Pau Gasol, Kevin Love

FIBA World Cup preview: USA, Spain, then who else can medal?

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The world’s 24 top international basketball teams are not flying to Spain just for the gambas al ajillo tapas or to play for national pride, there is a prize when the FIBA World Cup tips off on Saturday:

A berth in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Win and your in, come in second to 24th and you need to go to qualifying tournaments next season.

Plus, you can win a medal. Gold, silver or bronze. And who doesn’t like getting a medal?

So who can win medals? Here’s a breakdown:

Gold/Silver medal contenders:

If the gold medal game is not the USA vs. Spain it will be an upset. These are the world’s two best teams and with Spain playing in front of their home fans it’s hard to imagine them getting beat. That final game likely will be close, but it’s far too early to predict an outcome. Only that the meeting is destined.

USA: The USA senior national team last lost a game in 2006 (at this World Cup) and has won everything since: gold at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics plus the 2010 World Cup. Despite late defections and other guys staying home, Team USA is still loaded and deeper than any team in the tournament — Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, James Harden will lead a USA squad that will use high pressure defense, three point shooting, transition scoring and superior athleticism to overwhelm teams.

Spain: They are the runners up the last two Olympics and they bring a lot of depth — Mark Gasol, Pau Gaol and Serge Ibaka form a formidable front line with Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro, Felipe Reyes and Rudy Fernandez in the backcourt. Every guy on their roster plays NBA or high-level international ball, plus is experienced on the international stage. These guys have been playing with each other for years and have a real comfort level in what they do. They were right with Team USA in the London Olympics gold medal game until Marc Gasol got in foul trouble… you think that happens on their home court?

Bronze medal contenders:

Everyone else is competing for third, here are the teams that could win it.

France: They are the defending EuroBasket champions and they bring some NBA talent to the roster — Evan Fournier, Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw, Ian Mahinmi, Rudy Gobert, plus you all remember Mickael Gelabale. However, they are without Tony Parker and Joakim Noah, two big pieces that keep them from being a dark horse gold contender. However they are still talented, still have plenty of shooting and versatility, and if Batum and Diaw can lead them they can get the bronze.

Brazil: They are loaded along the front line — Tiago Splitter, Nene, Anderson Varejao, — and are counting on guys like Leandro Barbosa and experienced internationals like Marcelinho Huertas to do enough in the backcourt. They will defend and score inside, if they get enough shooting and play on the wing they can certainly medal. But that’s a real big question.

Greece: They are in a transition from the older generation (led by the now gone Vassilis Spanoulis) to younger players, but they have some talent — NBA players Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks), Nick Calathes (Grizzlies), Kostas Papanikolaou (Rockets). They have real athleticism but do they have enough steady shooting to get the job done? If they knock down shots they are a medal threat. But we’re going to watch to see Antetokounmpo anyway.

Argentina: This is the last serious go around for Argentina’s golden generation, but they will have to do it without Manu Ginobili (a stress fracture that is not fully recovered). Still they have Luis Scola, Pablo Prigioni, Andres Nocioni, and even Walter Herrmann. Argentina will need to integrate good play from their younger stars and they will need to get past a very big internal controversy about the handling of money in the Argentinian basketball organization. But they might medal.

Lithuania: The world’s fourth ranked team has the advantage of being on the soft side of the draw — they should win group D handily and while they are not better than the USA only Turkey might really be a threat after that on their side of the bracket. This is a team that could and really should reach the bronze medal game, if they can overcome the loss of starting point guard Mantas Kalnietis (dislocated shoulder). They have real quality up front with Jonas Valanciunas (Raptors) and Donatas Motiejunas (Rockets) but they have solid, smart international players at every other position. Not great at any position, but solid to good at every one. Expect to see them playing for the bronze against one of the teams above.

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.

Blake Griffin says he’s working on improving his three-point shot

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots a jumper over Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 100-99 loss to the Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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2016-17 is going to be a big year for Blake Griffin. He missed much of last season with a quad injury and a broken hand stemming from a punching incident, and he has the ability to opt out of his contract next summer. When Griffin was healthy, he was his usual All-Star self for the Clippers, but he played just 35 games. He’s healthy now, at the start of training camp, and he says he wants to improve his three-point shot.

From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“I want to be someone who shoots from there confidently, for sure,” Griffin said after Thursday’s practice at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. “A lot of us power forwards, our strength is inside or our versatility. You look at the best power forwards, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus (Aldridge), Draymond (Green) … they can all shoot but they can all put the ball on the floor and they can all score inside. I don’t necessarily think falling in love with the 3-point shot is a good idea, but shooting it confidently from there is great.”

Not only has Griffin not hit his threes in his career (his overall mark from beyond the arc is an awful 27.1 percent) but he doesn’t take very many of them. The most threes he’s ever shot in a season is 44 in 2013-14, and he hit 12 of them. Griffin is only 27, so he’s theoretically not done improving as a player, but it’s hard to imagine a dramatic jump this far along when that hasn’t been a part of his game at all to this point.

 

Steve Kerr endorses shorter preseason to limit back-to-backs

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media after being defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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There are too many preseason games. The NBA has its reasons for playing them — namely, to allow for games in non-NBA markets — and sometimes they can be valuable for teams to experiment with rotations. But most teams play seven or eight preseason games, which is unnecessary. Warriors coach Steve Kerr agrees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau:

“I kind of like the idea that’s been tossed around the last couple summers to start the regular season a little earlier, maybe a week early,” Kerr said Thursday afternoon after Warriors practice. “Play five exhibition games instead of eight. I kind of like that, just so you have fewer back-to-backs in the regular season.”

The NBA has floated the idea in the past of cutting the number of preseason games in order to stretch out the regular season, thereby lessening the burden of travel and back-to-backs. The NBA has made an effort this season to cut down on back-to-backs, and this would be a logical way to do that.

Hornets’ Batum won’t let big contract affect how he plays

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets drives on Joe Johnson #2 of the Miami Heat  during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nicolas Batum said he isn’t planning to alter how he plays the game after signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

And that’s just fine with coach Steve Clifford.

Clifford said Batum doesn’t need to put additional pressure on himself to score just because he’s now the highest-paid player in Hornets history. He told him to play how he plays.

“You don’t change the nature of how you play. I think guys get messed up with that,” Clifford said. “… I don’t think you try to reinvent yourself because the money changed. We gave him the money because he played so well. In my opinion he was an All-Star-caliber player last season when healthy.”

Batum was acquired in a trade with Portland before last season and turned out to be a gem for Charlotte, which won 48 games and tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points and 5.6 assists while becoming one of the team’s top three go-to options.

Batum said he’s learned from experience that it’s not worth putting pressure on himself just because he signed a big contract.

He did in that 2012 after inking a four-year, $46 million deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers. While he still played well, he said it was pointless.

“I was a young guy at the time and I didn’t know what to expect,” Batum said. “Now I know. I know what I have to go through right now. I know what the views of the media and the public will be. I know that, and I’m good with it.”

For Batum, pressure no longer enters the equation because the Hornets trust him and believe in him.

“It’s more relief than pressure,” Batum said.

The Hornets made re-signing him their No. 1 priority, offering the Frenchman a huge deal about an hour into the free-agency signing period. Batum also received several offers from other teams shortly after the deadline, which he called flattering.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Batum enters the season as Charlotte’s best all-around player and a favorite among teammates.

“Guys are so much more comfortable when he’s out there on the floor because he makes it so much easier at both ends,” forward Marvin Williams said.

Williams said there’s a naturalness to Batum’s game, and he’s incredibly unselfish – he’s always looking for the better shot option.

“He likes to make the assist, and he likes to get everyone involved,” Williams said. “I think that is why so many people like playing with him. It’s why I love playing with him.”

And why Clifford views him as irreplaceable.

When Batum went down in the second half of last season with an ankle injury, the Hornets struggled to find their rhythm.

“He’s not a numbers guy to me,” Clifford said. “People can say, `Well, he’s making this or he’s making that (much money),’ but if he plays at the level he played at last year when he was healthy, we have a chance to be a really good team.”

The Hornets continue to work on 5-on-5 scrimmages extensively during practice as Clifford gets a feel for his team.

But there were several key players missing on Thursday.

Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and center Cody Zeller (knee) remained out of practice while rehabbing from injuries. Guard Jeremy Lamb did not practice after stepping on a basketball and twisting his ankle, while Brian Roberts was held out after injuring his hamstring when he slipped on some water on the court. Clifford said he hopes to have Lamb and Roberts back in a few days.