Outside shots, tempo, Chandler key for Team USA in London

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Sunday it gets real.

For the past three weeks Team USA has been training and scrimmaging and playing some exhibition games, getting ready. But Sunday they tip off the Olympics against France and if they can go 8-0 they will have another gold medal. (They could lose one of the first five group-play games and still go 3-0 in the best-of-eight elimination rounds, but it makes the path harder.)

The USA went 5-0 in exhibition games, but those games showed us the road to gold will not be easy. It will take a USA team playing its best (except against Tunisia). There were bright spots in the tune-up games — the last three quarters against Spain — and some not so impressive moments (allowing Argentina to come back, for one).

Here is what we learned.

• The USA needs Tyson Chandler out of foul trouble and on the floor. We knew going into this Olympics — with Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, Chris Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge all out — that size was going to be an issue. Mike Krzyzewski did the right thing and countered by going small (LeBron James and even Carmelo Anthony at the five at times) and just trying to be so quick and so athletic that nobody can match up. It has worked fairly well.

But check out this stat from John Schuhmann of NBA.com: When Tyson Chandler, Kevin Love or Anthony Davis are on the court the USA outscored its opponents by a ridiculous pace of 43.1 points per 100 possessions, when none of them played it was just 14.1 points per 100. The USA is 12 points per 100 possessions better when one of them is on the floor defending the paint. Chandler was far and away the most effective of the big men (although Love played better against Spain).

The USA is better with one real big on the floor.

That could be especially true in a rematch against Spain. After a first quarter where Spain led, their coach rarely used Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka at the same time again. And Marc Gasol didn’t even play. Spain has a better game in them and while the USA’s small lineup overwhelmed them in the exhibition (thank you ‘Melo and your hot shooting 27 points) I’d be careful saying the rematch will be a repeat.

• It’s about knocking down outside shots. No other team on the planet has near the athletes the United States puts out. In waves. In 2008 Dwyane Wade was the freak athlete off the bench who destroyed teams, he’s injured so enter Russell Westbrook in that role. Other teams cannot match up.

So they zone up a lot. And even with that the USA’s pick-and-roll and good ball movement is netting them great outside looks. When they fall, the USA can’t be beat. Against Spain the USA had 23 unguarded threes and made 15 of them (‘Melo was 4-of-4, all in transition), according to ESPN Stats and Data. That was the ballgame. In previous games it was Kevin Durant as the outside marksman, but the impact was the same.

• Bust the zone. Because nobody can match the American athletes, other teams are going to go zone. A lot. The USA struggled against the Spanish zone according to ESPN — in 15 offensive plays against the zone the USA was 3-of-12 shooting, with three turnovers. If you think Spain didn’t notice that and only ran zone 15 out of 78 trips down the court you kid yourself. The USA is going to have to do better in its zone offense, especially against the elite teams that will try to grind the game down that way.

This ties back to the point above — knock down the outside shot.

• Team USA must defend, then get out and run. Do you really need stats for this one? When the tempo is up and the USA’s pressure defense is getting turnovers or forcing misses so the USA can get into offensive plays before the defense sets, it’s all over. They are a force. And they are fun to watch.

It’s this simple — their athleticism and defense let them dictate the terms of the game. When they get away from that, when the other team can grind the pace down like Argentina did, the USA can be beat.

Which means when they get a lead and take their foot off the gas, as they did against Argentina, they can be caught. Especially when the outside shots are not falling. The USA just needs to run teams into the ground.

• The USA’s best lineups. According to Schuhmann’s stats at NBA.com, it is Tyson Chandler, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and either Chris Paul or Deron Williams at the point (the top two five-man units were the same with the interchanged point guards). That is the lineup you close with.

But hopefully it will not come to that because they are running and knocking down outside shots.

Report: Markelle Fultz was available in trade packages on draft night

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The Philadelphia 76ers are saying all the right things about Markelle Fultz — they are patient, they believe in his work with his new trainer to rebuild his jump shot, and they see him as part of the future. Plus, his handles look sharp.

That doesn’t mean the Sixers are not willing to trade him in their pursuit of a star player. In fact, he was available on draft night in packages, reports Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Sixers say they aren’t shopping him. However, there was a report that they had internal discussions about packing him with Nos. 10 and 26 picks to move up into the Top 5 in Thursday’s draft. And multiple league sources have said that Fultz was available to be traded.

But it’s hard to get equal value in return for trading someone relearning how to shoot. The Sixers know that. They also know that if things do come together, Fultz will be a special player. He has the potential to become the type of player they would regret trading away.

Outside of a handful of superstars, every player in the NBA is available in a trade, at least in theory. Fultz is no different. The question in his case is what do they see as an upgrade vs. his potential?

Kawhi Leonard would be an upgrade, unquestionably. Fultz could be part of a package to land Leonard in a trade (Fultz, Robert Covington, the Miami 2021 first rounder, and probably more picks would be a starting point). Once the Spurs get serious about a potential Leonard trade (they are not there yet) how enticing that offer might be comes down to what they think of Fultz and his potential.

The Sixers are not shy about their desire to land an established All-Star to pair with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. If they don’t get Leonard, they will be looking at the next All-Star who becomes available, and Fultz could be part of those deals, too.

Fultz is not playing in Summer League for the Sixers, but if he comes back this fall trusting his jumper and starting to look like the player who was drafted No. 1 that trade value goes way up (and the Sixers may be less inclined to move him).  It may be then before the Sixers can get a respectable return on any Fultz trade.

Report: Indiana to retain Bojan Bogdanovic, he could start again next season

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Bojan Bogdanovic is the kind of floor spacing shooter the Pacers need next to the attacking Victor Oladipo. He started 80 games for the team, scored 14.3 points per game and shot 40.2 percent from three.

Bogdanovic is due $10.5 million next season, but the Pacers can buy him out before next Friday (June 29) for $1.5 million.

They’re not going to do that, the Pacers are going to retain Bogdanovic, reports Ben Gibson at the Pacers site 8points9seconds.com.

The Indiana Pacers currently plan to retain Bojan Bogdanovic — whose contract is only partially guaranteed for next season — and would be comfortable going into next season with him as a starter, according to a source familiar with the Pacers offseason plans.

There’s no surprise here, it was expected. Bogdanovic provides genuine value to the team — they need him on the court as a shooter, he averaged the second most threes per game on the squad. And, as an expiring contract, he could be used in any potential trades for another star.

The Pacers also have a decision to make on Darren Collison, who is owed $10 million next season but has a $2 million buyout by July 1. They will probably keep him around.

Al Jefferson is owed $10 million next season but can be bought out for $4 million before next January 10. Expect the Pacers to exercise that option and buy him out well before that date.

Carmelo Anthony sends message to haters: ‘Take A Step Back… And Enjoy Life’

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When the expected became official and Carmelo Anthony opted to take the $27.8 million contractually owed him next season, there were groans from the Thunder faithful.

It was Anthony’s right — and everyone knew he was going to take the cash (we all would have done the same) — but his value on the court has shrunk and that’s what eats at the OKC faithful. Anthony’s response on Instagram was, essentially, “relax, it’s just basketball.”

It will be interesting to see if Anthony is back with the Thunder next season, or if he gets bought out. If he does return, how do they better fit him in the offense?

Anthony’s defense has long been a concern, but his offense used to be efficient enough, and his ability to create shots important enough, that teams lived with the defense. However, his efficiency has slid in recent years and, as we saw in the playoffs in April, it’s not enough anymore. The Thunder played better with other lineups. To which Anthony responded he has to get back to his old style of play more.

It’s going to be a wild summer in OKC. Whatever happens.

Suns to sign French point guard Elie Okobo to first-round style contract

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The Suns have an impressive young core four: Devin Booker at the two, Mikal Bridges at the three, Josh Jackson at the four, and Deandre Ayton at center.

The hole: Who will be the point guard?

The Suns like Elie Okobo of France a lot. They drafted him 31st overall, the top pick of the second round, but they will give him a first-round style contract with two guaranteed seasons and two team options after that, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Suns hinted they were going to do this, and it’s a smart move at a fair price if they can develop Okobo (even as a backup).

Okobo has potential. Last season, at the highest level of the athletic French league he averaged 13.2 points on 57 percent shooting (38 percent from three) plus 4.4 assists per game. Okobo is an NBA level athlete who has all the tools to be a good NBA point guard — and he already knows how to score (he had 44 points in a playoff game this season). He’s going to have to round out his game and adapt to the NBA style, but the Suns think they have something.

And they are betting they have with a nice sized contract.