Kurt Helin

USA remains overwheming betting favorite to win men’s basketball gold medal

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USA basketball fans have reason to be a little concerned as the Rio Olympics basketball tournament heads into the win-or-go-home tournament phase. Not a ton of concern, but some is justified.

Betters have fewer concerns.

Team USA remains the overwhelming favorite to win gold in Rio, according to online betting site Bovada.

Here are the gold odds for the eight teams in the tournament.

USA 1/20
Spain 14/1
Australia 20/1
Lithuania 22/1
Serbia 22/1
France 28/1
Croatia 33/1
Argentina 40/1

To be clear, that means if you bet $100 on the USA to win the gold, you would win $5 (plus your bet back). That’s a lot of risk for not much reward. No smart gambler is going to make that bet.

The smart money might be on Spain, which after a couple of unimpressive games has dominated in their last couple games in Rio (but next they face a fierce rival in France). Australia and Lithuania have had their moments and have real talent as well.

Still, betting against the USA just doesn’t seem wise. Instead donate that money to a local food bank, where it can do some good, rather than making some casino owner wealthier.

What Olympic let down? NBA players usually improve after Games

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Certainly, NBA players can get injured playing for Team USA. No doubt, smart coaches rest them a little more then next season, particularly during training camp and the first part of the campaign.

However, the idea that NBA players get worn down playing extra ball for Team USA in the summer and have down NBA season is wrong. In fact the opposite is true. Neil Paine broke it down at fivethirtyeight.com.

According to the numbers, however, there’s not really any reason to worry about Dream Teamers coming home from Rio in a weakened state. If anything, playing for Team USA at a big international tournament seems to be associated with a boost in performance the next season.

My colleague Jim Pagels came to that conclusion in 2014 when comparing Team USA members’ per-minute production with what would be predicted by Basketball-Reference’s Simple Projection System, finding that players produced better NBA Player Efficiency Ratings and Win Shares per 48 minutes than expected after donning the Stars and Stripes. My own research backs this up; U.S. players tend to exceed their projected Box Plus/Minus (BPM) by about 0.4 points per 100 possessions the year after playing a major tournament1 for the United States, and they beat projections by nearly 0.7 points/100 possessions after playing in the Olympics specifically.

Or look at another stat they dug up, the season after the Olympics 65 percent of NBA players had an improved “Wins over Replacement” number than the season before, 35 percent saw a regression.

One could tinker with the numbers a variety of ways, and clearly nothing applies universally, but the majority of players come back from the Olympics playing better basketball. A lot of them will talk about this — being around other elite players and pushing themselves in practices (and games) against them improve their talents.

Which should bode well for teams — particularly Golden State, with three players on the team (Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green). Like that team needed another boost.

Start your day with 10 best transition dunks of last NBA season

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It’s an off day for men’s hoops in Rio — which means you should be watching our dominant, amazing women’s team. If you want to still believe in American hoops exceptionalism, the women are your ticket, and they are in the quarterfinals Tuesday.

But the slower news day gives us the chance to take a quick look back, via the fine folks at NBA.com, at the 10 best fast break dunks of last NBA season.

Yes, there are great ones from Zach LaVine, LeBron James, and Aaron Gordon, but for my money I’ll take Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s throwdowns.


It may not be via blowouts, but USA still team to beat in hunt for Rio gold

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Team USA is undefeated at 5-0. The Americans have outscored their opponents by an average of 23.4 points a game. As a team the USA is shooting nearly 50 percent in Rio and hitting 39.3 percent from three — both of those numbers considerably better than their opponents. Through five games they have gotten to the free throw line 65 more times and hit 50 more free throws than their opponents. The USA is outrebounding their opponents by 7.2 per game. They have turned the ball over 34 fewer times than the opposition.

Yet, all the talk around the USA men’s basketball team is about what’s wrong, about how vulnerable they are.

The USA has not dominated the completion as we have come to expect. It has been a blow to American exceptionalism in hoops. Their last two wins, over France and Serbia, were three point games, Australia pushed them but eventually fell to the USA by 10.

It’s time to adjust expectations about this USA squad. For one, the idea that they are playing terribly is wrong — they are playing better than any other team in this tournament.

For another, that the USA needs to win every game via blowout.

That’s not happening with this team. But they remain the favorite to win the gold.

It hasn’t been easy. Look what Paul George told Michael Lee of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“I think to start out, personally, I thought we were going to dominate and these games were going to be easy,” said Paul George. “We started playing better competition, I think you see, across the board, these teams are pretty good. The luxury they have is they’ve been together for so long. You really can’t stress that enough. You see it. They just read each other so well. I think that’s the biggest thing that really separates us from them.”

No doubt this USA team has not coalesced the way past American squads have. Part of that comes from the roster itself — remember that the combination of injuries and guys choosing not to come to Brazil for the games robbed Team USA of many Olympic regulars. These are guys who were talented and have a chemistry together: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and the list goes on. Team USA players this year said from the start that their biggest challenge would be coming together as a team.

Offensively, we have seen a team that spends more time than they should in isolation rather than running plays and moving off the ball. The offense is stagnant and can be defended.

The bigger challenge is defensively, where the USA does not communicate well leading to botched pick-and-roll coverages. Beyond that, guys are ball watching and getting destroyed on back-door cuts or just off-the-ball movement in general. There is a lack of focus.

Teams that have coalesced have made things close.

But the USA has still won.

They still have Kevin Durant averaging 16.8 points a game on 60 percent shooting in Rio. Carmelo Anthony is averaging 15.2. Kyrie Irving is averaging 12.6 points and 6 assists per game.

No doubt the Americans will need to play better starting Wednesday when they face Argentina in the first game of the eight-team win-or-go-home tournament that will determine the medals in Rio. While the Americans destroyed Argentina 111-74 in an exhibition, this is a much better version of this Argentinian team as they have played their way into better shape, and gotten back in their old groove as a team that has played together for years. This game will be closer than the last.

But the Americans are still fairly heavy favorites.

Same vs. France or Spain, the next game. Or in the gold medal game after that.

It’s not going to be pretty. After blowout wins (both in the exhibition season at in the first two games in Rio) against weak Chinese and Venezuelan teams we mistakenly started comparing this USA squad to the dominant versions that came before it. Teams that won by an average of 30 or 40 points a game and were barely tested.

This team is not those teams.

But this team may well come home with the gold. And in the end, that has always been the primary goal.

USA to face Argentina Wednesday in Olympic quarterfinals


Now things get serious — lose and you go home.

The eight-team knockout tournament of men’s basketball at the Rio Olympics tips off Wednesday. After a day of games in Group B, we learned who the undefeated Americans take on first:

Manu Ginobili and Argentina (at 5:45 Eastern).

This is Argentina’s golden generation of players making one last run at a medal (the core won the gold in 2004).

Win that one and in the semifinals the USA will face the winner of France vs. Spain — the two most talented teams in Rio on paper (outside the USA), but teams who have not played consistently through the group stage. The USA beat France by 3 just a day ago.

A win there would advance the USA to the gold medal game against whatever team comes out of the other side of the bracket. Those games are Croatia vs. Serbia, and Australia vs. Lithuania. This is a balanced foursome where any of those teams might advance.

The USA has been good enough to be undefeated, but they have not been dominant, and they need to get in a better groove defensively against Argentina if they are going to claim gold.

The USA crushed Argentina 111-74 in an exhibition game in Las Vegas back in July, however, expect Wednesday’s game to be closer. This Argentinian team — with Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni, Carlos Delfino, Ginobili and some talented international players — has gotten in much better shape and is playing much more as a team than they did the last time the USA met them. Argentina has the solid guard play (not panicking under pressure) and ball movement that has given the American defense fits in recent games.

That said, this is a game the USA should win, one that could help them find a rhythm before they face stiffer competition in the next couple rounds.