The Inbounds: Team USA and an outlet pass to the future of superstar team-ups

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Just kidding. I’m not actually going to give you the top five possible superstar teamups from these Olympics. No slideshows or top ten lists, though I have written those before and they serve a purpose. But I did want to write about that dynamic, where it comes from, and what it means.

In Team USA’s second-half vehicular manslaughter of Tunisia on Tuesday, at one point Kevin Love spit one of those outlet passes that he is so incredible at. The two-hand cannonball to the sideline at half-court to Russell Westbrook who caught it in stride, sped past three defenders, took the foul, and scored. It was an amazing display of what Team USA’s younger stars bring to the table, and just a really spectacular basketball play.

And my first thought was to wonder if it was a sign of things to come.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh have all openly talked about Beijing in 2008 being a moment where they all realized the possibility of playing together. Deron Williams has mentioned the same about Dwight Howard at the same time. Those are two examples, but it’s clear that when these guys get together and experience what it’s like to play with a team full of guys with equal or superior talent, how much fun it is. And how big their starpower can get.

So when Love and Westbrook make a play like that, the kind that they used to make at UCLA, where they were roommates, you have to wonder if the same conversation is being held.

Before we go down this road, i want to make sure you know that a. I’m not insane and b. this isn’t rampant speculation that this is ever going to happen. Russell Westbrook just got done finishing in the NBA Finals where his team was within a few bad quarters of winning the NBA title. He’s locked into a five-year deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder who just gave him a huge extension. Kevin Love may have his problems with the Timberwolves, but he does have a three-year guaranteed deal and he’s a part of one of the up and coming teams in the league with a sensational point guard. My point here is not “COULD KEVIN LOVE AND RUSSELL WESTBROOK BE CONSPIRING TO PLAY TOGETHER IN 2016?” because that makes beyond zero sense.

But you have to look at down the line, at the career arc of a lot of players who we thought would always be one place and then landed in another. It happens all the time in this league. Steve Nash is a Laker, for crying out loud. Dwight Howard is about to be… something else. And there are plenty of reasons to think that the smart, sensible option for both Love and Wetbrook will be to stay put, and neither leave in free agency nor push for a trade. But we’ve seen logic lose too often in this league not to wonder. Westbrook is already part of a superstar trio that loves playing together, and they’re all in the Olympics together this year. The only way it happens is if things were to go seriously awry and Westbrook were to think about this experience and what it could mean for him elsewhere. Or if he were to bring Love to the Thunder which in no way seems possible with the CBA.

And that’s the danger inherent in the Olympics, for NBA teams, now. But it’s not just the Olympics. It’s All-Star Weekend and weddings and parties, and anytime that these players get together, there’s talk of a realignment of their careers to run parallel and under the same flag. This is the new NBA world we live in, molded by branding, exposure, markets, and “families” managed by large representation groups. “The Decision” is supposedly the start of this, but it dates back to Boston’s collection of the Big 3. This is not a wholly recent trend and the potential has been there for years. LeBron, Wade, and Bosh were just the first bold enough to go out and put it to its absolute limit. And seeing the success they’re undergoing? The NBA title, an improving image, a rehabilitated public persona, and a huge international influence? That’s only going to make it more attractive.

Some of these are just pipe dreams. Chris Paul toasted to Melo, Amar’e, and he in New York, and Paul’s running the floor for Lob City. Amar’e Stoudemire mentioned Tony Parker at a Broadway show the night before he signed with the Knicks, and Parker’s not going anywhere for San Antonio. And again, there’s very little reason to believe Westbrook and Love will be playing anywhere else in five to six years. But you have to wonder if the idea is there, considering Westbrook, Derrick Rose, and Love work out in the summers, and Westbrook and Love have been playing together for most of their lives. Hey, Love’s even said on record that they’ve talked about it. It doesn’t take much to say that Westbrook and Love are closer than LeBron James and Wade are, or were. Friendship doesn’t mean they’re going to. It means that there’s always that possibility.

Maybe the bigger point here is that this is what I first thought of when Love jetted that outlet pass to Westbrook. How well they fit. Could they play for the Lakers, when they inevitably restock? The idea of the Lakers just landing those two outright isn’t pleasant for the idea of competitive balance, but it fits with everything we know about the history of the league. That’s where my brain went, though. Not to how amazing this Team USA is with the kind of talent it’s able to put on the floor together at all times, but about how every interaction could spell enormous consequences (Note: meme’d) for the NBA. We’re living in some sort of weird world where players play for teams, but simultaneously always exist as free agents given the power of players to force their way out to the teams they want at this point.

It’s exciting, and scary, and dangerous, and even if Love and Westbrook never play a second together, this is still the world we’re living in, where if one player’s great and another player’s great and they can stand each other at all, you have to wonder not just what it would be like… but when and how? The impossible is possible now, and very few stars shine on their own.

Rumor: Paul George’s agent telling people client will re-sign with Thunder

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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That rumor Paul George will leave the Thunder?

How about the exact opposite?

Dean Blevins of News 9:

Allegedly, apparently, Paul George plans to stay with the Thunder. I know. It’s not what people believe. But in separate conversations, I’m told P.G.’s agent has told people associated with the NBA that P.G. believes the injury loss of Andre Roberson was huge and he’s staying. Disclaimer, though: Believing everything that agents allegedly say can be dangerous to your health.

This, by Blevins’ own admission, isn’t the staunchest reporting. Nonetheless, I appreciate him sharing and contextualizing it. We can evaluate it for what it’s worth.

George is known to share his plans – though the previous example was him planning to sign with the Lakers. And he might have really believed it at the time, when he was still with the Pacers.

But throughout the season, George seemingly went out of his way to profess his affection for Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder. That only raised expectations in Oklahoma City of George staying, and if he leaves after doing that, he’d be inviting even more backlash. I think he’s smart enough to understand that, which is why I thought he made those especially strong pro-Thunder comments only after deciding he’d likely stay.

On the other hand, even if my assessment was correct, conditions change. The Jazz brutally exposed Oklahoma City’s flaws, and if George re-signs and Anthony opts in, the Thunder will have minimal cap flexibility to upgrade the roster. In fact, they might take a step back with the supporting cast to keep the luxury-tax bill manageable. George could see free agency as his chance to escape that mess.

Roberson was a huge loss, and if George is focused on that, that would bode well for Oklahoma City. Though Roberson was just a role player, he was pivotal to the Thunder’s defense. And his teammates had learned how to play around his offensive shortcomings. Oklahoma City didn’t have any good replacements for him on the roster. Roberson getting healthy is the clearest way for the Thunder to improve next season.

Of course, that’s predicated on George returning, too. Will he?

One last note of caution: People often believe what they want to hear. It’s easy to see someone in Oklahoma City hearing George bemoan the loss of Roberson and elevate that to George planning to re-sign, even George wasn’t going that far.

Draymond Green guarantees Warriors will beat Rockets in Western Conference finals

AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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Warriors coach Steve Kerr is confident despite his team trailing the Rockets 3-2 in the Western Conference finals.

Golden State forward Draymond Green goes further.

Green, via Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic:

“We still winning this,” Draymond Green said. “Book it.”

Of course, Green is confident. He’d never say he expects his team to lose.

But he didn’t need to frame it this way. He could’ve said he was just focused on the next game rather than make such a bold proclamation.

He’s taking pressure upon himself and putting his reputation on the line. If Golden State loses, especially in Game 6 at home with Chris Paul out, Green will be widely mocked.

If he and the Warriors pull through, he’ll probably deserve praise for setting a tone that helped them advance.

Danny Green: Kawhi Leonard told me he wants to stay with Spurs

AP Photo/Eric Gay
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The Spurs are reportedly worried Kawhi Leonard‘s camp wants to get him to the Lakers, Clippers, Knicks or 76ers.

Leonard hasn’t said much himself – except apparently to San Antonio teammate Danny Green

Get Up on ESPN:

Green:

I talk to him here and there, check up on him, see how he’s doing.

I think he wants to be in San Antonio. He’s let me know that. He’s let me know verbally he wanted to be there. So, we’ll see what happens.

Green has tried playing peacemaker throughout this saga – going as far as denying tension that clearly exists. He’s not the most reliable source.

And even if Leonard explicitly told Green he wants to remain in San Antonio, I’m not sure Leonard is confrontational enough to tell Green he wanted out, even if he did.

Those caveats acknowledged, this could be a huge revelation.

If Leonard wants to stay with the Spurs, the next step is meeting with them, mending their relationship and convincing them he deserves a super-max extension (which projects to be worth $219 million over five years). No matter how Leonard feels about San Antonio right now, if the Spurs don’t trust investing so much in him, that could lead to a fractured relationship and his exit.

So, there’s still a lot to sort out. But Green saying this means something.

LeBron James flips elimination-game game on its head

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His Cavaliers down 3-2 to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, how does LeBron James assess his situation?

"I don’t enjoy being in the position where it’s you lose and go home," LeBron said before Game 6 tonight in Cleveland.

He might not enjoy this position, but he’s pretty good in it.

Since he first reached the playoffs in 2006, other teams have won 26% of their elimination games. LeBron’s teams have won 57% of theirs.

Of course, LeBron hasn’t gone 12-9 in elimination games just because he’s lucky. He has willed his team off the mat numerous times.

LeBron has scored 40 points and/or had a triple-double in six straight elimination games, winning five of them. His line in his last elimination game before that streak? Just 32 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists.

A full history of LeBron’s elimination games:

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