the most at stake during the upcoming World Cup.
1. James Harden
The lasting memory from Team USA's July minicamp in Las Vegas is the entertaining "King of the Hill" matches involving Kevin Durant, Paul George and James Harden. Those one-on-one bouts were not only a great way for the media to watch the three stars hone their footwork and dribble moves, they were also a quiet declaration of a pecking order to the rest of the players present -- by invitation only and no reservations accepted.
Unfortunately, Harden is the only one of the trio still left on the roster, and there seems little question the Rockets' All-Star faces a greater degree of pressure than any of his teammates. Tabbed as a team leader by Krzyzewski and USA chairman Jerry Colangelo even before George was injured and Durant withdrew, Harden is the squad's most potent one-on-one threat. In past competitions, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Durant have all taken turns making key plays down the stretch of tight games. Harden, on paper, looks like this roster's natural successor to those players.
Harden's burden extends beyond late-game scoring and play-making. His polarizing, conspicuous style of play -- quick-trigger jumpers, lots of embellishment, occasional turnover issues, moments of extreme carelessness on defense -- has the potential to make him the default scapegoat should USA slip up. Indeed, a World Cup defeat immediately after Houston's first-round exit to Portland would be red meat for Harden's many critics, who paint him as an overrated, flopping, one-way chucker. That's especially true given that Harden, whose postseason résumé is lacking, threw himself into the fire when he declared that he is the NBA's "best all-around player" earlier this month.
Take all of those factors together, and Harden really does occupy an unenviable position. If USA wins gold, as expected, he will surely share the credit with Krzyzewski, USA's overall talent advantage, and the frontcourt players who will be tasked with neutralizing Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka. If USA loses, however, it will take a series of consistently excellent performances to keep Harden from being the top target of ridicule.
2. Derrick Rose
It's sad and unfair to say this, but there is still a sense that Derrick Rose's entire career is at stake every time he takes the court. That feeling should fade as Rose puts more time and distance between himself and his multiple season-ending knee injuries. A breakout showing in Spain would go a long way to allaying the ever-present re-injury fears. USA's handling of Rose this month, though, suggests getting him through the tournament in one piece is more important than setting him up to make a big splash. Rose was given extra time to rest during the New York portion of USA's training schedule, and Krzyzewski has enough backcourt weapons that he doesn't need to rely on Rose as a starter. The Slovenia game was telling: USA won comfortably by 30 points, even though Rose failed to make a field goal while committing three turnovers against one assist in 20 minutes.
Merely straggling through the World Cup won't qualify as a success for Rose, not when his competitive drive made him an MVP at 22 and not after he just spent the last two years of his life rehabbing and listening to critics write him off. Rose needs to contribute in a meaningful way if this tournament is to have the intended effect of launching him into a successful 2014-15 season with the Bulls. Although Rose doesn't need to be a star, or even a focal point, failing to leave a major impression in the tournament would raise as many questions as his participation hoped to answer.
If Harden finds himself in the most unenviable position, Anthony Davis occupies the seat on the exact opposite side of the spectrum. The 21-year-old Davis is so much more talented than the average casual basketball fan realizes. He enters the World Cup with a honeymooner's glow: his versatile play is bound to leave audiences impressed, and he's still young enough that he should be able to avoid the blame game if USA falls. In any given game, Davis performs five or 10 jaw-dropping plays, and his status as USA's No. 1 big man ensures he will get plenty of opportunities to wow. His Pelicans aren't exactly a regular fixture on national television, and viewers who haven't closely watched Davis since he led Kentucky to the 2012 NCAA title will immediately notice he has filled out considerably.
Mobile and endlessly long, Davis is a perfect fit in the international game. He will be a nightmare match-up for all of the USA's non-marquee opponents, and he will get a great test against Spain should the two powers collide. Although he lags behind Harden, Rose and Stephen Curry when it comes to name recognition, it's quite possible Davis emerges as USA's best player. He looked worthy of that title when he tallied 18 points (on 5-for-8 shooting), nine rebounds, five blocks and three steals in just 19 minutes against Slovenia. Really, what's at stake for Davis is a reappraisal of his status among the NBA's top stars. Can he ride a strong World Cup showing to solidify a spot among the NBA's top-10 players?
Kings center DeMarcus Cousins has both upside and downside in front of him, but he approaches that crossroads facing the skepticism that has accumulated through years of petty emotional outbursts. A best-case scenario in Spain would see Cousins: 1) keep his cool throughout the tournament; 2) play to his potential, which is USA's second-best big man; 3) further prove his worth by playing a critical role in handling Marc Gasol; and 4) secure a gold medal, which would look sweet on a mantel that has been barren throughout his four years in Sacramento. If he accomplishes all of those goals, Cousins could parlay this World Cup into serious consideration for the 2015 All-Star team -- an honor he felt he deserved last season.
As always, there is the potential for disaster, too. Should he lose his cool with FIBA's officials, attempt to do too much, regularly find himself in foul trouble, or lose his composure during tense moments, Cousins risks benching and a steady wave of criticism from those who question his reliability, maturity and mental stability. Laying an egg against Spain, particularly if the Gasols play to form, would stand as a high-profile blow to Cousins' case as one of the best young bigs in the NBA. The guiding principle for Cousins should be that the World Cup is an excellent opportunity to control his own fate, as he's surrounded by talented teammates and being coached by a legend. There are no major distractions and no reason for excuses. The stage is his to begin rewriting his reputation.
5. Kyrie Irving
LeBron James changed Kyrie Irving's life forever when he decided to return to Cleveland this summer. After Irving spent last season drowning in a mess that led to the departures of GM Chris Grant and coach Mike Brown, the two-time All-Star point guard now finds himself relieved of the many burdens that go with being a team's top player. Irving admitted he wasn't fully comfortable as a locker room centerpiece, and those duties are now ceded to the older and wiser James, whose two rings and peerless game instantly command respect. Irving's shooting numbers and defensive reputation both took hits during a somewhat disappointing 2013-14 campaign, and James' arrival should make life easier on both sides of the court, for Irving and the rest of the Cavaliers.
The task at hand for Irving in Spain, then, is to provide a sneak peek at how he might fit in as a crucial supporting star role on a championship-caliber Cavaliers team. This isn't quite as extreme as Dwyane Wade relinquishing command of the Heat to James in 2010, but Irving will unquestionably be making the shift from alpha dog to supporting star. The extended one-on-one dribbling displays and contested shots that were a necessity in the past will now need to give way to quicker decisions with the ball, more prudent shot selection and a higher degree of defensive intensity.
Irving won't be playing with anyone as good as James or even Kevin Love on Team USA, but he will be flanked by two 24-plus points per game scorers -- Harden and Curry -- as well as Davis, who averaged 21 points last season and could ramp that up another notch or two next season. Ultimately, Irving's September will have been a success if he helps propel USA to gold by pressuring opposing defenses with his dribble penetration, making the right decisions in finding shooters, deferring when necessary, and bringing top-level energy on defense and in the open court.