Team USA opens camp in Chicago with a lot of questions

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The last time we saw Team USA at practice, they looked like a team starting to come together to make a run at the gold medal in Spain at the World Cup — they had a team that could play the international game well and the only question was what specialists would make the roster.

Then Paul George had a horrific, fluke accident that shattered his leg and ended not only his Team USA involvement but also his entire next season.

The Kevin Durant pulled out of Team USA citing mental and physical exhaustion.

Team USA opened camp again this week in Chicago and now there are a lot of questions.

Who moves into the starting lineup? Both Durant and George were going to start and not only did they bring a lot of scoring they also brought a lot of length and some good defense. Now who fills those roles? The USA was going small already with George at the two and Durant at the three and the likely even go smaller now (Anthony Davis is locked in as the five and looks good in the role). Rudy Gay has been added to the Team USA roster and he likely gets minutes if not starting ones, but look for versatile guys like Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward also to get more run.

With the scoring, the USA should be okay — they will still play an aggressive defense looking to force turnovers then turn those into easy points in transition. Think about it this way: With Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and James Harden on the roster (just to name a few guys likely in the final 12) scoring is not going to be the issue.

How do they deal with big teams? That will be the issue. Because at the end of all this, the USA is still very likely going to play Spain in the Gold Medal game of the World Cup. (The USA lucked out and is on the easy side of the bracket, neither their group play or games in the single elimination rounds should be that big a threat, the best team they see may be Lithuania.)

Spain is a different animal, rolling out Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Combine that with quality guards (Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez) and you have a challenge.

We should get a sense on the size question from the Saturday exhibition game in Chicago when the USA takes on Brazil, which sports Tiago Splitter, Nene and Anderson Varejao.

How many centers do you keep? Anthony Davis is going to start and play the bulk of the minutes at the five for Team USA, but because of teams like Spain and others with size Team USA needs at least one and maybe two true centers. They have DeMarcus Cousins, Miles Plumlee and Andre Drummond on the roster. All three are not staying, but two might. Maybe just one. And where does Kenneth Fraried and his energy and rebounding fit into the equation?

Cousins had a pretty good week of practice but looked strong in the exhibition game in Las Vegas. Miles Plumlee surprised the coaches with his play (which is saying something, Mike Krzyzewski had him for four years at Duke) and they like how his versatility makes him easy to play with. When Coach K talked bigs in Vegas, Drummond was almost always the first name mentioned. It’s going to be interesting to see where the line gets drawn.

Who gets cut from the group of wings? There are four point guards on the roster — Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving — but all for very well may make the finals roster. Especially when you consider that Curry and Lillard can both play the two (maybe even Rose can in a pinch).

Also as wing players you have James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, Gordon Hayward, Kyle Korver, Klay Thompson, Rudy Gay and Chandler Parsons. Some players have got to go and it’s not going to be an easy line to draw.

Until we see how Coach K shakes out his rotations after the Durant/George departures, it’s very difficult to guess who makes the cut.

Devin Booker calls out Enes Kanter’s defense after Suns beat Knicks

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In a Knicks’ win over the Suns last January, Enes Kanter irritated Devin Booker into pushing him. The Phoenix guard got ejected then had to deal with Kanter’s online trash-talking afterward.

So, this retweet – following the Suns’ win over New York last night – was nearly a year in the making.

Booker:

There are two possible responses here. I’m not sure which is correct.

1. Booker shouldn’t criticize anyone else’s defense before looking in the mirror.

2. Kanter’s defense is so bad, even Booker is mocking it.

James Harden on double-stepback uncalled travel: ‘What do you want me to say? Tell on myself?’ (video)

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James Harden is difficult enough to defend when officiated correctly.

When he can get away with this? There’s nearly no stopping him. That was a big uncalled travel in the Rockets’ win over the Jazz last night.

Harden, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“What do you want me to say? Tell on myself?” Harden said.

Fair.

Unlike that call.

Three Things to Know: Rockets beat Jazz behind Harden’s 47, has Houston turned it around?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Rockets beat Jazz behind James Harden’s 47, is Houston turning it around? It was a “battle” of the two most disappointing teams in the Western Conference — just about every pundit (myself included) projected the Rockets and Jazz to finish second and third in the West in some order. They came into the night 10th and 13th in the West — both out of the playoffs if they started today.

And both needed a win — in the tight Western Conference any game between playoff contenders counts double (and there seems to be a game or three like this every night now).

Houston got the win, 102-97, because MVP James Harden showed up and took over: 47 points, six rebounds, five assists, and five steals.

That’s the second time in four days Harden has been in vintage form, he dropped 50 on the Lakers and frustrated them just days before. Harden is the master and showing the ball and drawing fouls, and he has the best step-back in the game — although this one was more than a gather and step. Harden got away with one.

The Rockets have now won four in a row, are over .500 at 15-14 for the first time since Nov. 23rd. They are just half a game back of the final playoff slot in the West.

Have the Rockets turned it around?

Depends on how you define “turned it around.”

The Rockets offense has been elite and their defense average — which is a big step up, they are still fifth worst in the league on the season — in these four games. Harden has taken over two of them. That recipe, if it continues, should get Houston into the playoffs in the West. In that sense, they have turned it around, they are performing at the level of a playoff team, which is a step up.

But just making the playoffs was never the goal in Houston — this was a team that was ahead of Golden State at halftime of games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals last season and within a step of reaching the Finals (and winning a ring). This season they wanted to take that next step.

The Rockets aren’t at that level yet, and this roster — as currently constructed — cannot get there. Houston was a top-10 defense last season and this roster has not shown it can get near, let alone sustain, that level. Houston’s defensive switching isn’t as smooth as a season ago, and teams are attacking it differently (not just trying to post up Harden or Chris Paul). Houston doesn’t have the personnel on this roster to adapt and thrive against the way the NBA is adjusting, they are thin at the wings, and come the playoffs they are farther away from Golden State, not closer.

Which is why everyone expected them to go harder for a Trevor Ariza trade, not only do they miss him the Rockets need wing help and he’s the best one available. They didn’t. And here we are:

Houston is playing a lot better, but not at the level they had hoped. If you want to call that turning it around, go ahead.

2) Milestones night in Bay Area: Stephen Curry reaches 15,000 points, Kevin Durant passes Larry Bird on the all-time scoring list. For Stephen Curry, it appropriately happened on a deep pull-up three — he passed the 15,000 point mark in his career.

Curry is the fifth Warrior to score 15K all in a Warriors’ uniform, and the other names are all legends and Hall of Famers: Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Paul Arizin and Chris Mullin. Chamberlain scored the most as a Warrior at 17,783, a number Curry likely passes next season.

With all the attention paid to Curry — still the golden child for Bay Area fans — nobody seemed to notice Kevin Durant passed Hall of Famer Larry Bird for 33rd on the all-time scoring list during the same game. (Durant is 38th if you count ABA scoring in the mix, just for the record.) KD is going to finish way up that list by the time his career ends.

By the way, the Warriors cruised past the Grizzlies 110-93 in the kind of easy win Golden State hasn’t seen enough of this season.

3) Taj Gibson doesn’t need two shoes to play good defense. Credit Tom Thibodeau for coming up with a new way to play defense.

Taj Gibson had the ball in his hands and had gone at the Kings’ Nemanja Bjelica in the post, eventually scoring but losing his shoe. Gibson picked up his shoe and ran back down the court with it in his hands, but Sacramento pushed the ball back up the floor and decided to have Bjelica attack the one shoe/one sock Gibson.

Gibson was up to the challenge and got a little help from Karl-Anthony Towns.

Pretty sure that’s coming up in a Kings’ film session.

Report: Suns to waive Austin Rivers, who becomes unrestricted free agent

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The Phoenix Suns need a ball handling guard to go next to Devin Booker, so when they picked up Austin Rivers as part of the Trevor Ariza trade with Washington it made some sense. Rivers is a below replacement level NBA player (who has been serviceable the past couple of seasons), but that’s an upgrade over what the Suns had.

Except Rivers didn’t want to be part of the rebuild in Phoenix. In an unusual and unexpected move, the Suns have agreed to waive him, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

It’s an odd move on a few levels. Why didn’t Rivers want to stay in a place the ball would be in his hands more, giving himself a chance to build up his value before free agency next summer? Why didn’t the Suns first try to shop him around and offer to take on another team’s bad/dead contract if they got a pick or other asset? (Rivers can’t be packaged with another player in a trade but he can be moved straight up.)

Finally, how much demand is there among good teams for Rivers, even on a minimum contract?

Rivers, the son of Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers, is in his seventh NBA season. Rivers is averaging 7.2 points per game on 39.2 percent shooting this season.

It’s an odd move. Without Rivers Suns will keep leaning on rookie De'Anthony Melton as a potential future backcourt mate with Booker and hope he develops into something.