Nobody can question whether Kawhi Leonard, Matt Bonner, Patty Mills and Aron Baynes are team players. That they dressed up like this for a Spurs promotion is serious loyalty.
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) With his team playing on a raised basketball court in a stadium normally used for soccer and cricket, U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said he felt like he was on a movie set.
“I kept looking behind me because I knew I was going to fall off the stage,” he said.
But once the game started, Popovich thought it all seemed normal. And if it had been a movie, Popovich surely would have liked the ending.
Kemba Walker scored 23 points, Myles Turner added 15 points and 14 rebounds, and the U.S. topped Australia 102-86 on Thursday before a crowd of 51,218 – billed as the largest crowd ever to watch a basketball game in Australia.
“We have guys that are just starting to play with each other,” said U.S. guard Donovan Mitchell, who had 13 points. “We got off to a little bit of a rough start in the first half, but the third quarter, we really picked it up defensively.”
Patty Mills and Chris Goulding scored 19 points each for Australia, which stayed with the Americans for about 2+ quarters before seeing chances slip away at Marvel Stadium – transformed into a make-shift basketball arena for two games against the Americans, tune-ups for both sides before the World Cup starts next week in China.
“It was an awesome opportunity,” Mills said. “I think basketball in this country has been waiting for something like this.”
After Australia briefly took the lead at 45-44 early in the second half, the Americans scored 13 unanswered points, including three straight 3-pointers by Turner, Harrison Barnes and Mitchell, to go up 57-45.
Walker was one the keys for the second-half resurgence for the Americans, scoring 21 of his 23 points after halftime.
“I’m one of the leaders of this team, so it’s important for me to set that tone,” the Celtics guard said.
The roof of Marvel Stadium was closed and the court was placed in the middle of the field surrounded by hundreds of white chairs, more than 20 rows deep, for fans who paid for floor seating.
Despite the huge crowd, Australian media reported that some fans were issued refunds because they bought tickets based on promotional materials depicting Stephen Curry and LeBron James – who were part of the U.S. player pool when the deal was struck last year to play these games. Neither Curry nor James is on the U.S. roster for the World Cup.
Australia was also without its biggest star, Ben Simmons, who has opted not to play in the World Cup. Still, the Boomers starting lineup included four NBA players: Mills, Aron Baynes, Joe Ingles and Matthew Dellavedova.
And the Aussies gave their crowd some thrills – like a run just before halftime that cut the U.S. lead to 44-43 after back-to-back 3-pointers by Goulding and six straight points by Mills.
The win was the 78th in a row in major international exhibitions and competition for the U.S. national team, a streak that started with the bronze medal game of the 2006 world championships. It encompasses gold-medal runs at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, the Olympics in 2008, 2012 and 2016, and the FIBA Americas tournament in 2007.
USA: Mitchell wrote “End Gun Violence” on his shoes before the game to remember the victims of the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings … Boston’s Marcus Smart, who is still working his way back from a calf injury that popped up about two weeks ago during training camp in Las Vegas, did not play. … It was the first meeting between the national teams since the Americans won 98-88 at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics on their way to a gold medal.
Australia: Actor Russell Crowe, who spends most of his time living in Australia, was part of the massive crowd. … In a sight that NBA fans are used to, Dellavedova dived on the floor for loose balls three times in the game’s first three minutes – including on the opening tap. … Mills gave Popovich, his longtime coach in San Antonio, a massive hug courtside just before the game started.
Jayson Tatum got knocked over by a defender in the third quarter and tumbled backward somewhat awkwardly – the back of his head falling into Walker’s knee. Tatum was shaken up briefly but remained in the game.
The teams meet again in Melbourne on Saturday.
What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?
As a fun summer project, the NBA team at NBCSports.com put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. The team working on this included Dan Feldman, Tom Haberstroh, Rob Dauster, Tommy Beer, Steve Alexander, and Kurt Helin (and thanks to Tess Quinlan and Mia Zanzucchi for the design help).
There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but here it is.
35. Caris LeVert
Caris LeVert was an unheralded recruit who originally signed with Ohio of the Mid-American Conference. The last first-round pick from the MAC? Chris Kaman in 2003. Only after Ohio’s coach left, LeVert instead went to Michigan. He arrived in Ann Arbor at 6-foot-5, 165 pounds. A redshirt appeared obvious.
But LeVert forced his way into the lineup as a freshman. As a sophomore, he developed into an All-Big Ten second-teamer.
At one point during that season, Brian Cook of MGoBlog brought up a shortcoming: LeVert wasn’t attacking the rim and drawing fouls enough.
“But, like, wait a week and he’ll be better,” Cook quipped.
It barely registered as a joke. LeVert was improving that rapidly.
Unfortunately for LeVert, his career has since been dominated by significant injuries. The latest was a dislocated foot early last season. Before that, LeVert was generating plenty of Most Improved Player buzz.
LeVert is a skilled wing. He can shoot, handle and pass. It’s the package, coupled with his fluidity and 6-foot-7 size, that can lead to stardom (though maybe only low-end stardom, because LeVert isn’t particularly explosive).
But LeVert must fill out his still-thin frame and avoid injuries. That’d also help his defense, which isn’t as stout as his length suggests it could be.
LeVert has the work ethic. he has a good developmental infrastructure around him with the Nets. He just must stay healthy long enough to put everything together.
34. Lauri Markkanen
There are stretches of games when Lauri Markkanen’s play makes this ranking look too low. For example, last February he averaged 26 points and 12.2 rebounds a game, getting buckets inside and knocking down a couple of threes a game. For a month, Markkanen looked like the future All-Star and cornerstone of the Bulls the Chicago front office believes he will be.
The question is, can he reach that ceiling consistently? He’s only 22, but he has yet to come anywhere near that. In Markkanen’s final 10 games of last season — before he was shut down due to extreme fatigue and a bout of a rapid heart rate — he averaged 15.5 points per game on 40.1 percent shooting overall, 30 percent from three, and 7.7 boards a game. He was pretty average. Markkanen also has missed 27 percent of the Bulls games in his two seasons due to injuries (to be fair, those were fluke things, like his sprained elbow, not chronic things that would lead one to think of him as injury prone).
Markkanen is capable of more. If Markkanen can become a more consistent offensive force and better on the defensive end — he’s not a bad defender, he’s okay, but with his length and athleticism he should be a better rim protector — he can take over the role as the alpha on the Bulls. They need him to. Zach LaVine can go get buckets, but he is not a No. 1 option guy. Markkanen can be. Markkanen has the potential be an All-Star level player and the franchise cornerstone the Bulls need him to be. The question remains, can he reach that level and stay there?
33. Damian Lillard
It’s been assumed that by the end of his most recent contract that Damian Lillard won’t be the player the Portland Trail Blazers need any longer. He’s already 30 years old, and the common refrain has been that point guards at or near six feet tall don’t age gracefully.
But like anything else, we must take both historical examples and understanding that we are in a new era of NBA basketball into consideration. This era is one where guys like Lillard are pioneering a 3-point shot that has stretched the limits of spacing on an NBA floor. Because of that, it’s entirely possible that Lillard ends up being more like late stage Jason Kidd then late-stage Chris Paul.
Kidd was 6-foot-4 and could play across multiple positions, but there’s a new geometry in the NBA that should aide Lillard. The dimensions of an NBA floor are being pushed to their limits as shooters get farther and farther away from the basket. As players adapt to this, passing lanes and scoring opportunities will continue to change.
With that in mind, Lillard might not be headed for a “Most Overpaid” listicle in five years the way some have assumed. Instead, Lillard could just as easily transition into a 3-point shooting, high-arc-passing veteran who annoys opponents to no end. Hell, he’s already shown he can take a step forward on defense without relying on his athleticism this postseason.
Superstar shifts are more likely to be unfortunate than successful. But Lillard is one of the most iron-willed players in the league, and he’s secure in both who he is and the cash he’s got in his pocket. If the need comes for him to find a new niche after a lost step or two, count on him to make it.
32. Rudy Gobert
Rudy Gobert is underrated.
Sure, he has won the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards. But that gets him attention only at the end of the season, when people consider that award. In the midst of the action, Gobert has never even been an All-Star. By the time the playoffs start, his defense is again overlooked until the next year.
Gobert is also good offensively. Though limited on that end, he knows his strengths and plays to them. He’s an excellent finisher, screener and offensive rebounder. Importantly, he doesn’t try to do too much. That’s so underappreciated.
Of course, none of this means Gobert will belong so high on this list at age 32. He’ll likely be past his peak in 2024.
But Gobert’s present-day production is higher than most realize. That gives him room to decline and remain quite good.
We’ll soon get a sense of how the Jazz value him long-term. Next summer, Gobert will be eligible for a super-max extension. I wouldn’t give him the full projected amount ($250 million over five years). I’d hesitate to give him even the smallest-allowable super-max projection ($155 million over five years). But remember, that extension would carry him through age 34.
At 32, Gobert has a much better chance of remaining a quality center.
31. Stephen Curry
Did I miss something? I feel like the best shooter ever deserves a higher spot on this list. If you don’t think his superhuman ability to score from far away places won’t age well, consider the careers of Reggie Miller and Ray Allen, the only two players who have made more 3-pointers than Curry has in this league. Miller was starting playoff games at age 39. Allen was starting Finals games at age 38. Oh, and Steve Nash was an All-Star two weeks after his 38th birthday.
Curry’s ranking suggests he’s at the tail end of his career, but he just increased his scoring average for the second consecutive season, averaging 27.3 points per game with pristine efficiency. After raising his scoring average to 28.2 points per game this postseason, there’s no signs of decline.
OK, the ankles. Yes, the ankles. There’s reason to worry that Curry’s wheels will deflate faster than the average NBA player, but even if Curry moves off the ball and becomes more of a spot-up shooter, I still think he’d stretch defenses to near half court. We’ve never seen a player like Curry who can launch from just about anywhere with the ball in his hands. But even if he can’t terrorize defenses with his lightning-quick handles and crab-like lateral movement, he’ll still impact the game at a high level simply by standing there beyond the arc. Just ask Miller, Allen and Nash about how that gravitational pull ages.
James Harden scored 36.1 points per game last season, the highest-scoring season since Michael Jordan. Harden’s 32-game 30-point streak was the second-longest streak ever. He scored 30 points against every team besides the Rockets.
My favorite Harden stat is just looking at the highest-scoring games of the season:
1. James Harden 61
1. James Harden 61
3. Kemba Walker 60
4. Devin Booker 59
5. James Harden 58
5. James Harden 58
7. James Harden 57
7. James Harden 57
9. LaMarcus Aldridge 56
10. James Harden 54
This was a special season.
So, why did Giannis Antetokounmpo win Most Valuable Player?
“Politics” was suggested to Harden.
Harden on 97.9 The Box:
I think the same way you think.
I think once the media, they create a narrative about somebody from the beginning of the year, I think they just take that narrative and run with it the entire year.
I don’t want to get into details. But all I can do is control what I can do, and I went out there and did what I was supposed to do at a high level. You know what I’m saying?
The season, there’s probably only a few seasons where anybody’s ever done that before.
People were tuned in onto how many points that I was going to score the next game. You know what I’m saying? It was a thing.
Harden is right. Narrative factors way too much into MVP voting.
Michael Jordan lost 1997 MVP to Karl Malone due to voter fatigue. In 2011, everyone was so mad about The Decision, voters picked Derrick Rose (and Dwight Howard) over LeBron James for MVP. Those results didn’t reflect what actually happened on the court.
As Houston started slow last season, Antetokounmpo became MVP favorite. That early inclination probably had an anchoring effect for final voting.
The most important step in eliminating biases is acknowledging biases. I have railed for years against letting narrative affect award voting. I think MVP should honor the player who had the best season. Nothing more, nothing less. When analyzing candidates, I make a concerted effort to separate superfluous factors like narrative.
I favored Harden a huge chunk of the season. I entered my final review expecting to pick Harden. But I ultimately landed on Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo was excellent offensively – not as good as Harden, but close enough to offset the massive defensive difference. Caught up in Harden’s scoring brilliance, I hadn’t properly appreciated Antetokounmpo’s defense until late in the process.
Harden had a great year. It was widely judged to be the second-best year in the entire NBA. He should be proud of that.
It’s unsurprising he answered this way, though. After all, he he has been enabled by a general manager who once said Harden’s previous runner-up MVP finishes meant maybe the award shouldn’t exist at all.
But we’ve seen this story play out so many times. A young player excels in a small market then eventually moves to a more desirable destination. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George.
Will Fox be different?
“I don’t crave to be in a big market,” he says. “After last season, there was a buzz in Sacramento. Everyone in Sacramento is a Kings fan. If we start making the playoffs, or if we become a championship contender, the entire city is going to go nuts. That’s the difference between a big market and a small one.”
I’m glad Fox is happy in Sacramento. He had minimal say in getting there. The Kings picked him in a draft that gives teams massive control over top young prospects. That he landed somewhere he likes so much was largely coincidental. He could’ve easily wound up with Boston, Phoenix, Orlando, Minnesota or any other team picking in that range.
Some of this is Fox’s attitude. I suspect he would’ve found joy nearly anywhere. Now, he’s with the Kings and feeling positively about them.
They’ll have to continue to keep him happy as he approaches free agency. Unrestricted free agency is still several years away. A lot can change between now and then.
But Sacramento ought to feel good about Fox’s outlook now.