Team USA, player-by-player and role-by-role (Part Two)

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durant_team_usa.jpgNow that Team USA’s roster is finalized, it’s time to break down
exactly what each of Team USA’s 12 players will be asked to do. Some
members of Team USA are simply acting as an extension of their NBA
selves, but others have seen their responsibilities shift due to the
team’s needs, the overall makeup of the roster, and the nature of FIBA
basketball. In this second installment, we’ll look at the starting candidates for Team USA.

Derrick Rose – Rose started in Rondo’s stead during Sunday’s friendly against Spain, and figures to be Team USA’s starting point guard (at least, as much as this team really has one specific point guard) for most of the World Championships. Rose’s primary value is his scoring; though he can make plays off the dribble, it’s the threat of the drive and the mid-range jumper that could open things up for Team USA.

Rose isn’t a skilled three-point shooter, and that hurts him. When opposing defenses zone up or pack the paint, he’ll likely struggle to create shots for both himself and his teammates. Still, he’s smart enough to make the right plays and pick his spots, and he will. Rose is a weapon. He’s valuable and effective, even if he lacks Rondo’s abilities as a natural playmaker.
 
Chauncey Billups – Billups is both a veteran and scorer for Team USA, which badly needs his precision from the perimeter as well as his leadership. While the roster is certainly guard-heavy, most of those guards are resolved to win the day in a straight-line footrace. Billups is a bit more deliberate in his approach. A bit more methodical. He may ultimately succumb to the same vices (Chauncey is no stranger to the heat check), but the contrast between Billups and the other guards on the roster benefits Team USA all the same.

The Americans’ turnovers have been absolutely brutal thus far, but Billups — a slip-up against Lithuania aside — provides a calming influence on Team USA’s offense. He’s a prolific threat from deep (7-of-13 in the last three exhibition games, good for 53.8%), a strong defender, and unlikely to commit those facepalm-inducing turnovers that have become a Rose/Westbrook staple.

Andre Iguodala – Andre Iguodala will not be scoring much. He’s averaged just 3.7 points per game over USA’s last three exhibitions. No one should expect that to improve significantly.

However, Iguodala does have utility that goes beyond his defense. Iggy is easily Team USA’s top perimeter defender, but offensively, he moves the ball, is a decent spot-up option (just don’t ask him to shoot off the dribble…yeesh), and is a good positional rebounder. Iguodala’s just a dabbler. A little ball-handling, a little slashing, a lot of fast breaking, and a ton of fantastic defense.

Kevin Durant – Kevin Durant owns this team. He’s not renting it out while LeBron goes on vacation. He’s taken it and made it his own, for better or worse. Though Durant didn’t hand-pick his Team USA contemporaries, the roster was constructed with the hope that it would resemble KD. His versatility. His athleticism. His character. Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski clearly hoped that Durant’s nature would act as a thematic element for Team USA, and to an extent it has.

The only trouble is that no one on this year’s team has the talent to actually keep up with Durant, even if their commitment and intangibles follow through on the motif.

Durant hasn’t been the most consistent in his pre-Championship exhibitions, but he was in full effect against Spain, the United States’ most formidable foe. KD finished with 25 and 10 in that contest on 56.3% shooting, dropped a couple of threes, and picked up the game-saving block for good measure.

Durant is the only Team USA player that’s elite by NBA standards, and on this team his brilliance is crucial as both a driving force (KD will need to be fantastic against USA’s top opponents) and a beacon to his teammates. 
 
Tyson Chandler – Chandler is the only true center on the roster, which should be good enough to score him some regular playing time. However, as Krzyzewski proved in fiddling with Sunday’s starting lineup, Chandler’s positional standing in no way guarantees him a starting job. Coach K benched Rajon Rondo in favor of Derrick Rose, which was clearly a significant roster move. In the same game, he also brought Tyson Chandler off the bench to start Lamar Odom, who could very well tip-off at center for Team USA from this point on.

Regardless, Chandler will fulfill the same basic duties for the national team regardless of his starting status. He’s a quality rim protector, even if he doesn’t pick up a ton of blocks. His length and athleticism make him a quality all-around defender, even if he’s had some lapses in the exhibition games thus far. Overall, he’s the Americans best on-ball post defender, a good option to defend pick-and-roll bigs, and a solid defensive anchor, even if he’s something of an offensive liability.

Lamar Odom – The impact of Odom being a perimeter-oriented big is a bit overstated. Odom has never been anything more than a decent shooter from outside (he’s gone 0-fer in his first four attempts from deep for Team USA), and he really isn’t floating too much on the outside at present. And though Odom may initiate the offense frequently for the Lakers, that’s not his role on this team. Not with so many dynamic guards on the roster.

Instead, Odom is…oddly conventional in his capacity with Team USA. He screens-and-rolls, he plays nice help-side defense, and he rebounds well. It may not be the most creative way to utilize Odom’s unique skill set, but so far he’s been quite effective while masquerading as a traditional big. 

Report: Clippers “have a better than not chance of getting” Kawhi Leonard next summer

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This line of thinking has gone from a quiet buzz around league circles to a rumor to the point where the game’s top news breaker — Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN — is reporting it as 50/50 or better:

Kawhi Leonard could be coming to the Clippers next summer as a free agent.

Here is what Wojnarowski said on a podcast with Zach Lowe:

“What the Clippers are doing right now is very below the radar. What they’ve done to put themselves in position. They didn’t gut themselves and they’re not tanking. They’re putting a competitive team on the floor. I think, right now, with Kawhi Leonard, they have a better than not chance of getting him. We know things will change. He could love Toronto…

“The Clippers are in great position with him. They have two max slots. They will be heard from again, I think, in these Jimmy Butler trade talks.”

The Clippers name came up in the Butler trade talks early, but Minnesota (read: Tom Thibodeau) reportedly asked for Tobias Harris and the Clippers shot that down cold. The talks have gained no traction after that, according to sources. The Clippers like Harris (who is a free agent this July and wants to get paid) and ideally want to keep him, but there will be serious roster overhaul in Los Angeles this summer and what happens to Harris will depend on a lot of other variables. Leonard included.

What Wojnarowski is reporting here is along the lines of what a lot of people around the league are talking about. This isn’t out of left field.

I can hear Lakers fans now: He is coming to us. (Knicks fans may be thinking that too, unless they are busy dreaming about Kevin Durant.) But there are a couple of reasons the Clippers make sense over those other markets.

First is the shadow of LeBron James. Not everybody wants to play in it. If Leonard — or, more accurately, the people around Leonard — want to build his brand and have him become the center of a marketing machine, being in that shadow could be seen as stunting his growth.

Them there is just fit with an organization. By his nature, Leonard does not seek out the brightest lights, he is not on social media, he does not dream of being part of the celebrity culture, and Leonard does not like a lot of drama in and around the locker room. All of those things come with signing a Lakers’ contract, and the same thing with the Knicks. While the Clippers are in Los Angeles and players there can seek out all those distractions if they want, the Clipper brand isn’t doesn’t bring the same intensity of spotlight that the Lakers with LeBron would.

All of those reasons — plus one extra guaranteed year at north of $40 million — could keep Leonard in Toronto if the team does well this season. However, if next July he’s looking to move on, the Clippers really could be his new home.

Paul George: I would have signed with Lakers if Pacers didn’t trade me to Thunder

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Paul George didn’t request a trade from the Pacers. He merely informed them he’d leave in free agency and told people he’d sign with the Lakers, leaving it up to Indiana what to do about it.

The Pacers traded him to Oklahoma City, where George found a long-term home. He re-signed with the Thunder this summer.

Marc J. Spears of ESPN:

Paul George revealed to ESPN’s The Undefeated that he “would have been in a Lakers uniform” if he had never been traded from the Indiana Pacers. But after the Pacers dealt the five-time All-Star to the Oklahoma City Thunder instead last year, he fell in love with his new team and playing with Russell Westbrook before eventually agreeing to a four-year, $137 million contract extension this past offseason.

“It was 50-50 on deciding whether I wanted to come back home or if it was smarter to be in the situation I am in now,” George told The Undefeated. “But it wasn’t overstated. I wanted to play in L.A. That is where I wanted to go. Had that trade never went down, had I played one more year in Indy, I would have been in a Lakers uniform.”

Even while with the Thunder, George spoke openly about the appeal of Los Angeles. Despite not meeting with the Lakers in free agency, he still called them tempting. He’s mostly just confirming what we already believed.

Remember, the Lakers could have traded for George last year. Instead, they banked on getting him without surrendering assets, and that gambit failed. Importantly, they still lured LeBron James, but they’re still searching for a second star.

This ought to reopen questions about whether the Lakers erred by not trading for Kawhi Leonard. Leonard reportedly has interest in Los Angeles (though maybe more in the Clippers), but the Lakers watched the Spurs trade him to the Raptors. Will Leonard similarly fall for Toronto and spurn his hometown team?

It’d be a mistake to assume Leonard will follow the path of George, who’s a completely different person. But it’d also be a mistake not to evaluate the precedent set by George and learn from it.

Pistons play recording of Aretha Franklin’s national anthem while spotlighting open microphone at center court (video)

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Pistons legend Isiah Thomas eulogized Aretha Franklin – a proud Detroit native – last summer and concluded with a message to the deceased singer:

I want you to know, I love you. The world loves you. And most importantly, Aretha, Detroit loves you.

Detroit showed its love for Aretha before the Pistons’ opener yesterday. Thomas again spoke kindly of her then asked for a moment of silence. The arena went dark and quiet.

Then, a spotlight shined on an unattended microphone at center court as a recording of Aretha’s national anthem played. While this video shows the powerful rendition of the song, by focusing on the images of Aretha shown on the scoreboard, it doesn’t even capture the full feeling of the moment.

Seeing that open spotlighted microphone throughout the entire anthem was hauntingly beautiful and a great tribute to the Queen of Soul.

NBA’s minor league to offer $125,000 salaries to not-yet-draft-eligible 18-year-olds

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The NBA will lower its age limit to 18, effectively ending the one-and-done era.

Eventually.

In the meantime, the best option for most top players leaving high school is college basketball. But while the NBA takes its time changing a rule (that it never should have implemented in the first place), the NBA’s minor league will offer an alternative route.

G League release:

The NBA G League today announced a Select Contract as part of a comprehensive professional path that will be available, beginning with the 2019-20 season, to elite prospects who are eligible to play in the NBA G League but not yet eligible for the NBA.  The contracts, which will include robust programmatic opportunities for development, are for elite players who are at least 18 years old and will pay $125,000 for the five-month season.

NBA G League Select Contracts are designed for year-round professional growth and will include opportunities for basketball development, life skills mentorship and academic scholarship.  These offerings are slated to include basketball workouts during the summer months through existing NBA infrastructure like NBA Summer League and NBA Academies, year-round education programs designed to increase players’ ability to personally and professionally manage their careers, and a scholarship program for athletes who want to pursue higher education after their playing days.  Additionally, the NBA G League will further enhance player experience through existing partner relationships and NBA player development programming.

The $125,000 salary is nice and a sizeable jump from the standard minor-league salary, which these players were already eligible to receive. Select Contract players can also sign endorsements and receive loans from agents while remaining eligible to play, unlike in the NCAA.

But it’s not as if college basketball players aren’t compensated. Though their compensation is limited by the NCAA cartel, players still get tuition, room and board and cost-of-living expenses. And of course many get under-the-table money, too. The value of that compensation – particularly the tuition – varies by person.

Access to NBA infrastructure could swing some players, but that also comes with risk. Older professionals could expose younger, even more talented, players. Experience and physical advancement matter.

So does the stage. Top college-basketball players are nationally recognized stars who appear regular on television and are revered on campus. Minor-league players are relatively anonymous and play in mid-sized cities away from much fanfare.

There’s still plenty to sort out, and the details could affect how many players enter this new program out of high school. But it’s nice they have another option.

It’d be far better if they could just declare for the NBA draft if they feel they’re ready.