Team USA, player-by-player and role-by-role (Part One)

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Thumbnail image for Curry_Granger_USA.jpgNow that Team USA’s roster is finalized, it’s time to break down exactly what each of Team USA’s 12 players will be asked to do. Some members of Team USA are simply acting as an extension of their NBA selves, but others have seen their responsibilities shift due to the team’s needs, the overall makeup of the roster, and the nature of FIBA basketball. In this first installment, we’ll look at the likely reserve core.

Stephen Curry – With Team USA’s touch-and-go offense, having at least one designated shooter/scorer can be a tremendous asset. Curry is one such player. While Steph could definitely run the point if need be, thus far he’s come in with freedom to shoot and he’s exercised that freedom.

Curry has only played about 23 minutes in total, but he’s scored tremendously well in that limited run. His per-game numbers may not be all that impressive, but on a per-minute basis? Curry shines. Three games in, Steph is scoring at a rate of 25 points per 36 minutes, while shooting an even 50% from the field. Curry has incredible range, but he also has an innate feel for all-around scoring; if there was any doubt of Curry’s ability to perform on a FIBA stage, it’s been swiftly decimated.
 
Russell Westbrook – While Derrick Rose’s athleticism is appropriately designated as “pure” or simply “impressive,” Russell Westbrook’s athletic abilities are better termed as “unbridled.” There is some discipline in Westbrook’s game, but he’s at his most effective in bursts of unthinkable speed and power. Simply put, Westbrook has no delusions of being a finesse guard. He just wants to sprint up the court, jump a pass in transit, and throw it down over anyone that tries to stand in his way.

Team USA can use that. Westbrook is a bit of a wild card; he’s capable of playing both on and off the ball, scoring and distributing (and rebounding — Westbrook is a remarkably good positional rebounder), creating turnovers or gambling too much. He’ll have a rough game now and again, but Westbrook is a necessary do-it-all element on this squad, even if his position is probably redundant.
    
Rudy Gay – Rudy Gay has clearly worked into Mike Krzyzewski’s favor, though he did see his minutes drop in Team USA’s last exhibition against Spain. Regardless, Gay seems to function in the same capacity for Team USA that he always has for the Grizzlies. He’s dangerous in the open court, but far too complacent in a half-court setting. That’s all well and good when Rudy’s leaning, fadeaway jumpers are falling, but the majority of the time, when they aren’t? Not so fun.

Still, Gay has been a highly effective scorer in two of the three friendlies thus far, which counts for something. Better shot selection could mean a world of difference for a player of Gay’s skills, but it’s not meant to be. Not in Memphis, and certainly not in Turkey. The fact that he’s so impressive in spite of his lapses in judgment isn’t some intangible positive. It’s just worthy of a deep sigh, and a reminder of what could be if Gay’s mindset were just a bit different. Nevertheless, Team USA will take the status quo Rudy Gay, ill-advised jumpshooting warts and all.

Danny Granger – Danny Granger’s role on Team USA would seem to be clear: park him in the corner to keep the defense honest, and have him knock down a three every now and again, just to prove that he can. On a team lacking in knock-down shooters, Grangers’ ability to hit from both mid and long range is a useful asset against just about any defense Team USA will encounter at the FIBA World Championships.

But there seems to be some disconnect between that perceived role and Granger’s performance. Granger has yet to hit a three-pointer thus far in Team USA’s exhibition games. He’s only even attempted two. Maybe Granger’s too versatile to be strictly a spot-up shooter, but his minutes thus far haven’t brought any kind of scoring production whatsoever. That scoring is what will keep Granger on the floor, so it’s not all that surprising that after Granger failed to produce points-wise in the first two contests, he found himself benched against Spain.

Eric Gordon – It’s not easy to find minutes for Eric Gordon in such a loaded backcourt, but Mike Krzyzewski has managed to do it thus far. Though Gordon’s playing time was sliced in the Americans’ most recent exhibition (in which Coach K leaned more heavily on the big guns), he averaged about 13 minutes per game in the two exhibitions prior, and was fairly productive for Team USA on both ends.

He may not be as talented as Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook, as lethal as Stephen Curry, or as precise as Chauncey Billups, but Gordon’s ability to hit the three, get to the line, and D up warrants consideration.

Kevin Love – Kevin Love is the last line of defense, even if he doesn’t play much of it.

Love won’t get much playing time on a regular basis, but if anything were to happen to Lamar Odom or Tyson Chandler, Krzyzewski would likely throw Love into the rotation to gobble up rebounds. He’s a pretty awful defender and a useful offensive player, but Love’s magnum opus is his rebounding. He’s an elite NBA player in that regard, and though Love hasn’t had much of an opportunity to hit the boards for Team USA, he could, if he were ever needed. In case of emergency, Love.

Yet as nice as it would be to see the often underappreciated Love get a nice opportunity for playing time with Team USA, Odom and Chandler are playing in front of him for a reason. Team USA needs their length and defense, and Love just can’t provide that.

LeBron James admits Warriors pose one of biggest challenges he’s faced in Finals

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LeBron James is used to being the underdog in the NBA Finals. It started with the first time he got a team there, the 2007 team where after LeBron the two leading scorers were Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden — that team was not really Finals worthy and the Spurs showed that with a sweep.

Entering his seventh straight NBA Finals in 2017, the Cavaliers are again heavy underdogs. When asked about the challenge these Warriors — now with Kevin Durant — pose LeBron was nothing but complimentary, speaking to Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It’s probably up there,” James said after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ practice. “I mean, it’s up there. Obviously, I’ve played against four Hall of Famers as well too, with Manu [Ginobili], Kawhi [Leonard], Tony [Parker] and Timmy D [Tim Duncan] on the same team. And if you add Pop [Gregg Popovich] in there, that’s five Hall of Famers.

“So it’s going to be very challenging. Those guys are going to challenge me. They’re going to challenge our ballclub. This is a high-powered team, and I’ve played against some other [stiff competition]. I’ve played against Ray [Allen], KG [Kevin Garnett], Paul [Pierce], [Rajon] Rondo and Doc [Rivers]. So it’s going to be very challenging not only on me mentally, but on our ballclub and on our franchise.”

The Warriors bring four of the top 15-20 guys in the NBA (depending on where you want to rank Klay Thompson), with two of then in the top five with Durant and Stephen Curry. However, what makes the Warriors more dangerous is the way they buy into the offensive system, move the ball and set screens/move off it, all of which makes them greater than just the sum of their parts. Well, that and the fact they had the second best defense in the NBA this year.

Cleveland, however, is probably the team best suited to beat them. Nobody has a good answer for guarding the 1/3 LeBron/Kyrie Irving pick-and-roll, Kevin Love is one of the best power forwards in the game, they are strong on the glass and can be impressive on defense (the challenge will be doing it consistently this series, they haven’t had to up to this point). Ultimately, LeBron is the great equalizer, he is the best player in the game.

All that said, Las Vegas oddsmakers have Golden State the heavy favorites (those odds are a reflection of what the betting public thinks). If LeBron and the Cavaliers pull this off, it will be one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.

Lonzo Ball will never be as good as this fan-made video of him destroying people in 2K17

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Ultimately, nobody has any idea how good Lonzo Ball will be as an NBA player. Franchise cornerstone? All-Star? Above average starter? Rotation player? He will fall somewhere on the scale, but even for NBA teams it’s a guess as to where. (His dad apparently thinks he will end his career compared to Jordan, I seriously doubt that.)

However good he ends up being, he may never be as good as he looks in this 2K17 fan video made by Shady00018. The Lakers should pray he does: Dropping Stephen Curry on a crossover, dunking over Rudy Gobert, throwing no-look passes like beads at Mardi Gras? It’s impressive, if unrealistic.

Then again, reality Lakers fans don’t always intersect.

 

LeBron James on the Finals: “I feel good about our chances. Very good.”

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If there is one team in the NBA that can knock off the Warriors in a seven-game series, it’s the Cavaliers. They are the best team in the NBA at creating mismatches and isolating them, and in Kyrie Irving and LeBron James they have two of the best isolation scorers in the game. Cleveland is strong on the boards and is capable of impressive defense. Also, they have the best player on the planet.

If nobody else is confident in the Cavaliers chances, he is.

Here is what LeBron James said his confidence level facing the Warriors in a Finals trilogy.

What else is he going to say?

And if anyone should be confident, it’s LeBron. He can change a series.

From the outside, we saw a series last year where everything needed to go right for Cleveland to win — LeBron playing the best ball of his career for the final three games, Kyrie Irving hitting big shots, Draymond Green getting suspended, Andrew Bogut getting injured, Stephen Curry being off (due to injury or fatigue or just a slump). And even then took the Cavaliers seven games and heroics at the last minute. Now the Warriors add Kevin Durant, and it’s hard not to see this ending differently.

However, LeBron James is the one guy who can alter that vision. And he’s confident he can do it, he’s done it before.

Steve Alford: LaVar Ball never meddled with UCLA Basketball

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Is LaVar Ball just a harmless loudmouth, or will he actually undermine the team that drafts his son, highly touted guard Lonzo Ball?

The Lakers, who hold the No. 2 pick, are the most likely team to find out.

President Magic Johnson said LaVar won’t affect whether they draft Lonzo, but coach Luke Walton wants the team to ask UCLA coach Steve Alford about LaVar’s involvement.

Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times did just that:

Was LaVar Ball around the team much?

“Zero,” Alford said.

Was he ever at practice?

“Never at practice,” Alford said. “Never at practice; never called me.”

Did he ever try to meddle in your coaching?

“Never,” Alford said.

LaVar has said his other sons, LiAngelo and LaMelo, will play for UCLA. So, Alford has incentive to maintain a productive working relationship with LaVar. The players’ high school coach had a much worse experience dealing with LaVar.

Alford vouching for LaVar means something, but the total picture is more complex.

Still, LaVar would hardly be the first difficult parent of an NBA player. He’s just the most public. Even if he’d try to meddle into the Lakers, they might be willing to handle that to get his talented son.