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.

Clippers executive Jerry West raves about Warriors’ Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green

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A former great player who’s now an executive for a Los Angeles NBA team praised an opposing player.

The last time this happened, Lakers president Magic Johnson got fined for tampering with the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.

How will Jerry West fare with these comments about Warriors stars Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green?

West, via the TK Show:

Kevin Durant, I don’t know. Obviously, he’s one of my favorite players I’ve ever watched play. His size, the efficiency that he plays the game is scary. And then you have Steph over there, your little, your next-door-neighbor kid. Let’s go play with him. And then you get out there, and then you find out, oh my god, this guy’s a killer. But pretty unique with that. And the complementary players, in their own right, they’re great. There’s Klay Thompson. He just goes and plays and never seeks any credit. He just plays and really competitive. Draymond, the guy that drives the horse. They’ve got some really unique players up there, and it’s still fun for me to watch. I watch them play. I root for them, because I know some of the players.

As a reminder, here’s what Johnson said about Antetokounmpo. Nick Friedell of ESPN:

As Johnson watches from afar, he can’t help but see and enjoy the parallels between his game and that of the Bucks big man.

“Oh yeah,” Johnson told ESPN recently. “With his ball-handling skills and his passing ability. He plays above the rim I never could do that. But in his understanding of the game, his basketball IQ, his creativity of shots for his teammates. That’s where we [have the] same thing. Can bring it down, make a pass, make a play. I’m just happy he’s starting in the All-Star game because he deserves that. And he’s going to be like an MVP, a champion, this dude he’s going to put Milwaukee on the map. And I think he’s going to bring them a championship one day.”

Two key differences between West and Johnson:

West didn’t help get his team fined for tampering last summer. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said there’s no clear line for tampering, but that the Lakers face a higher bar due their previous violations.

Johnson didn’t previously work for Milwaukee. West worked in Golden State’s front office while those players were there and knows them personally.

But Silver also provided a rough outline of when tampering will be enforced when addressing Johnson’s latest fine:

“It’s one thing when you’re asking a coach a question about an opposing team right after a game. It’s another issue when a general manager or president of basketball sort of gratuitously issues a statement that is complimentary of a star player on another team.

“In essence, what we’ve said to him, and it’s a clear message to other team executives, is that stop talking about star players on other teams. There are plenty of other issues they can address. And there is sensitivity around it throughout the league.”

Given that line, I don’t know how West avoid a fine – which is a shame.

What he said is harmless. No player is going to join another team due to benign compliments from an opposing executive.

It’s also a disservice to fans and West himself if he’s discouraged from speaking publicly about current players. The all-time great has valuable perspective, and he shouldn’t be silenced just because he works for an NBA team. His entire interview with Tim Kawakami of The Athletic is interesting. Everybody would lose if West turns down interviews in fear of a fine.

Meanwhile, more meaningful tampering – making plans on future contracts – is rampant. But that’s difficult to curb. So, the NBA enforces silly stuff like this.

The NBA never should have fined Johnson for the Antetokounmpo comments. It just opens too many cans of worms in a fight not worth fighting. Seriously, what’s the point?

If I were the Lakers, I’d be bothered if West skates free on this. But if I were West, I’d also resent a fine.

The league has backed itself into a dumb corner.

C.J. McCollum on how Portland’s defense, and his, became respectable

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LOS ANGELES — Portland’s much-maligned defense has been one of quieter turn-around stories of this NBA season.  It went from bottom 10 the past two seasons — and the reason the team has stalled out in the playoffs — to being 11th in the league this season, 2.8 per 100 possessions better than the season before.

Change doesn’t just happen. It started with work last June and July in the gym and has continued into the film room during the season. 

And it started with Portland’s leaders C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard.

The two elite guards were tired of hearing about their sub-par defense, so they prioritized defensive drills every off-season workout to get better on that end. They focused on their film study to how to get more stops. They made defense a priority and started to better use their experience in the league on that end.

“We work a lot with our strength and conditioning staff, we work with our assistant coaches on breaking down film, figuring out ways to find better angles, figuring out ways to move through screens better,” McCollum told NBC Sports of his improved defense. “But I think defensively understanding offenses a little better helps you be in better positions, understanding schemes, tendencies for certain players allows you to become a better defender. A lot of it is this is the NBA, guys are good and they’re going to score, you just have to make it as difficult as possible. Any advantages you can have make it a little bit easier.”

McCollum has been better this year. While all the defensive analytics metrics are flawed, McCollum’s defensive rating is 2.2 per 100 better than last season. Opponents are shooting 41.2 percent against him this season, down from last season by more than a percentage point. McCollum has become a solid defender, which is a step up, and with Jusuf Nurkic more of his mistakes can be erased.

For McCollum and Portland, the improvement is in part about continuity. One of the strengths of the Blazers is they have kept their core together for years and kept coach Terry Stotts on the sidelines. It leads to a familiarity both with each other and the opponents they face.

“We’ve had the same guys, same staff, the schemes have been the same, our approach has been the same, just our practices have been a little bit different in terms of concepts and what we’re trying to accomplish throughout the season,” McCollum said. “Our shell has been great, a top 10 team defensively (they are currently 11th after a rough stretch before the All-Star break). Obviously, there will be slippage at times, you’re going to give up points here or there, but we’ve been pretty consistent.”

“I just think our shell has been tighter, making them skip the ball across the court a lot of times, and picking it up if they try to hit the roll man or penetrate, making them have to work a little more in the halfcourt and prevent second-chance points.”

McCollum could have easily been an All-Star — the fifth-year guard out of Lehigh University is averaging 21.7 points per game and shooting 42.1 percent from three — but instead was in Los Angeles for the weekend with Verizon Up, the company’s reward program for its mobile customers available through the My Verizon app (of which McCollum said he’s a member). The program offers the chance to redeem points for a lot of experiences, such as being close to Justin Timberlake for a concert. At All-Star weekend members could get premium access to all of the weekend’s events, including the Verizon Up Member’s Lounge – a space to relax, eat and drink, and meet NBA players.

NBA players were looking to relax last weekend, too. McCollum said at this point in the season players (and coaches, and referees, basically everyone) needs the mental and physical break of a few days off. Portland returns to action tonight (Friday) against red-hot Utah, and the Blazers could use the win — they are the current seven seed in the West, but just 1.5 games up on missing the playoffs completely (and just two games up on the Jazz). On the other hand, Portland is just 2.5 games out of the three seed in the bunched up West.

“We go into every game thinking it’s crucial, every game we got to perform, you got to not lose at home, you got to not lose to teams under .500,” McCollum said of the team down the stretch run. “One bad week could have you at 10th, 11th place, one good week could have you at four or five.

“There comes a time (late in the season) when there’s a drop-off. Some teams are going to be a little more inconsistent down the stretch, but you just got to rise above.”

Portland leans on Lillard and McCollum not to let the team be inconsistent down the stretch. Those two have evolved into one of the most dangerous backcourts in the NBA.

“We do a good job of balancing each other out, of figuring out when to attack and when to pass off to the next guy,” McCollum said of him and Lillard. “I think it just comes with continuing to develop a relationship off the court where you have more trust, where you figure out how to communicate more effectively.

“A lot of it is non-verbal stuff on the court because it’s too loud and you can’t hear, or you just notice something and you look to see if he noticed it too then you just kind of play off of that.  A lot of times you learn on the fly. You get in a situation, you see certain things, and five games later it might be the same thing happening again and you kind of look like ‘you remember this?’ And you just kind of figure it out.”

Other team’s game plan against Portland is generally clear — get the ball out of Lillard and McCollum’s hands. Don’t let them get hot and beat us. Just good luck pulling that off, it’s not easy. Also, the improved play of Shabazz Napier has helped, giving Portland another shot creator off the bench.

“He’s been great, really shooting the ball well from the field, a good plus/minus… it helps when you have other guys out there who can handle the ball and create,” McCollum said.

But in the end, Portland’s playoff dreams will rise and fall with McCollum and Lillard, and that improved defense. McCollum and Lillard will get buckets. Will the Blazers get stops?

That’s where the offseason work, the continuity, and the experience all need to come together for Portland.

“(The improved defense) comes with experience, playing in big games, playing in certain environments where you get a better understanding of the play calling,” McCollum said. “We’ve played the Warriors like 16 times the last two years, so you start to understand certain tendencies (the Trail Blazers beat the Warriors just before the All-Star break). You know what guys like to do, certain plays they do out of timeouts, and just different options throughout the game, and as you play in the league more you play against certain players more and you get to figure out their tendencies and what they like to do in certain situations.”

Stephen Curry, Danilo Gallinari trade halfcourt buzzer-beaters (video)

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Warriors star Stephen Curry drained a halfcourt shot to end the first quarter. Not to be outdone, Clippers forward Danilo Gallinari hit a halfcourt shot to end the second quarter.

I’m just marveling how much less of a heave Curry’s shot was, even if it was slightly closer. His range is incredible.

Golden State won, 134-127, behind 44 points from Curry.

Report: Markelle Fultz, Kyle Kuzma among NBA players who received agency money while in school

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Details are emerging in the FBI’s probe into college basketball – specifically how former NBA agent Andy Miller distributed money (through college coaches) to players, i.e., potential clients.

Pat Forde and Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports:

An ASM balance sheet in the hands of federal investigators shows accounts through Dec. 31, 2015, with the subheading, “Loan to Players.” It listed several who were in high school or college as receiving four-figure and five-figure payments from ASM Sports. Among the largest listed loans:

  • Dennis Smith, who would go on to play at North Carolina State in 2016-17, received $43,500 according to the documents. Another document headed “Pina,” for ASM agent Stephen Pina, says Smith received a total of $73,500 in loans, and includes notes about “options to recoup the money” when Smith did not sign with ASM.
  • Isaiah Whitehead, at the time a freshman at Seton Hall, received $26,136 according to the documents. The “Pina” document says Whitehead received $37,657 and was “setting up payment plan.” Whitehead signed with ASM but later left the agency for Roc Nation.
  • Tim Quarterman, at the time a junior at LSU, received at least $16,000 according to the balance sheet.
  • Diamond Stone, at the time a freshman at Maryland, received $14,303 according to the documents.
  • A listing that refers to “BAM” for $12,000 is later identified in the documents as Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, who would go on to play at Kentucky in 2016-17. He did not sign with ASM. There’s a later reference to Adebayo that says he received $36,500. “Bad loan,” reads the document.
  • Markelle Fultz, who would go on to play at Washington and become the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, received $10,000 according to the documents. He did not sign with ASM.

Former Utah star Kyle Kuzma received at least $9,500 while in school, according to the documents.

Former Wichita State player Fred VanVleet. Documents show he received at least $1,000.

Apples Jones, the mother of former Kansas player Josh Jackson, received $2,700 according to documents.

Images attached to the article also show more NBA players, dating quite far back.

My simple reaction: Good for these players. They have a marketable skill, and they deserved to be compensated by the open market for it. It’s a shame the NCAA’s cartel system prevented that.

As Kevin Pelton of ESPN put so well: