A closer look at the USA’s opponents in Group A

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Anything less than a gold medal will be seen as a failure by Team USA in London. So, no pressure. Just the American basketball legacy on the line.

But in reality, the pressure doesn’t ramp up until the final eight — the three knockout-round games. First, there is the group stage. There are 12 teams in the Olympic basketball tournament divided into two groups (the USA is in Group A). Each team plays five games of group play, the top four teams from each group advance to the lose-and-go-home final tournament.

So, what do Team USA’s Group A opponents look like? Well, the USA should go undefeated, but it’s not going to be a peaceful stroll through Hyde Park. Here’s a look at the American’s opponents (in order).

France (USA plays Sunday, 9:30 am ET): France is a team with medal aspirations, although they are going to have to play over their heads a little to likely land the bronze. And by “they” I really mean Tony Parker, who is the best player on their roster and the offensive catalyst. France has traditionally been a good defensive team that just needs to score, at EuroBasket last year Parker got them scoring but they will miss Joakim Noah for the games. They do have some NBA talent in Nicolas Batum, Ronny Turiaf and Boris Diaw on the roster.

Tunisia (USA plays Tuesday, 5:15 pm ET): The winners of the African tournament last year, they will be fortunate to win a game in this group. It was a huge win for them last year to upset African power Angola and win a trip to London. They are the “just happy to be here” team and have no NBA players on the roster.

Nigeria (USA plays Thursday 5:15 pm ET): They got to London out of the second chance Olympic Qualifying tournament last month, upsetting Greece to punch their ticket. They have a couple NBA players in Ike Diogu and Al-Farouq Aminu, and they bring a team with pretty good size and athleticism. We’d say they will not make it out of the group stage, but nobody expected them to beat the Dominican Republic or Greece to get to London.

Lithuania (USA plays Aug. 4, 9:30 am ET): This is a team that can score, with NBA players Linus Kleiza and Jonas Valanciunas (the fifth pick of the Raptors in the 2011 draft). This is a team that passes well and moves off the ball, things that will test the American’s pressure defense. This is going to be a high scoring affair when they face the USA.

Argentina (Aug, 6, 5:15 pm ET): They are a legit medal contender — and they are the team I’m rooting for to get the bronze. This is the last run for the “golden generation” of Argentinean ballers — Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino and more — a group that won the gold in 2004. They play a pretty brand of basketball, with crisp passing and player movement. Against the USA, they knew how to grind the game down and make it close (Team USA won 86-80 in a recent friendly). They likely finish second in the group.

Report: Dennis Smith Jr. planned to have J. Cole dunk in dunk-contest routine

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. seemed pretty steamed about getting eliminated in the first round of the dunk contest:

The dunk-contest scoring system – five judges ranking dunks on a scale of 6-10 – is plenty flawed. There should have been a larger difference between the Smith and Victor Oladipo dunks the Dallas point guard mentioned. But Oladipo didn’t advance, either. Personally, I thought the right two players – eventual-winner Donovan Mitchell and runner-up Larry Nance Jr. – advanced.

Maybe Smith was more upset about the missed opportunity – dunks (plural!) involving rapper J. Cole.

Amin El-Hassan of ESPN on Black Opinions Matter:

If Dennis had made it to the finals, Cole was going to throw him the alley-oop. But then the plan was, he was going to throw him the oop, Dennis would dunk it, and then Cole would catch the ball, and then he’d dunk it too. That was going to be the ill, craziest dunk-contest use of a prop or a person ever. But we never got to saw it, because they were holding out until the final round. They didn’t want to bring it out in the first round.

This certainly would have been unprecedented and cool. But unless Smith had something amazing planned for the alley-oop, the best element would have been Cole dunking. That would have upstaged Smith, who’s presumably the one being judged.

For what it’s worth, Cole can dunk. We’ve seen it in the celebrity game:

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard returns this season

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When announcing last month Kawhi Leonard was out indefinitely due to a lingering quad injury, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich dismissed the idea his star forward would miss the rest of the season:

Apparently, Popovich’s expectation has changed.

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

The Spurs (35-24) are third in the West despite Leonard playing just nine games. Popovich has done a great job (maybe Coach of the Year-worthy). LaMarcus Aldridge is having a bounce-back season in a leading role. Pau Gasol leads a supporting cast of players good in their roles.

But San Antonio’s ceiling is so much lower without Leonard.

He’s an elite defender who shuts down opposing scorers on the perimeter and can comfortably switch inside. He can isolate offensively to score efficiently, and he spaces the floor off the ball with strong 3-point shooting. Those are all skills that translate to the playoffs.

Without him, the Spurs rely too heavily on older, slower defenders. That’s ripe to be exploited in the postseason.

Teams might even jockey to match up with San Antonio – the most vulnerable-appearing Western Conference team in line to get home-court advantage in the first round.

Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of Leonard returning. Popovich could just be trying to shut down speculation. He clearly doesn’t like discussing this issue.

But the Spurs are the most cautious team on injuries. If Leonard risks further injury, they’ll keep him sidelined.

This injury has already caused tension. This won’t help.

Mark Cuban’s fine third-largest known fine in NBA history

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While explaining how he told his players the team was better off losing this season, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said “I’m probably not supposed to say this” and “Adam would hate hearing that.”

Cuban was right.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver fined Cuban $600,000 for “public statements detrimental to the NBA.” The league doesn’t announce all its fines, but that’s the third-largest known fine in NBA history.

The leaderboard:

1. Timberwolves, $3.5 million in 2000 (signing under-the-table agreement with Joe Smith)

2. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, $2.5 million in 2014 (making racist comments)

3. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, $600,000 in 2018 (saying he told his players the team is better off losing)

4. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, $500,000 in 2002 (criticizing officiating)

4. Knicks, $500,000 in 2006 (fighting Nuggets)

4. Nuggets, $500,000 2006 (fighting Knicks)

4. Vladimir Radmanovic, $500,000 in 2007 (injuring his shoulder while snowboarding)

4. Pistons general manager Joe Dumars, $500,000 in 2010 (leaking confidential league memos)

4. Heat owner Micky Arison, $500,000 in 2011 (tweets during the lockout breaking rank with other owners)

I’d be on Cuban (and/or the Mavericks) getting yet another spot on this list following the investigation of the franchise for a culture tolerant of sexual harassment and domestic abuse. That one will probably be deserved – not just the league trying to preserve the illusion of pure competition amid a system that incentivizes losing.

Mark Cuban fined $600,000 for telling team “losing is our best option”

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Of all the hot water Mark Cuban is in right now with the Mavericks and the NBA league office, this is probably the smallest tub. And the least expensive fine.

Cuban recently went on Julius Erving’s podcast, House Call with Dr. J, and said:

“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night. And here we are, we weren’t competing for the playoffs. I was like, “Look, losing is our best option.” Adam would hate hearing that, but at least I sat down, and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we’re not going to tank again.”

You were not supposed to say that — the NBA Wednesday fined Cuban $600,000 for “for public statements detrimental to the NBA.”

Cuban’s not wrong, it’s just a matter of perception. The NBA has worked very hard to lessen the image that teams are tanking for draft position (why do you think there was pressure on the Sixers to replace Sam Hinkie?), they don’t need an owner saying it’s the smart thing to do. Even though it is. Teams tank — it is still the only way for a small or medium market team to get a superstar, get high in the draft and hopefully pick one (it’s not that simple, ask the Magic) — but the league wants at least the facade that all of its teams are competitive. All the way through the end of the season.

As you read this, the bottom eight teams in the NBA are within three games of each other for the worst record — and a higher lottery slot. Does anyone think any of them are not going to roll out young, less-talented rosters in the name of development when the real goal is to lose as many games as they can the rest of the way? Most scouts think there is some real talent at the top of this draft, and teams are going to try to get up there and get it.

Just nobody can talk about it.