The Inbounds: Team USA and the meaning of London

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It’s extremely difficult to measure what winning a gold medal does for a player, outside of you know, giving them the actual object and putting a line on a resume. When most people think Michael Jordan, 99 percent of them don’t think “Olympic Gold Medalist.” They think six-time NBA champion, the Greatest of all Time, or “the guy in the Hanes commercial with his own shoe.” It’s really only in the context of the Olympics that we examine these players. In fact, the members of the 1992 Dream Team are known more for their association with that particular assembly of players than for winning the gold medal. The medal was basically the Kia that they give to Rookies of the Year. You care about the award but you’ve already accomplished more for yourself.

And though the teams are worse through the years, the same can be said for those other teams that won. Their players are proud of their medal, proud of their place in history, proud of what they have accomplished. But that doesn’t define their careers. LeBron James was not certified prior to winning the 2012 NBA title despite having won a gold medal in 2008. It exists separate, and every team is constantly being judged against an impossible standard set by the greatest collection of basketball talent in recorded history and the resulting mythology which has followed them.

So what stands before Team USA as the ball prepares to be tipped in the Summer Games’ basketball tournament? It’s a specific question that shifts with each player.

Kobe Bryant: It’s Jordan, right? I mean, that’s what his career has largely become about. It’s not about Magic, despite the Laker connection, his sights are set on a larger goal. If he can’t match what Jordan did in the time he did, he can match him in as many total areas as possible. Bryant can match Jordan’s two Olympic golds in London, and best him in golds in games featuring NBA players. For Bryant, though, this is also a farewell tour to international competition. You can tell from his interviews that he’s enjoying playing the role of figurehead, the vocal leader for Team USA, and making the rounds once more as the face of USA Basketball. This is Bryant’s last ride, and to go out as anything but not only undefeated, but dominant, would be a travesty to his identity.

Losing, as always, is not an option for Kobe Bean Bryant.

LeBron James: James, and this is going to ruffle some feathers, is very much the ’92 Jordan of this team. In no way am I stacking up the Chosen One with the Greatest of all Time in terms of their basketball talents, skills, or abilities. But in Jack McCallum’s excellent book on the Dream Team (released this month), he writes extensively about how Magic Johnson spoke and acted as the leader, but that Jordan was the better player. It was evident in practice, evident in games, evident in all manners. From what we’ve seen in these exhibitions, we’re seeing the same with Bryant and James. In 2008, it wasn’t just close, Bryant’s game was better suited for international play and his desire to be the firepower was evident. Bryant is much more the floor leader than the leader-by-example in these games so far. Bryant will have himself a game or two in these contests, as he’s still capable of dropping 40 on any fool that comes up against him at the right time.

But it’s James’ all-around game that has anchored Team USA. He’s the best player on the team, and that’s what these Olympics are about. No Dwyane Wade, a Kobe Bryant fading back, Kevin Durant not quite there, Carmelo Anthony still only the dominant player in one phase of the game. James is the nexus, he’s the one player that’s capable of everything Team USA needs. These games aren’t just about adding his second medal, but about winning the games as The Guy for Team USA. On a team that’s limited in areas by injury, James is producing in those areas and more. It’s another step in his evolutionary ladder as one of the best players ever.

That, of course, serves a double-purpose. James has long lagged behind other players in terms of international exposure and popularity. There will be a void when Bryant leaves as the most popular international player and both Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant, along with Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, are in better positions to capitalize on that. But the international fans really just respond to dominance and in 2008, James was much more of a facilitator and all-around player. He’ll still be playing that role, that’s his game, but an emphatic showing and a bit more control over the game offensively and he could take a big step forward. He’s conquered everything else, might as well go for the Continent.

Carmelo Anthony: It’s not difficult to argue that the Olympics bring out the best in Melo. He winds up playing more of a team-centric style which accentuates his shooters touch, and his body is better configured to attack the international forwards than either the small or power forwards in the NBA. His rebounding is better on display because he operates more off-ball, and he seems like quite the cold-blooded killer under the banner of Olympic Rings. Anthony can use this as a launching point for a career rejuvenation, or maybe better termed, a career advancement. He can learn what he’s best at, where he can succeed the most, and more importantly, that his success isn’t dependent on his dribbling. He’s still a star even if he’s not the one with the ball to start the possession. It’s who ends the possession with the ball in his hands and how they perform that matters. He can see how the world’s greatest contribute in multiple ways, and the approach to defense those players have

Make no mistake, Anthony can play defense, and play it well. It’s a willingness and focus issue that keeps him from being one of the premier defenders in the league.

This is also a huge opportunity for him to put himself back up on that pedestal with the greatest in the game. Anthony was considered one of the elite players in the league until a few years ago, and since then there’s been a separation between he and LeBron, Wade, and Bryant, and Rose, Howard, and Durant have leapfrogged him. But without Wade in position, with Bryant coming back a bit, and Durant not ready for the fullest load on an Olympic team, Melo can regain his footing. He has more experience than Durant and a bigger frame. He and Durant have had some prolific shooting nights in the exhibitions, and seeing which of the two asserts themselves as the third cog is going to be fascinating.

Kevin Durant: Rookie of the Year. Three-time NBA scoring champ. Three-time All-Star. Three-time All-NBA. NBA Western Conference Champion. FIBA World Championship gold medalist. And, should Durant and Team USA win gold in London, the kid KD will have an Olympic Gold Medal as the third or fourth best player on the greatest collection of basketball talent in the world.

He won’t turn 24 until September.

The comments above about Durant’s readiness have little to do with his actual game. He’s there. And he’s been putting in shooting nights, though his number have been a little erratic in the exhibitions. It’s more just about age, experience, and role. Durant doesn’t have to lead this Team USA, it’s stocked with leaders. 2010 was a great chance for him to be the leader for a younger team where he was the most talented player on the floor. This is a great opportunity for him to absorb the knowledge of the older players, and to model himself after them. Durant’s old enough to have his own game certified, and young enough to still be able to learn from the rest of the team.

But at its core, London is just another step in his career, another moment where he advances forward, learns more things, sees more of the world, and may be able to usurp the role of “hero” from LeBron with his popularity and how his game manifests. Durant’s likeability is off the charts, and putting it on a scale like this could have serious impacts for his global identity.

Again, not even 24 yet.

The Rest of the Vets: For Chris Paul, it’s simply another good thing he’s done in a career of good things. Paul’s game never quite seems to fit on the international stage for some reason, but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective. It’s also good for him to be around players in game and practice situations that set the bar as high as this team does. He’s in a position to have to translate those habits to the Clippers, and things like this help him with a model for that. It’s also good for his motivation to be around players with championship rings like Bryant, Chandler, and James. It would have been a great opportunity for some development and work with Blake Griffin, had the explosive forward not injured his knee.

Kevin Love gets to mingle with the kind of stars he wants to play with. Not for nothing, but Love and Russell Westbrook, old UCLA buddies, are hanging out. And we all know what goes on at these competitions with the superstar talk of teaming up. Love also gets to put his name under the bright lights, something that’s been a struggle in Minnesota, if he can manage to get consistent playing time.

Dwight Howard is the best center in the league. Andrew Bynum’s probably next. Marc Gasol is up there. But with his performances for Team USA and over the past three year sin the NBA, Tyson Chandler is in the midst of carving out a specific niche for himself in the league. He’s the center you want on your team. He’s not going to get the star treatment or endorsement deals, but Chandler will be remembered and praised for his work in these games. He’s building a legacy without commercials with performances like his with Team USA.

When we look back and realize how under-appreciated  Andre Iguodala is, it will be things like what he gave Team USA in the international competitions that stand out. You also have to wonder if eventually he’s going to get the bug to play with an elite talent of his own.

Like Durant, this is likely to be Russell Westbrook’s international coming out party. He’s been tearing it up in the exhibitions, and with the size luxury afforded to the coaching staff to have him play at the two-guard, he can do even more damage. He’s still going to take a high volume of shots, but there’s enough superior ego on the floor to keep him in check. Refining the fire that burns in Westbrook on the floor by being around players like Bryant is only going to help matters. This is a big moment for Westbook.

You have to wonder how much Deron Williams misses his mentor Jason Kidd, who will be playing across the boroughs from him in Manhattan. But Williams is also in a position to show that he’s still among that elite group. With Brooklyn raising the flag in October, this is the kickstart of what he likely hopes is the Deron Williams’ era. Williams made a name for himself in 2008 by being a better international guard than CP3. We could see the same in London with his ability to defend with more size.

James Harden gets to show Europe how you can cook with a beard.

Anthony Davis: Make no mistake, despite Davis’ limited role on this team, which will consist mostly of carrying bags and getting things for the older guys, and in general taking a lot of crap, this is an invaluable experience for Davis. He’s in a position to be immersed in a culture of winners, surrounded by the players who have been and are willing to do what it takes to be successful. He learns how to handle himself, how to condition his body, how to approach the media, how to mentally approach the game. He gets to absorb Tyson Chandler’s defensive mindset, Kevin Love’s rebounding approach, Kobe Bryant’s preparation, LeBron James’ workout intensity, Chris Paul’s cerebralism. This is the kind of learning experience guys would kill for, and it’s only going to be help him in the long-run. You want to be great? Surround yourself with great. Davis is surrounded by great.

Lonzo Ball recruits LeBron James to Lakers (video)

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Lonzo Ball doesn’t play for the Lakers. LeBron James isn’t a free agent.

But they’re headed that way – and Ball is already embracing it.

The Lakers are expected to draft Ball No. 2 tonight, and rumors are heating up about LeBron leaving the Cavaliers in 2018.

Why should LeBron join Ball in Los Angeles?

Ball on ESPN:

LeBron, I like to win. I know you like to win. I think our games can help each other out a lot. Any time you want the ball, just let me know. It’s going to be there.

Ball was asked to to pitch LeBron, so it’s not as if Ball is out here talking so brashly on his own. But answering the question was a rookie mistake.

Besides, I’m not sure Lonzo Ball can undo the bad blood between LeBron and LaVar Ball.

Celtics seemingly between Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum at No. 3 in NBA draft

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NEW YORK (AP) — Markelle Fultz is still expected to be the No. 1 pick, though the destination has changed.

Lonzo Ball wants to stay home with the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 2, and it seems surer than ever he will.

The intrigue, then, starts with the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft Thursday.

That’s where the Boston Celtics are scheduled to pick after moving down two spots in a trade with Philadelphia, giving the 76ers the right to select Fultz with their second No. 1 pick in two years.

Forwards Josh Jackson of Kansas and Jayson Tatum of Duke are two players frequently mentioned as possibilities at the No. 3 spot, and Celtics president Danny Ainge said Boston could get the player there they might have taken at No. 1.

Jackson never thought that would be him, so he said he didn’t work out for the Celtics.

“Me and my agent talked and we just didn’t feel like they had much interest in drafting me at No. 1, so we felt like it would be sort of a waste of time for me to go out and work out if they were really not considering drafting me,” Jackson said. “After they got the third pick, we tried to schedule something for me to get out there. But it was just scheduling issues and it was a little delayed for me to get out there.”

He said he had been open to working out for the Celtics and said it was possible they might draft him, anyway.

Tatum and the Celtics seem to have more familiarity, with the 6-foot-8 swingman believing he’d be a good fit on the roster of the team that had the best record in the Eastern Conference.

“I talked about that with coach Brad Stevens,” Tatum said. “He just said guys that are my size and are versatile offensively and defensively, it’s hard not to play those guys. That’s what we talked about.”

Other things to watch from Barclays Center:

IT’S GOT TO BE THE SHOES: When Fultz walks on stage to shake hands with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, he recommends you check out his feet.

“Pay attention to my footwear,” the Washington guard said. “I’m going to have some custom-made shoes that I think nobody ever had before.”

LOVING LONZO – AND LAVAR: Ball acknowledged that there might be a “target” on him entering the draft because of all his father’s comments. But if the Lakers want Lonzo – and it seems they do after trading point guard D'Angelo Russell to Brooklyn – they won’t be turned off by LaVar.

“They were just open arms,” Lonzo said of his Lakers workout. “They said they love my dad and left it at that.”

THEIR TIME TO SHINE: With so much trade speculation about All-Stars such as Paul George and Jimmy Butler, there hasn’t been as much focus as usual leading into Thursday on the players who are in the draft.

“We don’t need that attention,” Kentucky guard Malik Monk said. “We’re going to get ours tomorrow.”

FRESHMAN FUN: The record of 14 freshmen selected in the first round might last just one year. Of the 20 players expected to be in the green room, 13 were college one-and-dones.

DULL DRAFT: Neither Golden State nor Cleveland, who met in the NBA Finals, has a pick in the two-round draft. The Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies also are without a pick, while Houston, New Orleans and Washington don’t have one in the first round.

INTERNATIONAL INTRIGUE: A year after nearly half the draft – a record 27 of the 60 picks – were international players, French guard Frank Ntilikina and Finnish forward Lauri Markkanen, who played a year at Arizona, are two of the top international players. Both have met with the New York Knicks, who scored well two years ago when they went overseas with their pick of Latvian Kristaps Porzingis – to whom Markkanen has been compared as a 7-footer with perimeter shooting skills.

Markkanen was asked about potentially playing with or replacing Porzingis, who team president Phil Jackson told MSG Network on Wednesday the Knicks are taking calls about after he left New York without attending his exit interview.

“I try not to think about it too much,” Markkanen said. “I’ve been doing my work here and I’m just waiting for tomorrow night and whatever happens, happens.”

 

Report: Spurs talking to teams about trading LaMarcus Aldridge for top-10 pick

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San Antonio’s pursuit of Chris Paul hit a snag when the NBA reduced its salary-cap projection to $99 million.

Even if they trimmed their roster to just Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker – they were reportedly open to trading Danny Green – the Spurs would no longer have max cap space for Paul.

So, San Antonio might look into trading its highest-paid player: Aldridge.

Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

The San Antonio Spurs, in pursuit of a top-10 pick in Thursday’s NBA draft, have spoken to at least three teams about a possible trade involving power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, sources confirmed to ESPN.

There were already rumors about the Spurs trading Aldridge, who was reportedly unhappy about Leonard getting the spotlight. Gregg Popovich called out Aldridge publicly during the playoffs.

San Antonio would already be sacrificing immediate production by dealing Aldridge for a rookie whose value is tied to team control, salary and upside. But if trading Aldridge leads to signing Paul, the Spurs don’t even need equal value in return for the big man. Paul would offset the difference.

Free agency doesn’t begin until July 1, making this tricky for San Antonio, which might regret dumping Aldridge if Paul doesn’t sign. So, the Spurs must read the tea leaves on Paul and proceed accordingly.

De’Aaron Fox’s speed raced him up draft boards, made him confident wherever he lands

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De’Aaron Fox even talks fast.

Speed is what separates the point guard out of Kentucky from a deep crop at the position in this draft. Fox has got impressive playmaking skills, his defense can overwhelm, he has a maturity and confidence about him not seen in most 19-year-olds — there are multiple reasons he has climbed draft boards and is expected to be taken in the top five Thursday night during the NBA Draft.

However, it’s the speed that separates him.

“You can’t really teach speed, you either have it or you don’t,” Fox told NBC Sports. “For me, Coach Cal had me using that as a weapon and that’s just something I learned while I was at Kentucky.”

It’s that speed that intrigues teams. Fox generally has been projected to go to Phoenix or Sacramento (picks four or five), but the ground under this draft is shifting quickly and Fox said he has no idea where he will be taken. He could land a lot of places. He said he’d prefer it to be in an uptempo system, but he believes he can help any team that takes him.

“I think I just bring a level of playmaking that some of the teams in the lottery don’t have,” Fox said. “That’s offensively and defensively. Defensively that’s playing the passing lanes, just getting your hands on balls. And offensively just being able to beat your man and being able to create for yourself and others….

“The NBA game is a lot faster than the college game, but you still have to be able to play in the high gears.”

Where most people remember him using those higher gears was to overwhelm likely No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball of UCLA in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament (frankly, he outplayed Ball both times Kentucky took on UCLA last season). Fox had 39 points on 20 shots that March night, plus got to the line 15 times. However, more impressive was his defense on Ball, holding the bigger guard to 10 points on 10 shots (with eight assists). Again, it was about speed.

“I’m quicker and faster than just about everybody I played against so just being able to get under guards, just try to limit what they can do with their size,” Fox said. “I try to speed them up, play to my tempo.”

Fox has been fast up the draft board — and fast to get endorsements and deals. He inked a shoe deal with Nike. He was in New York Wednesday to shoot a new commercial for Kids Foot Locker — they wanted him even before the draft. Like a lot of scouts, they see a potential star about to bloom.

“I always thought I’d want to see myself in a commercial and things like that, see myself on TV doing things other than just basketball,” Fox said. “This is a blessing to be able to do things like this. I’m just blessed God gave me the talent and I’m just taking it and being able to affect the world.”

If scouts had one question about Fox, it was his jump shot. He shot just 24.6 percent from three last season, and his jump shot was as inconsistent as his release point. His form wasn’t terrible, just a little all over the map.

However, it has looked better in recent workouts, largely because Fox and trainer Chris Gaston put in the time in the gym.

“I put a lot of work on it,” Fox said of his jumper. “I know I’m going to need it at the next level, but also that was something I really just struggled with at the beginning of the year at Kentucky, so I that was one thing didn’t really worry about, I just had to tighten (it up)…

“Really it was just getting up reps, staying focused on every shot, locked in.”

Fox’s maturity showed through when asked what else he’s been working on — he’s been getting in better shape. Something some players don’t figure out until they’ve been in the league a few years.

“Getting my body right,” Fox said. “At the next level, you got to be a lot stronger, quicker, faster… (conditioning) really goes up a tremendous level from college to the NBA, and it’s something that you really need work. You really have to focus on that.”

Fox credits part of him being NBA ready with a year under John Calipari at Kentucky, a school that feels like a one-and-done factory at points.

“Just the way he coaches. He tries to run it like an NBA organization,” Fox said. “You know the track record he’s had, so you don’t go in there like you’re the only high major player he’s ever had, you’re one of many. You just listen to him and he’s able to get you to the next level, he helps us that way. He has us playing like an NBA team, it’s difficult in college to simulate that but he does it the best.”

Thursday night, years of work in the gym for Fox will all culminate with him being drafted — then another whirlwind will start. He will be flown off to the city where he is picked, meet the media, sit down with the coach, and quickly start workouts with the team in advance of Summer League. Fox hasn’t focused too much on where he will land, but he has focused on what he will wear draft night.

“I’ve actually had my suit picked out for a while now,” Fox said. “I haven’t actually picked the shoes yet, though.”

Would John Calipari approve of the look?

“I think he would.”