Winderman: Team USA's core may be playing themselves out of jobs

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Thumbnail image for teamusa.jpgFile this one under “conundrum” when it comes to USA Basketball and those at the back end of the Mike Krzyzewski’s roster at the World Championships.

Should the United States win its final two games this weekend, it punches a ticket to the 2012 Olympics, with only the gold-medalists earning an automatic bid.

That would make life easy for Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Chris Bosh to parachute in to London for a couple of weeks two years from now and work toward another Games gold.

But should the United States lose either in the semifinals or championship game in Istanbul this weekend, it would then mandate regional Olympic qualifying next summer in Argentina.

And that might be a burden (lockout permitting) the league’s prime stars, especially those planning to play deep into the NBA playoffs, might not choose to accept, essentially 24 months of round-the-clock basketball.

Ah, not-so-sweet irony.

But offering their “A” game this weekend, Russell Westbrook, Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala, Lamar Odom and Eric Gordon could be hastening their own Olympic demise.

We’ve seen it before on the Olympic platform, those in successful qualifying heats pushed aside when it comes to the championship glory of the race for the medals.

Of course, Jerry Colangelo’s master plan never was supposed to offer this grim reality. To play in the Olympics meant playing in any qualifying round needed, similar to the model leading up to the 2008 Beijing Games.

With a U.S. loss over the weekend, the NBA’s leading men will have to decide whether to participate in Olympic qualifying next summer. That could lead more than a few to declare their retirement from international play, what with NBA championships now Kobe’s defining measurement, with the Heat’s Big Three pledged to make mid-June basketball a South Florida staple, with Paul and Carmelo facing the same types of contract concerns that kept Wade, LeBron and Bosh away this summer.

But with a pair of U.S. victories this weekend, London becomes a more manageable exercise for the NBA’s elite, able to push aside those who took their spots in basketball’s preliminary relays, so to speak.

Sunday in Turkey, gold will go to the victors.

But for several, if not most, members of this current U.S. team, outside of, say, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, and, perhaps, Chauncey Billups, those medals also could wind up feeling like consolation prizes, accompanied not with tickets to London, but rather merely with heartfelt thanks.

Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/IraHeatBeat.

John Wall scores 37 as Wizards down LeBron James, Cavs 127-115

Associated Press
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CLEVELAND (AP) John Wall scored 37 points, Bradley Beal added 27 and the Washington Wizards began a challenging road trip by beating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 127-115 on Saturday night.

Wall scored 18 in the first quarter, when the Wizards shot 82 percent, and Washington held on down the stretch to avenge an overtime loss to the NBA champions last month.

James, who briefly wore goggles to protect an eye injury sustained Friday night, scored 24 and added 11 rebounds and eight assists. Kyrie Irving added 23 points and Kevin Love 17 for Cleveland, playing at home for the only time in a seven-game stretch.

Washington’s victory cut Cleveland’s lead in the Eastern Conference to a half-game over idle Boston.

Rudy Gobert calls out Jazz teammates after loss: “We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice.”

Associated Press
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Utah and the L.A. Clippers are almost locked into a first round, four vs. five battle in the Western Conference. The only question is which team will have home court, and the Clippers took a big step towards that beating the Jazz at home Saturday. While the Jazz still has a half-game lead, the Clippers have a much softer schedule the rest of the way.

After that loss, Jazz center Rudy Gobert was ticked off and called out his teammates. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“We’ve got guys that compete, but some of us don’t compete. Some of us just think about scoring. That’s what it is. … Coach keeps repeating it: We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice. Those guys, we know they’re going to get calls. We’ve just got to come out aggressive and ready to fight.”

Interesting comments for a team that is third in the NBA in defensive rating and 13th in offense.

Gobert is frustrated as Utah has dropped four of its last five, and the slump has been on both ends of the court. The defense has struggled, but if guys are looking to score too much they aren’t doing it efficiently because the offense has been worse.

This slide likely costs Utah home court in the first round, which could matter in what will be a tight matchup with Los Angeles. Utah needs to find its grinding rhythm again heading into the playoffs, at their best they can knock off the Clippers in the first round. Just not like they are playing now.

One thing to watch, Utah’s Gordon Hayward asked out of the game in the fourth quarter due to what is being called a bruised muscle in his leg. If he misses any time or if this lingers, it could be trouble for the Jazz in the postseason.

 

LeBron James starts game with protective goggles. That lasts about a minute.

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LeBron James suffered a scratched cornea Friday night when he went up for a layup late in the third quarter and Jeremy Lamb tried to contest and caught him clean across the face. LeBron got the and-1, but had trouble keeping his eye open in postgame interviews Friday.

Saturday he did play — wearing protective goggles. As you can see above.

That lasted about a minute.

LeBron was likely frustrated as the Cavaliers defensive woes had the Wizards up double digits much of the first half.

Kobe Bryant says he’s “only a phone call away” if organization needs his advice

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For the first time since he walked off the court in his final game, Kobe Bryant was back at Staples Center Friday night.

The reason was Shaquille O’Neal was getting a statue out in front of Staples Center (a building that may not have gotten built without the two of them). The two famed feuders sat next to each other and joked around through the ceremony. Time heals all wounds.

With the new management of the Lakers — specifically Kobe’s former agent Rob Pelinka as GM — there has been speculation Kobe could take on a role. He’s not looking for something formal, according to reports, but he didn’t say no, either, when asked.

I picture Kobe as a guy who someday buys a team, not a guy who wants to haggle with agents over the details of a contract. He’s not going to take on a day-to-day role, he likes the retired life and what he is building with the Kobe brand.

That said, the Lakers front office can use all the smart voices it can get as they try speed up a rebuild. They should give him a call every once in a while.