Kurt Helin

Gold in Rio Sunday would validate culture Colangolo, Krzyzewski built with Team USA

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The Olympics of 2004 and 2016 have had some similarities with Team USA.

Their predecessors for years had dominated the international competition with relative ease to win gold. The expectations were this team would do the same. Yet when double digits of key players backed out of the games, the USA was forced to send largely a “B-Team” to the Olympics.

The 2004 USA team lost three games and eventually took home bronze.

The 2016 USA team is undefeated and one win away from gold.

What changed is not the competition — the 2016 team has faced better — but rather it was there being a USA basketball structure was in place. This time the Americans had the continuity to handle it.

That is what Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski were brought in to build — a real culture of USA Basketball. They are one win away from the ultimate proof of that goal.

People forget what happened in 2004 in Athens — something Bill Leopold and Ben Teitelbaum broke down beautifully in an oral history for NBCOlympics.com. The USA had come in sixth in the World Championships two years earlier in Indianapolis but had won the qualifying tournament in 2003 with a much better team. Except those guys didn’t want to go to Athens for the 2004 games — Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, and others all in their prime, begged out.

Part of the reason was there wasn’t the same instilled pride of playing for the USA built into the system. Some of it was security concerns — this was the first Olympics post 9/11 and there were concerns about whether Greece had its act together. But the biggest issue was the coach — Larry Brown. He treated the NBA players like high schoolers who knew nothing — according to one story he told Jason Kidd he didn’t know how to run a proper fast break. Jason Kidd. Guys decided not to go.

The issue was there was no structure in place for replacements, so it became catch-as-catch-can. While that team eventually had numerous future NBA stars — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and so on — they were 19 or 20, and the coach didn’t trust them. This was a thrown together team with little to no regard for the chemistry.

The USA sent that B-team to Athens that lost to Puerto Rico in the opener, and later on was just destroyed by eventual gold medal winner Argentia. The Americans escaped with a bronze.

The Rio Olympics had the potential for the same issues.

Players backed out again in 2016 — not because of the coach, but due to a combination of injuries, contract concerns, and worries about Zika virus and security in Rio. Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, Gordon Hayward, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, James Harden, John Wall, and others all backed out.

But this time around the USA had a structure in place — guys played their way up through the system and were proud of it. They understood what Colangelo and Krzyzewski meant to the USA Basketball, and they wanted to be a part of it.

“Thinking about the storyline of (Krzyzewski) and Jerry Colangelo taking over USA Basketball and what they did just to shape American basketball in general, and the honor of playing for USA Basketball,” Kyrie Irving told NBCSports during USA training camp in Las Vegas. “We were all reminded when they took over. It was a prestige honor before, but once they came in and built up a culture, it totally changed into a different dynamic. Every generation that is coming up has to come through USA Basketball if you’re, quote/unquote, a top player in the country.

“I enjoy that it’s now a generational shift. Constantly, constantly, we’re getting kids coming in and playing a part of USA Basketball. I myself played when I was 17 years old going into Duke. I end up going (to college) for one year, then I end up playing on the select team that I’m playing against today (the NBA rookies and young stars that the USA scrimmages against). I get a chance to, every summer, get better with USA basketball.”

That structure, getting guys to buy in and want to play in the system, meant when guys backed out in 2016 the next man up was ready and willing to step in. That team has gone undefeated into a gold medal game against Serbia that will not be easy, but is one they certainly can win (they beat Serbia in pool play).

That gold would be the ultimate validation of Colangelo and Krzyzewski. The Rio Olympics had the potential for an Athens repeat, but the USA had the structure in place this time.

After these Olympics, Krzyzewski is stepping down as coach and Gregg Popovich will take over. Little will change, this is a military exchange from the former West Point grad to the former Air Force man. Both are focused on the big picture.

Which should mean more gold for the USA for years to come. Because the structure is in place.

Watch highlights as USA women win gold with 101-76 victory over Spain

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The USA Basketball men’s basketball teams have dominated the Olympics the past eight years, and they are one win away from gold again.

But they are not half the dynasty that the USA women are.

The American women have won 49 straight games in the Olympics and have now won six straight Olympic golds after their 101-76 thumping of Spain. Check out the highlights below.

Gordon Hayward says he skipped Olympics to focus on family, his game

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There were likely a lot of factors that played into Gordon Hayward‘s decision not to play in the Rio Olympics this summer (he turned down an invite). For one, his wife was due with their second child and he didn’t want to be away (a very valid reason). Obviously, there were concerns about the Zika virus and other issues in Rio (which largely have not been as big a problem as feared).

If one were cynical, one would note that Hayward is a free agent next summer with a huge payday coming — whether he stays with or leaves Utah — and he didn’t want to put that at risk.

But Gordon said in a post on his official blog that saying no to the Olympics was hard, but it was about family first. It also allowed him to sharpen his game, in an effort to lift the Jazz to the playoffs.

Making the decision to not join USA Basketball in Rio and represent my country in the Olympics was one of the most difficult choices I’ve ever had to make…. But I think ultimately for me, I wanted to be here with my family. It would have been too tough for me to make the choice to leave them, and play for Team USA at a time like this. I felt like being here with (his wife) Robyn and here for Robyn, and supporting her through these first few months with our second child, was important. Experiencing what goes on when you have a child, to me, outweighed the benefits of being an Olympian….

I also wanted to spend the summer in Utah and commit to training. We have a big year ahead of us with the Jazz. I want us to make the playoffs this year, and I’ve been training since May to help make that happen. You miss a big chunk of that vital training time before camp when you go to do something like play in the Olympics, and it kind of changes up your routine. I want to be the best player I can be to get us to the playoffs. I want to be an All-Star this year.

Those things are important to me. I felt the best place to be to achieve those goals was Utah. I also looked at the fact that I’m only 26 years old, and I feel like if my career goes the way I want it to, I will get another opportunity to play in the Olympics.

Nobody can knock a family first decision. As a father (albeit, one who has not exactly been invited to an Olympic team), he made the right move.

Next season is going to be interesting in Utah. The Jazz are on every pundit’s list of fast climbing teams that with their offseason moves — adding George Hill at the point, plus Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw for depth — should not only be a playoff team but maybe up in the five/six seed slot. This team is poised for a big season and Hayward is a key part of that as a main offensive option.

Then after the breakout season, can the Jazz keep Hayward? He professes his love for Utah in that blog post, Utah will offer him as much money as any other team (they better), but he is an unrestricted free agent who will have options. He is going to be part of a wild 2017 summer.

And if not wanting to risk that was part of the calculus on Rio, you can’t blame him for that, either.

 

Report: J.J. Hickson signs deal to play in China

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J.J. Hickson was a solid reserve big man in the NBA who started in Cleveland and looked like he should be a good pick-and-pop big but — outside a couple of stretches — never actually shot the ball well enough to pull it off. He got most of his shots right at the rim. After an ACL injury robbed him of half a step and his shooting numbers sank, he struggled to get on the court. Last season he started in Denver, was waived, then spent some time in Washington. He averaged 12.5 minutes and 5.9 points a game last season in his stops.

This summer there wasn’t much interest in him from NBA teams, so he is headed to China, reports David Pick.

Maybe there, where his lack of defense is less of an issue, he can find his shot and game again, then catch on with an NBA team at the end of next season (the Chinese season ends in March). Don’t be shocked if his name comes up as a late season addition somewhere.

Nate Wolters signs contract to come to camp with Denver Nuggets

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After bouncing between Milwaukee and New Orleans for a couple of NBA seasons, Nate Wolters spent last season playing in Turkey. But he’s looking for a way back to the NBA.

He’s hoping that road starts with a training camp contract with the Denver Nuggets, something first reported by Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Denver has 15 players under guaranteed contract for next season already, so they are not bringing Wolters into camp with a real shot of making the roster. In addition, the Nuggets have Emmanuel Mudiay and Jameer Nelson at the point, plus they will give Jamal Murray some run there to see if is an NBA one. That pretty much rounds out the position.

But maybe Wolters can catch the eye of another team, then go to the D-League and work his way back to the NBA. This is a foot in the door.