Notes from Team USA Camp in Las Vegas: Nobody is a fan of the FIBA balls

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LAS VEGAS — After a couple days of Team USA training camp I had a few things in my notebook, things that didn’t fit in stories, so I’ve slid them in here.

• For the practices Team USA is using the FIBA-issue balls and nobody is a fan. From Kevin Durant on down guys shake their heads when you ask about the balls and getting used to them, it’s the most animated a few guys got. These balls are much more slick and slippery than your standard NBA ball. It led to a few issues on the first day of practice and has been an adjustment for the shooters and ball handlers.

“They’re brand new and really slippery, and a lot of guys sweat a lot so a lot of sweat gets on the ball, it makes it hard to handle and shoot,” Anthony Davis said. “Once they get broken in they’ll be fine.”

For the record, pretty much everyone finished their comments with “that’s just part of the game.” But don’t confuse that with liking these balls.

• The other adjustment is the more physical style of play — referees let a lot more contact go in international ball. A few guys have driven the lane trying to draw calls that did not come. There has been a lot of staring at the refs… so like a regular NBA game.

• I mentioned this before but it is worth repeating: For two straight days now Mike Krzyzewski has ended practice with a lineup of Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, Paul George, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis on the floor, and that is likely the USA’s starting five.

• With all the talent in the room guys are bringing the effort. “You can sense it,” Damian Lillard said. “Guys that don’t have a reputation for playing hard defense are picking up full court. You’ll see guys doing stuff that basically shows you they will sell themselves out for the greater good of the team.”

• Derrick Rose says he expects some down days on his road back: “I think physically, just seeing if I can hold up (with high level practices every day), just seeing if I can hold up. I know I can but just seeing how my body feels.” He added that Bulls officials are calling and texting him daily to keep tabs and see how he’s feeling (plus Tom Thibodeau is one of the Team USA assistant coaches).

• Kevin Durant on Rose: “It’s is confidence man. That’s what it’s about in this league. You experience things and you go through and you gain confidence.”

• Former Bull Kyle Korver talking about new Bull Doug McDermott: “All the expectations on him and he handled it with such class. A lot of the learning curve when you come into the NBA is learning emotionally how to deal with everything going on. He has to learn how to deal with Thibs (coach Tom Thibodeau) every day, that’s a lot.”

• Durant on if he was disappointed Blake Griffin and Kevin Love dropped out of Team USA this summer: “No. As a player you know exactly what those guys are going through. We understand. As players we understand.” I’ll add that a number of players were asked that question and responded with some variant of “we just have to go with the guys in the room.”

• Gordon Hayward on the upcoming season in Utah where they have a lot of young talent: “We’re going to learn a lot. We’re going to take our lumps but I think it will be a good, exciting year. Hopefully we can get better from last year.”

• Coach Mike Krzyzewski on whether he knew when he was recruiting Kyrie Irving to Duke if he could turn out to be this kind of special player: “Oh definitely. I kew that in high school. That’s one of the thinks I did know — there were things I didn’t know, but I knew he was destined to be a great player because he has not only ability but he has character and great intelligence.”

• DeMar DeRozan took an elbow from Klay Thompson that ended with DeRozan on the floor with a bloody nose. DeRozan was up on Thompson pressuring him out high, Thompson tried to swing his arms through holding the ball to create space and caught him clean with the elbow. There was blood on the floor, but DeRozan was fine.

Report: NBA could resume with group stage

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A fundamental conflict for the NBA:

  • The more traditional of a season – all 30 teams playing 82 games, four rounds of best-of-seven series – the league completes, the more more money it will make.
  • The more teams involved in a resumed season, the higher risk of coronavirus spreading throughout the league.

That’s why the NBA is considering a middle ground – resuming without teams far outside playoff position.

But how would the league structure a format for 20 teams?

Maybe a group stage to replace the first round of the playoffs.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer:

The 16 current playoff teams would qualify for the group stage, plus the four teams with the next-best records (Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, and Spurs). The remaining 10 teams would be done for the season. The survey sent to each general manager noted that “tiers” would first be created using the regular-season standings to ensure competitive balance between the groups.

Groups could then be randomly drawn, with one team from each tier going into each group. The NBA is working on approaches to fairly balance the groupings, such as limiting each group to only three Western Conference teams, according to multiple front office sources. Drawings for the group stage could be televised, league sources say.

As an alternative to having groups randomly selected, multiple league sources say the league has considered allowing Tier 1 teams—the Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers—to draft their own groups.

Teams would play opponents within their own groups twice, meaning every team would play eight games. The two teams in each group with the best record would move on.

Based on the current standings, the tiers would be:

  • Tier 1: Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers
  • Tier 2: Celtics, Nuggets, Jazz, Heat
  • Tier 3: Thunder, Rockets, Pacers, 76ers
  • Tier 4: Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nets, Magic
  • Tier 5: Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs

As far as ways to resume with 20 teams, this isn’t bad. The draw – whether random or top-team choice – alone would be a revenue-drawing TV event.

The ninth-place (Wizards) and 10th-place (Hornets) teams in the Eastern Conference might argue they should be included over the 11th-place (Kings) and 12th-place (Spurs) teams in the Western Conference. But Sacramento and San Antonio have better records than Washington and Charlotte. If there were ever a time not to stress conference affiliations, it’s now with the league preparing to resume in a single location.

There would be increased risk for top teams getting knocked out early if their group is challenging. They’ve already lost home-court advantage. But there’s also chance of upset in a regular playoff series. Besides, downside could be mitigated by allowing the top teams to draft their groups* and using regular-season record as a tiebreaker.

*This could even be done in reverse – i.e., the top teams selecting which lower-tier teams not to put in their own group.

The Bucks, Lakers, Raptors and Clippers could rotate selecting lower-tier teams to avoid. Once three top-tier teams have nixed a team, that lower-tier team would be placed in the fourth top-tier team’s group. Each group would still be required to have one team from each tier.

Or maybe the top-tier teams could even rotate sticking lower-tier teams into a specific top-tier team’s group. The Bucks could use their first selection on placing the 76ers into the Lakers’ group, for example.

There are many possibilities how to structure a group draft.

If the NBA locks into resuming with 20 teams, the other 10 teams would be incentivized to vote for whatever system generates the most revenue. Those 10 votes could boost any proposal that would otherwise be doomed by teams trying to clear their own path deep into the playoffs.

This system would satisfy players on marginal teams – like Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard – who want to play only if the games are meaningful. It’d also allow the worst teams just to be done.

The draft order and lottery odds would have to be re-considered with a 20-team group phase. Though that’s a minor issue, it’d involve every team. Again, self-interest would creep in.

This idea has some rough precedent. In 1954, the playoffs began with three-team round robins in each the East and West.

The bigger question is how many NBA teams should resume? But if the best answer is 20, this is the best format I’ve seen.

Lakers’ Jeanie Buss talks steps that led to brother Jim’s removal

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Late Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss set up a very detailed trust and succession plan for his beloved franchise. His daughter Jeanie Buss would be the team’s governor, and his son Jim Buss would run basketball operations. If there was an issue, Jeanie had the ultimate power.

In 2017, after the Lakers missed the playoffs for a fifth straight year and were floundering as an organization, Jeanie used that power to oust Jim and bring in a new front office (Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, of which only Pelinka remains). Recently, Jeanie appeared on the “Daddy Issues with Joe Buck and Oliver Hudson” podcast and laid out the philosophy behind removing her brother. (Hat tip Lakers Nation)

“When my brother wasn’t going with the way my dad did things, it was a little distressing for me…

“You’re down and losing, and then my brother was changing coaches every 18 months. Sometimes you have to make coaching changes, I get that. But when you go from a coach like Mike Brown, whose emphasis was defense, to a coach like Mike D’Antoni, who really doesn’t worry so much about defense, that’s two different rosters that you need. Then the outside world thinks, ‘They don’t know what direction they’re going in.’

“You should be able to see a pathway as you hire a coach, you give him the players for his style of basketball and you make decisions that follow ones before it. You follow the path and what the person is thinking. But I couldn’t see what was going on, where he was trying to go and what our identity was going to be as a team.”

The path was clearer with Magic and Pelinka because they quickly landed LeBron James as a free agent (how much they had to do with LeBron’s decision is up for debate). The Lakers instantly became a win-now team and, a year later, traded a lot of the young players and picks to put Anthony Davis next to LeBron. The result has been the team with the best record in the West heading into the playoffs (whatever they look like).

Jim Buss swung and missed plenty, but he had a few hits as well. From the outside looking in, the biggest challenge seemed to be he operated with a mindset of “Laker exceptionalism” — that the very best players would always flock to the Lakers because they are the Lakers. The NBA doesn’t work that way anymore. No doubt, the Lakers have advantages few franchises can match. But from Jerry Buss to Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak, all through the Lakers’ successful runs, they didn’t approach things with a mindset of exceptionalism. The Lakers’ front office was bold, but it was grounded and smart — they identified and developed talent, they always had a strong core, and they had strong relationships with players. It wasn’t exceptionalism, it was hard work.

On top of that, Jim had become the scapegoat of Lakers’ fans, the focus of their blame for the years not in the playoffs. Fair or not, it became a public relations issue, not just a management issue.

Jeanie made the right move. And it may even lead to another ring soon.

Damian Lillard: I won’t play if Trail Blazers have no shot at playoffs

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Most players on lottery-bound teams reportedly prefer to be finished rather than return as the NBA attempts to finish its season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Someone finally put his name behind that sentiment.

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, via Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

“If we come back and they’re just like, ‘We’re adding a few games to finish the regular season,’ and they’re throwing us out there for meaningless games and we don’t have a true opportunity to get into the playoffs, I’m going to be with my team because I’m a part of the team. But I’m not going to be participating. I’m telling you that right now. And you can put that [expletive] in there,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday morning via phone.

I do feel like if we do come back and our mind is right, we can beat anyone. It’s going to be hard to get going with no fans, you’ve been off all this time and some people are just ready for summer like, ‘[Expletive] it, I haven’t played in a long time and the season is basically over to me. Do I really care like I cared before?’ It’s going to be a lot of those factors going on and that presents a lot of room for a team to sneak some [expletive]. Like, really mess around and knock some teams off and then, ‘Oh, they’re in the Western Conference finals.’ It’s room for that with this situation. So the fact that it’s possible and we wouldn’t get an opportunity at that, that’s weak to me. I ain’t getting no younger.”

In ninth place, Portland is 3.5 games behind the eighth-place Grizzlies. The Trail Blazers might still have a chance to reach the playoffs. It depends on the NBA’s format for resumption.

There’s consideration to bringing back only teams with a postseason chance, anyway. But there’s also talk of all 30 teams playing in order to fulfill local TV contracts.

Lillard is a tremendous leader. If he doesn’t play, that would cast such a negative feeling onto his Portland teammates – and beyond. Lillard’s voice could affect how the entire league handles its return.

With a super-max extension already signed, Lillard has the luxury of being able to afford risking his paycheck by not playing. Not everyone can do that. There are major complications in determining how much money, if any, non-returning players should earn.

This also gets into an issue even in normal times: There are too many games late in the season involving at least one team incentivized to lose. The Trail Blazers have made the playoffs every season after Lillard’s rookie year. He has never had to worry about this since becoming a star. But players and teams annually grapple with games that, at best, don’t really matter. It creates a horrible product.

The concern is just magnified now because of the heightened risk of playing.

The NBA should listen to Lillard’s apprehension, realize he’s not alone and take it seriously. Then, whenever normal play resumes, the league should also realize this type of situation comes up – admittedly, with lower stakes – every year.

Gary Payton was ‘hot’ about Michael Jordan laughing at The Glove, cooled off

Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan and Seattle SuperSonics guard Gary Payton
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images
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Michael Jordan bothered plenty of former Bulls teammates – including Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and Craig Hodges – with “The Last Dance.”

Former Seattle SuperSonics guard Gary Payton was more forgiving.

In the documentary, Payton described how his defense bothered Jordan during the 1996 NBA Finals – a clip played for Jordan to react. Jordan laughed and replied derisively: “The Glove. I had no problem with The Glove.”

Payton on “The Opinionated 7-Footers:”

You know I was hot. I was thinking about calling him at the time. I’d be like, “Yo, OK, now you want to hindsight and lie in front of everybody? Alright. It’s all good,” I’d say.

But you know what, that’s what I expect out of Mike. Because I would’ve said the same thing. I would’ve said the same thing. You know me, B. I’m not going to admit to nothing, man. I’m not going admit to somebody that D’d me up or did nothing. I’ll always tell you that any time in my career, nobody gave me problems but one person, and that’s John Stockton to me. So, that is just the way the game goes.

I’m not mad at Mike, because Mike didn’t have too many games that nobody D’d him up. He always was dominant.

I’m glad he said that, because I wouldn’t expect nothing else from him. I wouldn’t expect nothing else from Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan. That’s why we’re talking about it.

I love this answer!

Payton and Jordan were great trash talkers. Jordan isn’t required to provide an accurate assessment of Payton’s defense. Jordan was just trying to hype up Jordan and diss a rival. Payton understands the game. He doesn’t need to turn it into something bigger.

He’ll just dish it right back with a line about John Stockton being harder to guard than Jordan.