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NBA heads to Israel to develop talent, promote cultural awareness

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JERUSALEM (AP) The NBA is heading to the Holy Land this week, bringing together some of the top emerging talent from across Europe as part of the league’s push to attract more foreign players and expand its global reach.

An NBA delegation, led by Commissioner Adam Silver, is in Israel as part of “Basketball Without Borders,” a program that hosts training camps for top teenage players throughout the world. The visit comes at a time when Silver is seeking ways to make improvements to a league that, while enjoying a surge in popularity, has seen its product impacted by the dominance of a handful of teams and a recent trend of healthy superstars skipping games to rest.

In an interview, Silver said the program aims to give players who have a legitimate chance of reaching the professional ranks a cultural and athletic experience that would be hard to match.

“It’s a realization that in order to develop as an elite player at a relatively young age, you need to begin competing against other elite players. And also you need the benefit of top notch coaching,” he said.

Some 60 of the top Under-17 players across Europe will participate- including 40 boys and 20 girls. They will get a chance to train under current and former NBA players and coaches, including Israel’s Omri Casspi, a new member of the champion Golden State Warriors, and Hall of Famer David Robinson, as well as leading figures from European basketball.

Off the court, the program also promotes cultural awareness.

“Whatever region we’re in, we educate the young folks about what’s happening socially, politically, economically in the area they are in,” Silver said. “It’s life skills in addition to basketball. It’s about the values of the game, like leadership and discipline and hard work and respect for each other.”

Toward that goal, the program will sponsor a series of clinics and workshops for local youngsters that will include Israeli Jews as well as members of the Muslim, Christian and Druze minorities. Palestinian children from the West Bank will also be participating, Silver said. On Sunday, for instance, the program will dedicate a new “learn and play” center at Jerusalem’s YMCA.

“We look for regions where we can have a bigger impact than just the game of basketball,” Silver said. Earlier this month, the program held a similar camp in South Africa.

“What we’d like to see is using basketball to build bridges between cultures,” he said. “I think it really is true that people, whether on a basketball court, or it’s on a soccer pitch, when they compete together they see how much they really do have in common. In this case, it’s a shared passion for basketball.”

Basketball Without Borders, a partnership with FIBA, the world’s governing basketball authority, has held camps in 26 countries since it was launched in 2001. This is the first time Israel, which is part of FIBA’s Europe region, has hosted the program. Forty-six former campers, including Casspi, have been drafted by NBA teams.

“I was a BWB camper in 2005 in Italy. To be a part of BWB now in my home country more than a decade later and to have the opportunity to work closely with these talented youth at the camp and conduct events in the community, is truly an amazing experience,” Casspi said. “I think the kids will have a fantastic time here while pursuing their dreams at BWB the next couple of days.”

The program is part of a push that has turned the NBA into a global sports powerhouse, second only to soccer.

The league says its games are now broadcast in 215 countries and territories, and Silver said basketball has made “enormous inroads” in China and is now gaining momentum around Africa and in India.

The league now holds pre-season games in China, regular season games in London and Mexico and broadcasts afternoon games on weekends to make them easier to watch in overseas time zones. The NBA also is in the process of launching soccer-style “academies” around the world to develop promising teenage talent year round.

Developing foreign talent makes good business sense. But it also has been good for the game. Some 25 percent of the NBA’s players are now foreign born, and international superstars such as Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Yao Ming have helped transform the sport in recent years.

Silver said that deepening the talent pool is the best response to complaints that the sport is dominated by a handful of powerhouse teams led by superstar players, leaving most teams without a chance of winning.

“It’s a nature of this sport. If you have certain players, you’re highly likely to be better than other teams,” he said. The best response, he said, is to develop more great players rather than place “artificial ceilings on how good a team can be.”

Silver said the off-season will also focus on some other league issues, including the problem of “healthy rest.”

He said the league will be starting a week earlier to allow for more off days during the season, will be reducing the number of back-to-back games and has eliminated the grueling practice of teams playing four games in five days.

Next month, owners also are expected to approve a new set of guidelines aimed at reducing healthy rest, he said.

“We’re trying to find the right balance,” he said. “We recognize that a certain amount of rest is necessary. … But we want to make sure that we sort of draw some clear guidelines for our teams when it is appropriate to rest players.”

James Harden on recruiting Chris Paul from LA: “He didn’t seem happy”

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One of the most interesting storylines of the first month of this upcoming NBA season will be the Houston Rockets.

The team has paired MVP candidate James Harden with one of the greatest point guards of all time in Chris Paul, but it remains to be seen whether the two will be able to work together with the kind of efficiency that Mike D’Antoni’s team had in 2016-17.

Harden has been the subject of some chatter already this offseason after a photo of him surfaced on Instagram. In it, Harden looked to have added a significant portion of muscle this summer, which may help him as he moves back to a more off-ball style of play with Paul in the fold.

Harden was also the subject of significant scrutiny at the end of last season, where he failed in the playoffs in spectacular fashion against the San Antonio Spurs.

In a recent interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, Harden said his newfound weight gain has been part of his plan to combat late-season fatigue. Harden has also introduced yoga and pilates into his workout routine.

Perhaps more interesting information from Harden’s interview with Amick revealed just how much impact he had recruiting Chris Paul in the trade from Los Angeles Clippers, and Paul’s attitude at the end of the season toward his former team.

Via USA Today:

Harden, who signed a four-year extension this summer and will earn a combined $228 million by the end of the 2022-23 season, had everything to do with the move.

“I just knew that in the summertime obviously (Paul) was a free agent, and I wanted to see where his head was,” Harden said of Paul, who will now be a free agent next summer. “He didn’t seem happy, so after that we just took it from there.

“Obviously Golden State has been in the Finals and won two out of three, so that’s what everybody is trying to build up against. But we’re right there. We’re right there. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, but it definitely puts us in a better chance.”

It certainly makes sense that after years of perpetual playoff failure by the Clippers that Paul would want to move on. Harden and CP3 seem to enjoy each other at the moment, and a pairing does seem to make sense on paper. We will see how that plays out over the course of next season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo announces he will not play for Greece in Eurobasket

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Giannis Antetokounmpo said had big plans to play for the Greek national team this summer, taking his country back to the top of the European ladder at EuroBasket (they had won the tournament a dozen years ago).

Instead, a sore knee will keep the Greek Freak out of EuroBasket. He made the announcement on his Facebook page.

Antetokounmpo had missed all but one of Greece’s early EuroBasket tune-ups due to a sore knee. That, understandably, concerned the Bucks, especially with his four-year, $100 million contract extension about to kick in next season.

Antetokounmpo is in China promoting shoes, but said he on Facebook he took a physical while there and was not able to complete the exercises due to pain.

“It is by far the biggest disappointment in my career. I must deal with the problem,” Antetokounmpo said in the Facebook post (written in Greek).

Within hours of the post going up, the Greek basketball federation released a statement slamming the Bucks and Antetokounmpo, saying they had done an MRI of his knee and found no damage.

“The simultaneous report by the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo himself, by phone and social media from faraway China, and not by the appropriate official manner, of his inability to join the national men’s team saddens us … but is not surprising… A series of indications … had convinced us of the existence of an organized and well-staged plan by (the Bucks), with the full knowledge if not encouragement of the NBA that put the athlete on the spot and forced him to announce today that he is no longer part of the men’s national team.”

Great, just what the world needs, another conspiracy theory.

While NBA teams generally are not huge fans of their stars playing in national team tournaments (due to the injury risk), teams cannot stop a healthy player from playing. Antetokounmpo said this was his decision because he is in pain and has to think about the upcoming NBA season.

Whatever the Greek Federation believes internally, slamming the player and his team publicly like this is one good way to make sure he will not want to play for them in the future. He’s got knee pain, they are saying “you’re fine, walk it off, ” and that must have Antetokounmpo and the people around him wondering if the Greek Federation has his best interests — or theirs — at heart.

Akron store already selling “Stay Home 23” shirts, hats as LeBron decision looms

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We’ve seen this movie before.

There is all sorts of buzz around the league that LeBron James has one foot out the door in Cleveland. While people around LeBron denied he the rumor he is “100 percent” leaving, good luck finding any league source who thinks he is staying put next summer. Nothing is set in stone, his options — including staying — remain open, but we’ve all been down this road before.

The hometown fans are going to do their part to urge LeBron to stay.

Fan sentiment has some pull with LeBron (he came back to win the city a title). However, what matters more is a sense of a plan to keep the Cavaliers as title contenders for the coming years — and that is more than just Dan Gilbert paying the tax. The Cavs did nothing this summer that got them closer to beating Golden State, and while they swung for the fences with Paul George, what they really needed was wing defenders and athletes, and they didn’t get those either. Luc Mbah a Moute signed a one-year deal for the minimum somewhere else. Instead, Cleveland overpaid Kyle Korver.

Despite all that, the Cavs remain the team to beat in the East. If Cleveland gets to the Finals — LeBron’s eighth in a row — and they win or make it close, he may see staying as his best option. A season can be a lifetime in the NBA in terms of shifting attitudes. Still, I wouldn’t bet the rent on it.

Marshall Plumlee gets camp invite, partially guaranteed contract from Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers have 14 fully guaranteed contracts on their roster, plus a partial guarantee for DeAndre Liggins (who likely is on the roster opening day). They also are pretty much set at center with DeAndre Jordan and Willie Reed (plus when they go small they can play Blake Griffin there, something I wish they’d do a little more).

That said, Doc Rivers — just a coach now — needs bodies for camp, so in comes former Duke star and Knick Marshall Plumlee, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Plumlee played in 21 games for the Knicks last season, logging a total of 190 minutes. He bounced between New York and the D-League Westchester Knicks, when down he averaged 12.3 points and 9.8 rebounds a game.

He’s not making the Clippers’ squad (barring injury), but he could show well and get noticed by other teams. Over the course of a season, there will be a need for bigs as guys go down injured, Plumlee is getting a chance to show how his game has developed. And he makes some money in the process.