The Inbounds: Team USA and the meaning of London

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It’s extremely difficult to measure what winning a gold medal does for a player, outside of you know, giving them the actual object and putting a line on a resume. When most people think Michael Jordan, 99 percent of them don’t think “Olympic Gold Medalist.” They think six-time NBA champion, the Greatest of all Time, or “the guy in the Hanes commercial with his own shoe.” It’s really only in the context of the Olympics that we examine these players. In fact, the members of the 1992 Dream Team are known more for their association with that particular assembly of players than for winning the gold medal. The medal was basically the Kia that they give to Rookies of the Year. You care about the award but you’ve already accomplished more for yourself.

And though the teams are worse through the years, the same can be said for those other teams that won. Their players are proud of their medal, proud of their place in history, proud of what they have accomplished. But that doesn’t define their careers. LeBron James was not certified prior to winning the 2012 NBA title despite having won a gold medal in 2008. It exists separate, and every team is constantly being judged against an impossible standard set by the greatest collection of basketball talent in recorded history and the resulting mythology which has followed them.

So what stands before Team USA as the ball prepares to be tipped in the Summer Games’ basketball tournament? It’s a specific question that shifts with each player.

Kobe Bryant: It’s Jordan, right? I mean, that’s what his career has largely become about. It’s not about Magic, despite the Laker connection, his sights are set on a larger goal. If he can’t match what Jordan did in the time he did, he can match him in as many total areas as possible. Bryant can match Jordan’s two Olympic golds in London, and best him in golds in games featuring NBA players. For Bryant, though, this is also a farewell tour to international competition. You can tell from his interviews that he’s enjoying playing the role of figurehead, the vocal leader for Team USA, and making the rounds once more as the face of USA Basketball. This is Bryant’s last ride, and to go out as anything but not only undefeated, but dominant, would be a travesty to his identity.

Losing, as always, is not an option for Kobe Bean Bryant.

LeBron James: James, and this is going to ruffle some feathers, is very much the ’92 Jordan of this team. In no way am I stacking up the Chosen One with the Greatest of all Time in terms of their basketball talents, skills, or abilities. But in Jack McCallum’s excellent book on the Dream Team (released this month), he writes extensively about how Magic Johnson spoke and acted as the leader, but that Jordan was the better player. It was evident in practice, evident in games, evident in all manners. From what we’ve seen in these exhibitions, we’re seeing the same with Bryant and James. In 2008, it wasn’t just close, Bryant’s game was better suited for international play and his desire to be the firepower was evident. Bryant is much more the floor leader than the leader-by-example in these games so far. Bryant will have himself a game or two in these contests, as he’s still capable of dropping 40 on any fool that comes up against him at the right time.

But it’s James’ all-around game that has anchored Team USA. He’s the best player on the team, and that’s what these Olympics are about. No Dwyane Wade, a Kobe Bryant fading back, Kevin Durant not quite there, Carmelo Anthony still only the dominant player in one phase of the game. James is the nexus, he’s the one player that’s capable of everything Team USA needs. These games aren’t just about adding his second medal, but about winning the games as The Guy for Team USA. On a team that’s limited in areas by injury, James is producing in those areas and more. It’s another step in his evolutionary ladder as one of the best players ever.

That, of course, serves a double-purpose. James has long lagged behind other players in terms of international exposure and popularity. There will be a void when Bryant leaves as the most popular international player and both Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant, along with Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, are in better positions to capitalize on that. But the international fans really just respond to dominance and in 2008, James was much more of a facilitator and all-around player. He’ll still be playing that role, that’s his game, but an emphatic showing and a bit more control over the game offensively and he could take a big step forward. He’s conquered everything else, might as well go for the Continent.

Carmelo Anthony: It’s not difficult to argue that the Olympics bring out the best in Melo. He winds up playing more of a team-centric style which accentuates his shooters touch, and his body is better configured to attack the international forwards than either the small or power forwards in the NBA. His rebounding is better on display because he operates more off-ball, and he seems like quite the cold-blooded killer under the banner of Olympic Rings. Anthony can use this as a launching point for a career rejuvenation, or maybe better termed, a career advancement. He can learn what he’s best at, where he can succeed the most, and more importantly, that his success isn’t dependent on his dribbling. He’s still a star even if he’s not the one with the ball to start the possession. It’s who ends the possession with the ball in his hands and how they perform that matters. He can see how the world’s greatest contribute in multiple ways, and the approach to defense those players have

Make no mistake, Anthony can play defense, and play it well. It’s a willingness and focus issue that keeps him from being one of the premier defenders in the league.

This is also a huge opportunity for him to put himself back up on that pedestal with the greatest in the game. Anthony was considered one of the elite players in the league until a few years ago, and since then there’s been a separation between he and LeBron, Wade, and Bryant, and Rose, Howard, and Durant have leapfrogged him. But without Wade in position, with Bryant coming back a bit, and Durant not ready for the fullest load on an Olympic team, Melo can regain his footing. He has more experience than Durant and a bigger frame. He and Durant have had some prolific shooting nights in the exhibitions, and seeing which of the two asserts themselves as the third cog is going to be fascinating.

Kevin Durant: Rookie of the Year. Three-time NBA scoring champ. Three-time All-Star. Three-time All-NBA. NBA Western Conference Champion. FIBA World Championship gold medalist. And, should Durant and Team USA win gold in London, the kid KD will have an Olympic Gold Medal as the third or fourth best player on the greatest collection of basketball talent in the world.

He won’t turn 24 until September.

The comments above about Durant’s readiness have little to do with his actual game. He’s there. And he’s been putting in shooting nights, though his number have been a little erratic in the exhibitions. It’s more just about age, experience, and role. Durant doesn’t have to lead this Team USA, it’s stocked with leaders. 2010 was a great chance for him to be the leader for a younger team where he was the most talented player on the floor. This is a great opportunity for him to absorb the knowledge of the older players, and to model himself after them. Durant’s old enough to have his own game certified, and young enough to still be able to learn from the rest of the team.

But at its core, London is just another step in his career, another moment where he advances forward, learns more things, sees more of the world, and may be able to usurp the role of “hero” from LeBron with his popularity and how his game manifests. Durant’s likeability is off the charts, and putting it on a scale like this could have serious impacts for his global identity.

Again, not even 24 yet.

The Rest of the Vets: For Chris Paul, it’s simply another good thing he’s done in a career of good things. Paul’s game never quite seems to fit on the international stage for some reason, but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective. It’s also good for him to be around players in game and practice situations that set the bar as high as this team does. He’s in a position to have to translate those habits to the Clippers, and things like this help him with a model for that. It’s also good for his motivation to be around players with championship rings like Bryant, Chandler, and James. It would have been a great opportunity for some development and work with Blake Griffin, had the explosive forward not injured his knee.

Kevin Love gets to mingle with the kind of stars he wants to play with. Not for nothing, but Love and Russell Westbrook, old UCLA buddies, are hanging out. And we all know what goes on at these competitions with the superstar talk of teaming up. Love also gets to put his name under the bright lights, something that’s been a struggle in Minnesota, if he can manage to get consistent playing time.

Dwight Howard is the best center in the league. Andrew Bynum’s probably next. Marc Gasol is up there. But with his performances for Team USA and over the past three year sin the NBA, Tyson Chandler is in the midst of carving out a specific niche for himself in the league. He’s the center you want on your team. He’s not going to get the star treatment or endorsement deals, but Chandler will be remembered and praised for his work in these games. He’s building a legacy without commercials with performances like his with Team USA.

When we look back and realize how under-appreciated  Andre Iguodala is, it will be things like what he gave Team USA in the international competitions that stand out. You also have to wonder if eventually he’s going to get the bug to play with an elite talent of his own.

Like Durant, this is likely to be Russell Westbrook’s international coming out party. He’s been tearing it up in the exhibitions, and with the size luxury afforded to the coaching staff to have him play at the two-guard, he can do even more damage. He’s still going to take a high volume of shots, but there’s enough superior ego on the floor to keep him in check. Refining the fire that burns in Westbrook on the floor by being around players like Bryant is only going to help matters. This is a big moment for Westbook.

You have to wonder how much Deron Williams misses his mentor Jason Kidd, who will be playing across the boroughs from him in Manhattan. But Williams is also in a position to show that he’s still among that elite group. With Brooklyn raising the flag in October, this is the kickstart of what he likely hopes is the Deron Williams’ era. Williams made a name for himself in 2008 by being a better international guard than CP3. We could see the same in London with his ability to defend with more size.

James Harden gets to show Europe how you can cook with a beard.

Anthony Davis: Make no mistake, despite Davis’ limited role on this team, which will consist mostly of carrying bags and getting things for the older guys, and in general taking a lot of crap, this is an invaluable experience for Davis. He’s in a position to be immersed in a culture of winners, surrounded by the players who have been and are willing to do what it takes to be successful. He learns how to handle himself, how to condition his body, how to approach the media, how to mentally approach the game. He gets to absorb Tyson Chandler’s defensive mindset, Kevin Love’s rebounding approach, Kobe Bryant’s preparation, LeBron James’ workout intensity, Chris Paul’s cerebralism. This is the kind of learning experience guys would kill for, and it’s only going to be help him in the long-run. You want to be great? Surround yourself with great. Davis is surrounded by great.

Russell Westbrook gets ejected for jawing with Warriors bench (video)

Russell Westbrook in Rockets-Warriors
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Russell Westbrook‘s rivalry with the Warriors really escalated with Kevin Durant leaving the Thunder for Oklahoma City. Durant is now with the Nets, and Westbrook is now with the Rockets. But other Warriors said things about Westbrook that still linger.

Westbrook’s passion showed late in Houston’s 135-105 win over Golden State last night.

Westbrook elbowed Damion Lee while going for a rebound. Then, Westbrook and Warriors on the bench – including Klay Thompson – exchanged words. As he returned to the Rockets’ bench, Westbrook bumped into Looney. (Or Looney bumped into Westbrook, depending on your perspective.) Westbrook, who had a technical foul earlier in the game, received another and got ejected.

NBC Sports Bay Area:

Westbrook said he shouldn’t have been the only player to receive a technical foul. Without hearing everything said on the court, I can’t say either way. But, in an incident like that, it is surprising Golden State emerged unscathed.

Except for the loss.

Though even that isn’t so bad.

Three Things to Know: Trae Young has seen the future and it’s dropping 50 on Heat

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday during the NBA regular season we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) Trae Young has seen the future and it’s dropping 50 on Heat. Way back on Dec. 10, when Trae Young and the Hawks were in Miami, Young slid a pass to Alex Led for a bucket that put the Hawks up six inside a minute. That should have been the dagger and Young reacted that way, waving his arms to say the game was over.

It wasn’t. Miami came back to win in OT.

Jimmy Butler took to Instagram to taunt Young about it postgame.

Fast forward to Thursday night, the return of basketball after the All-Star break, when the Hawks and Heat met up again. Young looked rested after a few days off, he looked motivated, and he dropped a 50 spot on the Heat on 12-of-25 shooting, 8-of-15 from three, to spark an Atlanta win.

This time it was Young who took to social media.

You can talk all the smack you want Trae, you earned it.

Miami is 4-6 in its last 10, going back to before the break, which is an issue for a team now up just one game in the loss column over Philadelphia, and with that the right to be home for the first round of the playoff. Indiana is only three back. Jae Crowder moved into the starting lineup, Bam Adebayo had 28 points and 19 boards in a monster night for him, but it wasn’t enough. There was too much Trae on Thursday night.

The Heat have the league’s sixth toughest schedule the rest of the way, they need to find some wins down the stretch or risk fading in the East playoff picture.

2) Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson officially out for the season. Neither of these players being out the rest of the way is a surprise. Nor is it much of a blow to their team in either case, both teams were looking past this season. Still, on Thursday we learned two NBA stars had been sidelined for good.

Kyrie Irving had tried to play through shoulder bursitis — that’s what he called it, while other reports called it “a deterioration” — earlier this season, opting for a cortisone shot over surgery. That worked for nine games, but he sprained his knee and needed time off, then when the shot started to wear off the realization hit.

Thursday, Nets GM Sean Marks made it official, Irving would have a “shoulder procedure” and is done for the season. As our own Keith Smith pointed out, with Kevin Durant sidelined the entire season coming off a torn Achilles, it was never about this season in Brooklyn. More time on the court for Irving gaining chemistry with his new teammates would have been nice, but it was not a requirement.

How good the Nets are going to be next season will be debated. They have good role players — Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris (if they re-sign him) — to go around Irving and Durant, but how much will they get out of their stars? They will need vintage KD to have a shot against teams such as the Bucks, and that’s a lot to ask a 32-year-old coming off a torn Achilles. Durant looks good shooting the rock in an empty gym, but that is a long way from doing it in a game.

Klay Thompson never set foot on the court for the Warriors this season, nor was he expected to as he worked to recover from a torn ACL suffered in last year’s Finals. Still, the Warriors shut the door on his return on Thursday, ending any speculation.

The Warriors come back next season with Thompson, Stephen Curry (who will return to the court next month), Draymond Green, a healthy Kevon Looney, whatever they can get out of Andrew Wiggins, and a high draft pick (or, whoever they trade that pick for). The Warriors will be rested and be threats in the West again.

3) Joel Embiid: “I’m here, I belong, and being the best player in the world.” Joel Embiid saved Philadelphia on Thursday night. The Sixers came out of the All-Star break flat, going down by 15 to the shorthanded Nets in the first half.

Embiid, who finished the game with 39 points and 16 rebounds, changed the dynamic in the second half and brought the Sixers back for a 112-104 win. He shot 4-of-4 from the line in the final 35 seconds of regulation, then blocked Wilson Chandler‘s shot to force OT.

It’s the kind of win the Sixers need down the stretch, they remain just half a game back of Miami for the four seed and home court in the first round.

Embiid played like a guy inspired by his All-Star experience. What did Embiid get out of his time in Chicago? Via NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“The All-Star Game is just proving that I’m here, I belong, and being the best player in the world,” Embiid said. “I just intend to keep coming out every single night, just play hard and try to get wins. Go hard and try to win a championship.”

Embiid is playing like his dominant self again, and Sixers fans want him thinking like he’s the best player in the world. Even though he is not. However, he might be the best center in the world right now, and that might be enough to make the Sixers a serious threat in the playoffs (if the rest of the team can step up).

It was never about this year for the Brooklyn Nets

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With news that Kyrie Irving is out for the season due to impending shoulder surgery, it’s worth taking a look at exactly where the Brooklyn Nets stand now.

Irving and Kevin Durant were the big-ticket items for Brooklyn this summer, as they both signed four-year, max deals. Those contracts came with starting salaries of $31.7 million for Irving and $38.2 million for Durant. That’s a combined $69.9 million for a grand total of 20 games (all from Irving).

But it was never about this season for the Nets.

Not when they signed Irving and Durant, and certainly not now.

After Durant tore his Achilles’ during the 2019 NBA Finals, it was assumed he would be out for most if not all of the 2019-20 season. Brooklyn reiterated this when they signed Durant and made it clear they would not rush him back. Durant recently said himself that he would not return this season, even with the Nets pushing for a second straight playoff appearance.

Instead of an immediate impact, Brooklyn banked on a long-term one. Now, they’ll open next season with both Durant and Irving coming off mostly lost years. And they’ll have a lot more questions than answers about the viability of building a title contender around the two stars, given the health concerns.

After this season runs its course, and he misses 62 games, Irving will have missed a whopping 27% of his teams’ regular season contests of the course of his career. Durant will be 32 years old the next time we see him play, and coming off a year without playing in an NBA game. And that’s before factoring in that very few players have returned from the torn Achilles’ at the same level they were at pre-injury.

The Durant portion was part of the plan for Brooklyn. Sean Marks knew what he was signing up for there. The Irving part was unexpected, but given his history, not exactly shocking. Now it’s about what Marks does next to try and set things on a solid path moving forward.

Before this season, Caris LeVert and Taurean Prince both inked contract extensions. This came on the heels of Spender Dinwiddie signing an extension before last season ended. With these three moves, Marks kept three valuable rotation players off the open market.

Brooklyn also has Jarret Allen and Dzanan Musa on rookie-scale deals and a few other young players under team control for next season as well. All total, the Nets have 13 total players under team control approaching this offseason.

Brooklyn is already right up against the luxury tax to start next season, and that’s before re-signing key free agent Joe Harris. Harris is in his fourth year with the Nets, and has found a home in Brooklyn. He’s improved each year since Marks plucked him off the scrap heap, but he’s probably not giving the Nets any sort of hometown discounts this time around.

In a year where the free agent class is fairly barren, Harris will have suitors. He’s the top shooter on the market and the handful of teams with meaningful cap space are in the market to add shooting. Brooklyn has full Bird rights for Harris, but signing him to a market value contract will push them deep into the luxury tax.

Even the ownership groups with the deepest of pockets have limits on how much tax they’re willing to pay. This is one spot where having DeAndre Jordan on the books for over $10 million is a complicating factor. Jordan is close with both Durant and Irving, but he’s clearly behind Allen in the center rotation, and rookie big Nicolas Claxton has shown a lot of promise as well.

The Nets also have to consider whether or not they want to bring back Wilson Chandler, who has been a rotation player since returning from a 25-game suspension. And Brooklyn has team options for Garrett Temple and Theo Pinson to deal with as well.

Given the makeup of the roster, it’s unlikely the Nets will be in the market to add impact newcomers this summer. Their best bet is probably re-signing Harris and maybe adding a veteran or two on minimum deals. That probably puts Brooklyn somewhere between $10 and $15 million in the tax.

Even with concerns over a mounting tax bill, you have to factor in that the Nets are essentially adding Durant and Irving all over again this summer. The 20 games, complete with 8-12 record, are largely forgettable for Irving. And, of course, Durant won’t have even suited up in a Nets jersey by the time 2020-21 tips off.

If the two stars are able to be stars again, Brooklyn is deep and versatile. Kenny Atkinson will have his work cut out for him finding enough minutes for everyone, especially on the wing. But that’s something Marks can alleviate in the offseason. If he believes the Nets have a hole at the four (it looks like a weak spot), Marks can trade a wing to bring in a power forward.

But Marks will need to be careful. Trade away too much of that depth, and Brooklyn won’t be protected if Durant and/or Irving goes down again. That was fine this year. Adding the two stars was never about this year for the Nets. But it is very much about next year and beyond.

Trae Young drops career-high 50 points in Hawks win

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Trae Young suffered from no All-Star break hangover.

The second-year guard went for a career-high 50 points, as the Atlanta Hawks defeated the Miami Heat 129-124. Young shot 12-of-25 from the floor, including 8-of-15 from behind the arc. One of those shots was this bomb from the logo:

Fittingly, Young got his 50th point at the free throw line since he was 18-of-19 at the charity stripe on the night. This was Atlanta’s first 50-point game since Shareef Abdur-Rahim in 2001.

Young got some help from his baby Hawks teammates in the win too. De’Andre Hunter scored 17 points and knocked down a big three-pointer late in the fourth quarter. Fellow rookie Cam Reddish went for 16 off the bench, including picking Goran Dragic’s pocket for a breakaway dunk that put Atlanta up for good with 31 seconds to play.