The USA is in the "group of death" at Worlds, but that applies to everyone else

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fiba-turkey.gifIn the World Cup, the toughest group of four drawn gets the moniker “Group of Death” because some quality team is not going to be advancing to the final 16.

If there were a Group of Death for the FIBA World Championships, it would be Group B. The USA’s group. Except that it really doesn’t apply to the USA. Plus, in a six-team group four teams advance to the knockout stage. So you still have to blow it pretty bad not to advance. Bottom line, death takes a holiday.

Still, let’s take a look at the group and who the USA will face this next week. (If you want more detail, check out the best international hoops writing on the web at The Painted Area.)

The USA is the class of the group. They should not drop a game, and should win each by double digits. Yes they are young and untested. Yes there were some ugly, sloppy moments in the warm-up games. Yes this is the USA’s B team. None of that will matter in the first rounds. The sheer athleticism of this Kevin Durant-led teams will overwhelm everyone.

What matters for this squad is that they grow during the five-games-in-six-days they are about to face. Particularly on defense. Because those perceived weaknesses could bite them in the single-elimination tournament to follow. But not here.

Brazil will advance and will be the toughest test for the USA in the group stage. They feature the speedy Leandro Barbosa at the point, with Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao in the paint. Splitter has fantastic fundamentals and will test the USA’s post defense. Barbosa is the one guy not likely to be bothered much by the USA’s pressure defense, he’ll just blow past it. Marcelo Machado will bomb some threes. They lack some depth — particularly after losing Nene — but they will certainly advance and could sneak into medal contention.

Croatia, the first game for the USA (Saturday at 9 am) is a team that lives and dies on the perimeter. Marko Tomas has some skills, but this is a team deep with guys who can handle the ball. Which makes this an interesting test for the USA and it’s pressure defense — if Croatia can withstand it and not turn the ball over a lot, they can keep this closer than you’d expect. The team has no NBA players (a few guys with NBA rights held) but they have some quality players. Their biggest game is against Slovenia in this round, but they can’t lose to Iran or Tunisia or they risk not getting out of the group stage.

Slovenia has the Suns Steve Nash heir apparent Goran Dragic as well as Primoz Brezec and Bostjan Nachbar. Who they don’t have could have made them very dangerous — Beno Udrih, Rasho Nesterovic and Sasha Vujacic (there is some real bitterness with Vujacic, remember how he went at Dragic last season). Another team loaded with good perimeter players who can shoot the rock — they are capable of some big upsets because of that, they live and die by the three. They should advance, but teams that live by the three rarely advance that far in tournaments because there will be an off day.

Iran is better than you think. Not great, but not bad. They have Hamed Hamadi, backup center of the Memphis Grizzlies plus some other good players from leagues in Europe and Asia. This squad won FIBA Asia last year beating China. This is a team that on a good day could upset Slovenia or Croatia if either team overlooks them, which could get them into the knockout stage. May not be likely, but Iran will not be a pushover for those teams.

Tunisia is the team with the longest shot of moving on. They medaled in AfroBasket but the guys at The Painted Area live and breathe international ball and they have barely seen this team. That should tell you something. Even the group of death needs a patsy.

J.B. Bickerstaff calls Rockets ‘broken team,’ ‘fragmented bunch’

Houston Rockets interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff rubs his head in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Houston. The Wizards won 123-122. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan
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Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff has been unafraid to sharply assess his team.

But after last night’s loss to the Trail Blazers – Houston’s third straight defeat and sixth in eight games – Bickerstaff kicked up the rhetoric even further.

Bickerstaff, via Calvin Watkins of ESPN:

“We’re broken,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s that simple. We’re a broken team, and we all need to use this break to figure out how we’re going to impact change. If we don’t want to impact change, then we need to be made aware of that, too, and we’ll go in a different direction.

“We can’t continue to go out and play this way. It’s easy to see it’s a fragmented bunch. You can’t win that way.”

This is why Dwight Howard is on the trade block. The Rockets are so incohesive, there’s no simple solution in sight. This increasingly looks like a lost season for Houston, which should emphasize future planning – like dealing Howard, who can become an unrestricted free agent at age 30 this summer.

Yet, the Rockets are just a half game from playoff position. They obviously dreamed much bigger when the season began, but at this point, merely making the postseason should qualify as a success.

It’s Bickerstaff’s job to get them there, no matter how unlikely. He has certainly shown little fear in trying, whether it’s giving these quotes or pulling all five starters simultaneously shortly into a game. He’s trying to put his mark on this team.

The players just aren’t responding, not more than periodically, at least. From James Harden down, nobody plays with the requisite focus and energy.

Nothing in Bickerstaff’s assessment is surprising. It’s just surprising he said it so bluntly publicly.

Then again, that’s nothing compared to what veteran Houston guard Jason Terry said. Eric Ringering of 750 The Game:

https://twitter.com/ringering45/status/697664478993756164

Devin Booker to replace Nerlens Noel in Rising Stars at All-Star Weeekend

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker reacts after hitting a 3-point shot against the San Antonio Spurs during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
AP Photo/Rick Scuteri
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Sixers big man Nerlens Noel — who has looked much improved this season once Ish Smith was feeding him the rock on offense — sat out the Sixers game Wednesday night due to tendonitis in his right knee. After he missed his rookie season with knee issues, you can understand why the Sixers want him to be cautious.

Noel is going to sit out All-Star Weekend as well — he had been scheduled to play in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night, but he is going to sit that out and Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns will take his place, the league has announced (Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic broke that story).

Booker has been one of the few bright spots for the Suns this season, averaging 10.6 points a game and shooting 40.3 percent from three.

He will play for the USA in the World vs. USA format of the Rising Stars Challenge (the former rookie/sophomore game, featuring first and second year players).

With Emmanuel Mudiay replacing Patrick Beverley, NBA reveals Skills Challenge bracket

Houston Rockets' Patrick Beverley (2) knocks the ball away from Denver Nuggets' Emmanuel Mudiay (0) in the first half of a NBA basketball game Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
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Out: Defending champion Patrick Beverley.

In: Emmanuel Mudiay Emmanuel Mudiay.

The NBA confirmed the Rockets guard would miss the Skills Challenge and that Mudiay would replace him. The league also release the bracket:

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My picks:

Quarterfinals

Semifinals

  • Isaiah Thomas over C.J. McCollum
  • Anthony Davis over Draymond Green

Final

  • Isaiah Thomas over Anthony Davis

NBA suspends Hassan Whiteside for elbowing Boban Marjanovic’s head

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Hassan Whiteside lost his cool and elbowed Boban Marjanovic in the head Tuesday.

The Heat center received a flagrant 2 and an ejection, and now he’s getting the rest of his punishment.

NBA release:

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside has been suspended one game without pay for throwing an elbow and making contact with the head of San Antonio Spurs center Boban Marjanovic, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

The incident, for which Whiteside was assessed a Flagrant 2 and ejected, occurred with 9:35 remaining in the fourth quarter of the Spurs’ 119-101 win over the Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena on Feb. 9.

Whiteside will serve his suspension when Miami plays the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 19 at Philips Arena.

The suspension will cost Whiteside $8,921. As a result, the Heat – in line to become the first team in NBA history to pay the repeater luxury-tax rate – trim their impending tax bill by $24,534.

More importantly for Whiteside, this will be a strike against him for teams considering offering him a big contract in free agency this summer.