Team USA may have a perfect record, but they're far from flawless

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chauncey_billups_team_usa.jpgFirst, the obvious: Team USA is currently undefeated, while other quality teams in the FIBA World Championships are not. That’s a credit to every player and each member of the coaching staff. Their next two games are against Iran and Tunisia, and if all goes according to plan, the U.S. national team will remain undefeated going into the elimination rounds. From a bottom-line perspective, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Chauncey Billups focused on that positive after USA’s win over Brazil, though he’s clearly aware of his team’s lackluster play. From Brian Mahoney of the Associated Press:

“We can’t worry about how much we win by, winning the same fashion as
other USA teams. All of that’s out the window,” Billups said. “All we
need to do is get wins. Win every game we can and we’ll worry about
everything else later.”

The only problem is that Team USA can’t afford to focus solely on wins and losses. The makeup of each win matters a great deal, and though the loss column remains spotless, there is some reason for concern. The Americans’ near-miss against Brazil provided a case study in what can go wrong for Team USA. One reliable big can give Lamar Odom a heap of trouble down low. Team USA’s pick-and-roll defense can be dissected. When opposing defenses increase their pressure on the USA’s ball-handlers, it’s like tapping a well of careless turnovers.

Though the Americans still boast a perfect record, their play against Brazil was anything but.

However, as I’ve noted previously in this space, the onus isn’t all on the players. The five on the floor will always deserve the majority of the credit/blame in my mind (after all, successful on-court execution is the key to any win), but the man who controls who sees the floor in the first place is also burdened with the responsibility for those decisions. There are a number of reasons why Mike Krzyzewski decided to stick with his starters for essentially the entire the fourth quarter, but in the end, that lineup scored on just two of their final 11 possessions. That’s on Chauncey Billups, Derrick Rose, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, and Lamar Odom, surely, but it’s also on Krzyzewski.

Once the elimination rounds begin, Team USA won’t have the luxury of adjusting after a loss. They can’t wait until things get worse to figure out how to make them better. One loss and that’s it. Game over, thanks for playing, see you at the Olympics. That makes it awfully important for Team USA to work on their weaknesses now, whether they rest with the players or the coaches.

The Americans are winning, and that’s crucial. Yet their work is far from complete. Even forgetting my gripes about Coach K’s rotations, Team USA’s pick-and-roll D and half-court execution still need improvement. A team full of guards couldn’t run an offense in the fourth quarter, and that’s borderline nonsensical. On paper, perimeter play is one of Team USA’s greatest strengths, and yet in the second half against a Brazil, the USA’s guards looked like a liability.

Maybe Team USA’s preparation was the problem. Maybe it was their execution. Maybe it was Krzyzewski’s shortened rotation. Regardless, Team USA needed two missed layups, two missed free throws, and a quarter’s worth of cold shooting from the Brazilians to squeak out a victory against a good team missing two of its top players. A win is a win and all, but Team USA will have to do better.   

Report: Cavaliers seeking first-rounder for Kevin Love, other teams seeking first-rounder for taking Kevin Love

Kevin Love
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Kevin Love doesn’t fit on the Cavaliers.

He’s a good veteran. They’re a bad team. His talent would be better served on a team ready to win now. Cleveland is unlikely to reach that level during Love’s remaining prime.

But…

Jason Lloyd of The Athletic:

The Cavs are asking for a first-round pick in exchange for Love, one source with knowledge of the situation said. But teams are actually asking for a first-round pick from Cleveland just to absorb the final 3 1/2 years on his deal.

This is why Love didn’t crack my preseason list of players most likely to get traded this season. He has a $28,942,830 salary this season, and he’s due $91,459,342 over the next three years. The Cavaliers signed him to this contract to be an asset. Other teams view the 31-year-old as a liability.

A first-round pick going in opposite directions is a large gap to overcome.

Still, this is how negotiations work. There’s plenty of time for Cleveland and another team to find common ground.

With Love reportedly preferring a trade, the Cavs might want to help someone who helped them win a championship. They might also benefit from removing a sulking player amid resistance to coach John Beilein.

No other team looks desperate to add an offensively talented power forward. But that could change quickly with an injury, an unrelated trade or even just the progression of a season.

Love getting traded would be unsurprising. It also doesn’t appear close to happening.

Report: Knicks considering hiring new coach during season

Knicks coach Mike Miller
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The Knicks lost eight straight games then fired David Fizdale as coach.

The losing streak reached 10 games under interim coach Mike Miller, culminating with a 28-point setback to the Trail Blazers on Tuesday. New York blew a 22-point lead to the lowly Warriors last night, but rallied in overtime to finally end the skid.

Still, Miller hasn’t exactly galvanized the Knicks.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

there have already been ownership-level discussions about hiring a new coach in-season if the team continues to crater, according to sources.

I bet Knicks president Steve Mills wants to hire a new coach. Mills is on the hot seat, and he could sell owner James Dolan on getting a chance to build the roster around a new coach. It’d be like when Mills seized control of the front office by signing Tim Hardaway Jr. to a huge contract before Dolan could find another lead executive to replace Phil Jackson.

Dolan should fire Mills by the start of next offseason and let Mills’ replacement pick a coach. Mills has done a poor job. Hiring a new coach now would only bother potential replacement executives.

This is a lost year for New York. Maybe a better coach could help avoid some embarrassing setbacks, but the Knicks won’t accomplish anything notable this year. They might as well just enjoy the silver lining that all their errors will net another high draft pick.

In the last three decades, just two teams have ousted multiple head coaches for performance during a season:

  • 2014-15 Kings: Mike Malone and Tyrone Corbin to hire  George Karl
  • 2004-05 Nuggets: Jeff Bzdelik and Michael Cooper to hire George Karl

Karl is available. So are more-mentioned names like Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy. Though it hasn’t happened in a while, a team could also pluck another team’s assistant coach during the season.

Devonte’ Graham keeps exceeding expectations, including his own

Devonte' Graham
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Devonte' Graham signed with Appalachian State.

It made sense at the time. His next-best scholarship offer came from Murray State. He didn’t view himself as an elite prospect bound to get better offers. Several of his AAU teammates had already committed. So, Graham pledged to play for the middling Southern Conference team that hasn’t produced an NBA player since the professional league’s infancy.

Seven years later, Graham hardly resembles that unconfident kid. He appears in complete control on the court, leading the Hornets and building a strong case for Most Improved Player.

But shades of the mindset that nearly drove Graham to Appalachian State persist and have helped him reach this point.

***

Charlotte’s prized acquisition this offseason was Terry Rozier, a hyped young point guard to replace Kemba Walker. The Hornets gave Rozier a three-year, $56.7 million contract.

Graham hoped to succeed retired Tony Parker as backup point guard.

Once again, Graham didn’t believe enough in himself. The minimum-salaried Graham has forced his way into the starting lineup, sharing the backcourt with Rozier. It’s a tenable, though unideal, fit. The Hornets often stagger the point guards. Graham is just too good to limit to backup minutes.

“We’re figuring that out on the fly,” Charlotte coach James Borrego said.

Graham is averaging 20 points and eight assist per game. He’s launching nine 3-pointers per game and making 43% of them. His real plus-minus (+3.13) ranks ninth among point guards.

If the Hornets knew Graham would be this good, they might not have signed-and-traded for Rozier.

To be fair, how could they have seen this coming?

***

Graham entered last year’s NBA draft looking like a prototypical college star who’d peak on that level. He was undersized (6-foot-1) and relatively old (23). Charlotte drafted him No. 34.

That itself was an accomplishment considering where Graham started.

He blossomed on the court his senior of high school and, finally realizing he could get bigger offers, decommitted from Appalachian State. But Appalachian State held him to his letter of intent. So, Graham enrolled at Brewster Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire, where he continued to impress.

Eventually, Appalachian State fired the coach who refused to release Graham. Jason Capel’s replacement, Jim Fox, set Graham free.

A premier recruit, Graham went to Kansas. It was a big stage for someone who originally didn’t want want to stray too far from his mother, grandmother and sister in North Carolina.

In Lawrence, Jayhawks coach Bill Self urged Graham to shoot more and told him not to worry about getting subbed out. After Graham came off the bench as a freshman, Self told Graham to expect to start the rest of his college career. To Self, it was a simple assessment. To Graham, it was an inspirational message that stuck with him.

Graham started all but two of his games the next three years (coming off the bench once because he overslept and once so a teammate could start on senior day). Graham became Big 12 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American.

“He’s the sweetest, nicest, most popular kid on our campus, hands down,” Self said. “Hands down, the most popular kid on our campus. Everybody adored him. He ran this place as much as a college student could.

“We used to get letters in the mail all the time about what a great kid Devonte’ Graham was. ‘We saw him at Wal-Mart, and he walked out to the car and took pictures with everybody’ or just whatever. He’s just an amazing kid.”

From there, Graham joined a Hornets team with Kemba Walker and Tony Parker at point guard. Graham spent most of last season out of the rotation.

How did Graham handle going from Big Man On Campus to such a limited role?

“It’s something that a lot of people might not be used to, but I wasn’t always the best player on my team growing up,” Graham said. “So, I kind of already knew what that felt like, not being the man.”

Undeterred, Graham kept working

***

One of the NBA’s biggest surprises, Graham looks the part.

“He’s an assassin with a boy’s grin and looks like he’s about 14 years old without his hair out,” Self said. “I asked him, ‘Why don’t you go back to wearing braids or whatever?’ He said, ‘Coach, do you see how young I look when I’ve got my hair short?'”

More importantly, he also plays the part.

Graham has increased his box plus-minus from -4.3 last season to +1.5 this season. That’s one of the biggest jumps in the league.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus from a previous career high (marked by the left side of the bar) to this season (marked by the right side of the bar) with the increase listed in the middle (minimum: 500 minutes this season, 200 minutes in prior season):

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Player Previous high 2019-20 Improvement
Luka Doncic (DAL) +4.1 +13.2 9.1
Devonte’ Graham (CHA) -4.3 +1.5 5.8
Trae Young (ATL) -1.1 +3.5 4.6
Justin Holiday (IND) -0.8 +2.4 3.2
Jonathan Isaac (ORL) +0.1 +3.1 3.0
Brandon Ingram (NOP) -1.3 +1.4 2.7
OG Anunoby (TOR) +0.6 +3.3 2.7
Malcolm Brogdon (IND) +1.5 +4.1 2.6
Richaun Holmes (SAC) +1.7 +4.2 2.5
Will Barton (DEN) +1.0 +3.1 2.1
Jaylen Brown (BOS) -0.2 +1.9 2.1
Bam Adebayo (MIA) +3.0 +5.1 2.1
Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) +6.8 +8.8 2.0
Luke Kennard (DET) -1.5 +0.5 2.0
Markelle Fultz (ORL) -3.0 -1.0 2.0

Most Improved Players voters are reluctant to pick second-year players, but the usual argument – that highly touted players are bound to improve after a full season of adjusting to the NBA – doesn’t apply. Graham was just a second-round pick, and he didn’t play much last season. His résumé differs greatly from the players sandwiching him on the above leaderboard (last year’s No. 3 pick Luka Doncic and No. 5 pick Trae Young).

Graham also has an attention-grabbing rise in the statistic that matters most to voters, points per game. Including 40 points in the Hornets’ win over the Nets last night, Graham is now averaging 20.0 points per game – a huge leap from the 4.7 points per game he averaged last season.

That 15.3-point increase from his previous career is one of the largest ever. The last time someone improved his scoring average so much: Dale Ellis who went from 7.1 points per game in 1986 to 24.9 points per game the next season.

Here are the biggest increases in points per from a previous career high (marked by the left side of the bar) to a later season (marked by the right side of the bar) with the increase listed in the middle (minimum: 10 games):

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Player Previous high New high Improvement
John Block (1968 SDR) 2.9 20.2 17.2
Neil Johnston (1953 PHW) 6.0 22.3 16.4
Don May (1971 BUF) 4.3 20.2 15.9
Dale Ellis (1987 SEA) 9.3 24.9 15.6
Robert Hawkins (1977 NYN) 3.9 19.3 15.4
Devonte’ Graham (2020 CHA) 4.7 20.0 15.3
Cliff Hagan (1958 STL) 5.5 19.9 14.4
Bob Love (1970 CHI) 6.7 21.0 14.3
C.J. McCollum (2016 POR) 6.8 20.8 14.0
Reggie Lewis (1989 BOS) 4.5 18.5 14.0
Jerry West (1962 LAL) 17.6 30.8 13.2
Bob Kauffman (1971 BUF) 7.8 20.4 12.6
Bob McAdoo (1974 BUF) 18.0 30.6 12.5
World B. Free (1979 SDC) 16.3 28.8 12.5
Phil Smith (1976 GSW) 7.7 20.0 12.3

***

Graham will likely face another test of his confidence next offseason. He’ll be eligible for a contract extension that projects to be worth about $54 million over four years. That’s life-long financial security. The way he’s trending and the premium on point guards around the league, it’d be surprising if Charlotte doesn’t offer that highest-allowable amount.

However, if Graham forgoes an extension and completes his contract, he could fetch far more in 2021 restricted free agency. He’d be eligible for any salary, up to the league-wide maximum.

A guaranteed $54 million would be difficult to turn down, especially for someone getting just $150,000 above a minimum salary over his first three seasons. Risking waiting for more money would be a major departure in approach for Graham. At least he could still enter free agency a few years after signing an extension, maybe still in his prime.

Graham has shown, with the right determination, the safe route can work out.

Kawhi Leonard has ‘F U symbol’ on championship ring to remember which finger to put it on

Kawhi Leonard
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Following the great tradition of Shane Battier and Andrew Bogut, Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard – who got his Raptors championship ring last night – had a special finger picked for it.

TSN:

Leonard:

I have a logo in there, and it’s on my middle finger. So, it reminds me to put it on my middle finger. So, I have like an F U symbol on there.

Leonard’s hand is filling up. He already earned a championship ring with the Spurs in 2014.

I suspect this ring is also for San Antonio.