Five lessons learned from the FIBA World Cup

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There wasn’t much drama — Team USA went 9-0 in the World Cup, won games by an average of 32 points, and when they turned on the energy pretty much every game felt like the gold medal game rout of Serbia.

What did we learn from all this? Well, aside the USA doesn’t have to send a team to the FIBA Americas tournament next year to qualify for the Rio Olympics now? Here are five things I’m taking away from basketball in August and September.

1) The USA’s talent pool remains far deeper, bigger than the rest of the globe. Sure, basketball is a growing international game, with tons of fans in China and the Philippines. In some parts of the world its popularity is second only to soccer/futball. But we still have the best players by far. All the talk before this tournament was about who wasn’t there — and that was before Paul George got injured and Kevin Durant pulled out. Didn’t matter. Not only did we always have the best couple players on the court at every moment, we were rolling NBA All-star caliber players off the bench. No country in the world is close to matching that yet. (Well, maybe Spain, but they blew the chance to test that theory.)

2) Anthony Davis is ready to make the next leap. No doubt Kenneth Faried was the breakout star of the World Cup for the USA (and he earned himself a lot of extra bank). Kyrie Irving was the World Cup MVP and looked like a guy ready to step on the stage next to LeBron James in a couple of weeks. But it was Anthony Davis though the tournament that looked like a guy who is going to make a leap this year — and I mean leap to top five NBA player. At least, maybe third. Mike Krzyzewski put a lot on him and Davis lived up to it — he averaged 12.3 points a game on 54.9 percent shooting, plus he pulled down 6.6 rebounds a game and averaged 2.1 blocks on top of it all. Early in the tournament he was destroying teams and he forced teams to adjust their defense to account for him, which opened up scoring opportunities for James Harden, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and the rest on the wings. When the season starts, keep an eye on Davis and the Pelicans.

3) Bulls fans are going to like having Pau Gasol around. The elder Gasol had looked like a guy dropping off the past couple years in Los Angeles, but that was more about Mike D’Antoni’s coaching than anything. Gasol didn’t fit in D’Antoni’s role (as a stretch four) and that led to a lack of energy. Back in his native Spain Gasol was showing off his wide arsenal of shots to score 20 points a game on 63.5 percent shooting. More importantly, he was showing passion for the game again, something D’Antoni sucked out of him. Gasol found his love of the game again and watch out for him in Chicago.

4) Speaking of Bulls fans, Derrick Rose is pretty healthy but still has a ways to go. On the bright side, Derrick Rose was moving well by the end of the World Cup. He played in five games in six days, showing he is healthy. He played some good defense, he showed some signs of a more mature game (like the six assists in the gold medal game against Serbia). But his shot was just off — he hit just 25.4 percent of his attempts all tournament. He struggled to finish inside, his jumper was erratic (he was 1-of-19 from three). Bulls fans need to hope that is just rust. For Bulls fans the good news is Rose shook off some of that rust in Spain rather than in the early games of the season.

5) There were a lot of players from around the globe who were just fun to watch. We focused on Team USA a lot but there other guys from other countries who had big tournaments. Minnesota’s Gorgui Dieng looked like a guy ready for more minutes while playing for Senegal. The Nets have themselves a shooter in incoming rookie Bojan Bogdanovic of Croatia, who averaged 21.2 points a game. Don’t confuse him with Bogdan Bogdanovic of Serbia, who looked like he could develop into a player the Phoenix Suns could use in a couple of years if/when he comes over. Jose Barea led the tournament averaging 22 points a game. Andray Blatche averaged 21.2 for the Philippines while still making Blatche-like plays. Goran Dragic was great as expected but it was his unsigned brother Zoran who was catching people’s eyes. Even “Pooh” Jeter (Ukraine) was a blast to watch.

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.