Kurt Helin

US forward Kevin Durant celebrates after
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A weakened US still team to beat in Olympic men’s basketball

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A weakened U.S. basketball team believes it’s still the strongest one in the Olympics.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry and enough stars to fill an All-NBA team passed on playing, leaving the Americans with a roster that falls short against the Dream Team comparisons they always face.

But the U.S. doesn’t need to beat the Dream Team, or to be one. It just has to be the best in Brazil.

“I respect the guys that declined the opportunity, but I think we still have a great team here, a lot of talent,” center DeMarcus Cousins said. “We still have the same goal in mind, winning the gold medal.”

The Americans remain favored to do that, which would give them three in a row. Some things to watch as they try:

THE U.S. ROSTER

While they’re not the Dream Team, the U.S. squad in Rio is still an impressive group of players. The team includes: Golden State’s Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green; New York’s Carmelo Anthony; Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving; Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan; Indiana’s Paul George; Dallas’ Harrison Barnes; Chicago’s Jimmy Butler; Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins and the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan.

THE FORMAT

Two six-team groups. Each team faces the others in its pool, and the top four teams in each advance to the quarterfinals.

Group A features the U.S., Serbia, France, China, Australia, and Venezuela.

Group B is Spain, Lithuania, Brazil, Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria.

WHICH GROUP IS TOUGHER?

Group A is more top-heavy, with the U.S., Serbia and France finishing 1-2-3 in the Basketball World Cup two years ago. But Group B appears to be deeper, with Spain (No. 2), Lithuania (3), Argentina (4), Brazil (9) and Croatia (12) all among the top dozen ranked teams in the world.

GRAB A SEAT, THIS WILL BE A WHILE

The Olympic basketball tournament runs nearly the entire length of the Games, making the first round of the NBA playoffs seem speedy. Competition begins Aug. 6, the day after the opening ceremony, and the medal games are Aug. 21, the day of the closing ceremony.

ROLLING INTO RIO

The U.S. has won 63 straight games, 45 in FIBA competitions and 18 in exhibition play.

CAPTAIN AMERICA

Carmelo Anthony will become the first U.S. men’s player to appear in four Olympics, and become the most decorated men’s basketball Olympian ever if the U.S. wins a medal. He has a bronze from 2004 and golds in Beijing and London.

THIRD TIME THE CHARM?

Spain sure hopes this is the year it can break through, after pushing the U.S. deep into the final minutes of the last two gold-medal games. The Americans emerged with a 118-107 victory in 2008 and held on to win 107-100 in London. The Spanish bring back veterans such as Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro for a final shot.

GOODBYE, GOLDEN GENERATION

This certainly seems like the end for Argentina’s greats, who won gold in 2004, bronze in 2008 and narrowly missed another medal when they finished fourth in 2012. Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and Andres Nocioni are back, with Scola chosen as Argentina’s flag bearer.

BEST FIRST-ROUND DAY

Group B has some intriguing games on Aug. 13. Spain meets Lithuania in a rematch of the 2015 EuroBasket championship game, and Brazil and Argentina renew a fierce rivalry that’s seen one knock the other out of the last three major international tournaments. Argentina eliminated Brazil in the 2010 world championship and 2012 Olympics, while the Brazilians – coached by Ruben Magnano, who led Argentina to its 2004 gold – ended the Argentinians’ stay in the 2014 Basketball World Cup. Croatia and Nigeria meet in the nightcap.

MEN IN THE MIDDLE

Spain is keeping Marc Gasol on its roster for now and Australia is doing the same with Andrew Bogut, hoping their centers can return from injuries during the NBA season. France has added Utah’s Rudy Gobert to its Rio roster after his recovery from injuries kept him out of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament it won in early July.

Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney

Watch Warriors’ Patrick McCaw drop 28 on Raptors at Summer League

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Patrick McCaw has had a relatively big following all through the Las Vegas Summer League — he’s a UNVL star playing on his home turf. The locals have his back.

Not that he’s needed it — the 6’7″ shooting guard has turned a few heads in Vegas with his strong play. Through five games he has averaged 15.8 points per game and shot 38.2 percent from three, he has been able to create his own shot, plus his length (6’10” wingspan) shows real potential on defense. More than one observer — both with teams and the media — expressed to me they were impressed with his play. He’s still got some developing to do, but he could become a quality rotation wing.

His show included another big game, dropping 28 on the Raptors Thursday.

Just what Golden State needs, another quality guard who can shoot the rock.

Mark Cuban thinks Harrison Barnes can flourish with more responsibilities

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 05:  Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors dunks the ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 2 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 5, 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Harrison Barnes is a max player. That was going to happen this summer as a function of the market and timing.

Is Barnes ready to be a top two scoring option on a quality team? That is up for debate.

Plenty of front office people around the league are not convinced. Barnes flourished in a system where he was the fourth option and Stephen Curry‘s gravity drew defenders well away from him. What happens when he is the focal point of a defense’s attention? What happens when he has the ball in his hands, the pick is set for him, and he has to create shots for himself and others? He hasn’t thrived in that role up to now.

We will find out this season, but Mark Cuban is understandably optimistic. Here is what he told Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“You’re going to see a lot more to his game than you’ve seen in the past,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban said. “I think he can do a lot more than he’s been asked to do, and that’s what we expect to see. … Maybe not first year, but I think he’s going to grow into [the role of go-to guy]. Just because a guy hasn’t done things doesn’t mean he can’t do it.”

Cuban makes a good point here — Barnes is still young and growing, and he needs to be given time to grow into this new role. Barnes may struggle with his added responsibilities this November and December, but where is he in April? Next December? Can he grow into this role?

Cuban needs to be optimistic he can because he bet big on it happening. I’m far from convinced, but Barnes is going to get the chance, and no coach will put him in better positions than Rick Carlisle.

J.J. Redick will have none of Adam Silver’s competitive balance complaints

Los Angeles Clippers guard J.J. Redick (4) reacts after making a 3-point shot during the overtime period of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets in Los Angeles, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016. The Clippers won 140-132 in overtime. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
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“I’ve read several stories suggesting that that’s something that the league wants, this notion of two super teams, that it’s a huge television attraction. I don’t think it’s good for the league, just to be really clear.”

That was NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, talking about Kevin Durant‘s move to the Golden State Warriors. While the main battle during the Collective Bargaining Agreement talks was about money (make no mistake, that is always topic No. 1, and frankly No. 2 and No. 3), a sideline was Silver’s push for “competitive balance.” To flatten out the NBA’s talent pool. To give everyone a chance. Parity of a sort. That was a stated goal.

Clippers guard J.J. Redick is having none of what Silver is selling.

Redick nails it in those last two tweets.

There have always been superteams in the NBA — and those have been good for the NBA. When was the NBA the most popular? When Jordan’s Bulls were clear and away the best team in the land and 29 other teams played catch-up. The golden age of the 1980s saw two superteams that often met in epic Finals clashes. It keeps going back to the Celtics of the 1960s.

What is different about the Heat and Warriors’ superteams is that fans see them as not “organic” — rather than being put together by wealthy white owners and GMs pulling invisible strings, the players themselves made conscious choices and controlled their own destiny. That kind of player power clearly bothers some people. We’re not bothered by the superteams of the past, but now it’s a problem? What changed? Players chose them, they took charge of their own fate. “Larry Bird never left the Celtics” arguments are foolish because before 1988 there was no free agency as we understand it in the NBA. Guys basically couldn’t move teams if the team wanted to keep them. Somehow something we would never accept in our own lives or in society — whatever job you take right out of college, that company gets to keep you forever — is the ideal we expect of athletes.

Silver works at the pleasure of and speaks for the owners. And 28 of them (well, maybe 27, let’s not count Mark Cuban in that group) are not happy. Why are they not happy? Because they don’t have the superteam in their city. So suddenly it’s not fair. And a bunch of guys who praise the free market and want fewer restrictions on them in their other businesses will call for measures seen in socialism to “balance the power.”

Good on Redick for calling it what it is.

Grizzlies’ Conley says big contract won’t affect his play

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 21:  Mike Conley #11 of the Memphis Grizzlies reacts after hitting a three-point basket in the final minutes of their 82-81 win over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on October 21, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading andor using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) The Memphis Grizzlies wanted to keep Mike Conley so much that they gave their veteran point guard the richest contract in NBA history.

For Conley, the basketball – and pressure – is in his court after signing a five-year, $153 million deal Thursday.

Conley’s play will be closely monitored during an upcoming season in which he will earn more than new Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant, a seven-time All-Star with four league scoring titles and an NBA Most Valuable Player award. Durant signed a two-year, $54.3 million deal.

Conley doesn’t expect the lucrative deal to affect his play.

“It’s amazing the opportunity I’ve been given,” Conley said. “As far as the pressure, it’s hard to really gauge that because I put pressure on myself to perform regardless. The amount of money I make is not going to change how I approach the game. I’m going to continue to be aggressive and do a lot better than I did last season and the season before.”

Conley, a 28-year-old point guard, has played nine seasons with the Grizzlies during which he has averaged 13.5 points and 5.6 assists. He led the Grizzlies to the 2013 Western Conference finals, the farthest the franchise has advanced in the postseason.

“I’ll take the heat right now (on being the highest-paid NBA player),” Conley said. “Eventually, it will all die down. Two years from now everybody else will be making so much more.”

In Conley’s non-All-Star selection defense, he has played in the Western Conference during his career with point guards Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker and Steve Nash.

“He’s our All-Star,” said Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace. “He’s an elite point guard in this league. It’s unanimous around the league that he’s one of the top-tier players at his position, a very crucial position.”

At an on-court ceremony at FedExForum celebrating the signing, Conley announced he was donating $1 million to the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aids at-risk youth in the community. The $1 million was matched by the franchise’s ownership group led by majority owner Robert Pera.

Conley used the press conference – also attended by Grizzlies MVP season-ticket holders – to address the recent tragedy in Dallas, where five policemen were killed by a lone gunman, and the nationwide protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I’m a quiet guy, I’m very reserved,” he said. “At the same time, as much as I want to lead by example, I know when it’s time to speak up. Right now is that time … It’s not about money, we have to be on the forefront to set examples for the kids. We need to become mentors for the youth.”

Conley has battled injuries the past few seasons and appeared in only 56 games last season because of an Achilles tendon injury. He hasn’t played more than 73 games in any of the past three seasons.

“I’ve concentrated solely on (staying healthy) during the offseason,” Conley said. “I want to be healthy. I want to be able to be here every night and give everything I’ve got. I’m doing everything I can to be able to do that.”

Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans, who has been an All-Star selection, had the previous richest contract in league history when he signed a five-year deal last year worth approximately $145 million.

Others who have signed max contracts without All-Star game appearances include the Wizards’ Bradley Beal, Utah’s Gordon Hayward and Oklahoma City’s Enes Kanter. Beal signed a $128 million deal this offseason. Utah matched an offer sheet from Charlotte for Hayward worth $63 million for four years in 2014, while Oklahoma City matched Portland’s max four-year deal for Kanter last summer for $70 million.

“We’re in the era of the point guard,” Wallace said. “There’s probably never been a greater collection. But we know Mike’s value.

“We have nine years invested in him. And he’s just gotten better and better. He’ll thrive in (new) coach (David) Fizdale’s offense. We never gave a second thought other than doing what it took to get him.”