USA will win gold, here are five other men’s hoop teams that could medal in Rio

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The USA is going to win the gold medal in men’s basketball in Rio.

(And in women’s basketball, where we may be even a bigger favorite. But that’s another post.)

There is no need to couch that statement — short of the ship Team USA is staying on in Rio’s port sinking, there is no team in this tournament that can truly challenge the USA’s depth and athleticism. This is not “the 73-win Warriors are going to win the NBA title” confident, this is “the 73-win Warriors need to beat the winner of the West Coast Conference tournament” confident.

Some nations may play better as a team, but this is not 2004 in Athens where the talent gap is close enough that the USA’s moments without cohesion will matter. The Americans do play fairly well as a unit, and they are just vastly more talented than anyone else.

But the Olympic Committee has to give out silver and bronze medals, too. It’s the rules.What other teams could medal?

What other teams could medal? Here are the five teams battling it out for one of those other medals, in reverse order of likelihood. (Note: there are a couple of other teams to watch who have an outside shot to medal — Croatia and Australia.)

5) Argentina. The golden generation of Argentinian basketball won them actual gold in Athens in 2004 — Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto, and Carlos Delfino were part of those teams. The challenge is the much older versions of Ginobili, Scola, and Delfino also have key roles on this team a dozen years later, and the generation that came up behind them simply is not as good. That said, Argentina just beat a good French team in an Olympics tune-up, and they play well as a unit.

4) Serbia. Led by Denver’s Nikola Jokic and other name players — Bogdan Bogdanovic (Sacramento has his rights but he will play in Europe at least another year), Miroslav Raduljica,Nemanja Nedovic, and CSKA Moscow’s point guard Milos Teodosic — Serbia won one of the three qualifying tournaments this summer to get into the Rio games. They are bruising inside and have quality point guard play, but they don’t have great wing play.  That said, Teodosic is a challenge for any team to handle and he could lead them to a medal.

3) Lithuania. They have quality big men inside — the Raptors Jonas Valanciunas and the just drafted Domantas Sabonis out of Gonzaga — plus they have a quality point guard in Mantas Kalnietas. More than that, Lithuania has been one of the most consistently strong teams on the international stage for more than a decade. They lack a depth of playmakers and that will be their undoing (that and a not mobile defense), but this is a team that will be difficult to play against and nobody will look good even in beating them.

2) Spain. While Spain’s core talent has gotten older — Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon, Sergio Rodriguez — they still have a lot of it including Willy Hernangomez, Nikola Mirotic, Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navaro, and Ricky Rubio. (They will miss Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.) Spain the defending European champions and won the silver medal the last two Olympics — this team is not as good as those teams, but they still have the talent to get a medal. Spain is going to ask a lot of Pau Gasol, we’ll see if he’s up to it.

1) France. You could interchange France and Spain, but I like what the French bring to this tournament in terms of talent and balance. They have Tony Parker running the point, Nicolas Batum defending on the wing, Boris Diaw as a playmaker at the four, and Rudy Gobert blocking shots in the paint. They have depth with Nando de Colo (MVP of the qualifying tournament), Mickael Gelabale, and Joffrey Lauvergne. This team needs to hit its threes to be a real threat (they should have brought Evan Fournier), and it needs Tony Parker to be the vintage version of himself more than just occasionally. Still, France should get hardware out of Rio.

Annual GM survey predicts Bucks vs. Warriors Finals, Doncic MVP

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The NBA’s annual GM survey is more of a snapshot of the conventional wisdom around the league than a good predictive tool — last season the GMs overwhelmingly picked the Brooklyn Nets to beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals and Kevin Durant as MVP. Didn’t exactly work out that way.

Still, it’s an interesting view into where things stand — and where it stands is a Bucks vs. Warriors NBA Finals. When asked who would win the NBA title, 43% predicted the Bucks, 25% the Warriors, 21% the Clippers and 11% the Celtics (a number that unquestionably fell since the news of Ime Udoka’s suspension came out).

Here’s how the GMs see the top six in each conference, courtesy of Jon Schuhmann and NBA.com who did the survey:

EAST
1. Bucks
2. Celtics
3. 76ers
4. Nets
5. Heat
6. Cavaliers

WEST
1. Clippers
2. Warriors
3. Suns
4. Nuggets
5. Grizzlies
6-T: Mavericks and Timberwolves

Here are some other highlights from the survey:

• Luka Doncic is the betting favorite to win MVP and the choice of the GMs, with 48% of them picking the Dallas star to win the award. Second was Giannis Antetokounmpo (34%) followed by Joel Embiid (14%).

• But ask GMs if they were starting a franchise today and could sign anyone, and they take Antetokounmpo (55%) over Doncic (45%). Those are the only two names on the list.

• Asked the player most likely to have a breakout season and the Cavaliers Evan Mobley led the way with 21% of the vote, followed by Cade Cunningham and Anthony Edwards tied for second (17%).

• The most athletic player in the league? The GMs voted for Ja Morant (38%) over Antetokounmpo (31%) and Anthony Edwards (24%).

• When asked which team had the best offseason, 41% of the GMs picked the Cavaliers, with Donovan Mitchell being named the player changing teams who would have the biggest impact this season.

• The most underrated offseason pickup: Malcolm Brogdon to the Celtics, according to the GMs (28%).

• Most surprising move of the offseason for the GMs was Rudy Gobert to Cleveland (47% of the vote), but Mitchell to the Cavaliers was a close second (43%).

Paolo Banchero is the runaway pick for Rookie of the Year (79%).

• Antetokounmpo was voted the best defensive player in the NBA (45%), with Draymond Green a distant second (24%).

• Gobert, however, was the runaway winner of the best interior defender (83%).

• Best coach in the NBA? Erik Spoelstra led the way with 52% of the vote, followed by Steve Kerr at 22%. The Clippers’ Tyronne Lue, however, won the vote for best in-game adjustments by a coach.

• The Toronto Raptors were voted the team with the best home court advantage (21%), with Boston and Denver tied for second (17%).

Five teams ready — or desperate — to break through into the playoffs

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Making the playoffs in the NBA has always seemed a low bar — more than half the teams in the league get in — but it may never be harder than this season. Right now, the league is stacked with quality teams. There may be only a handful of Warriors or Bucks level teams on a contending tier, but both conferences enter the season 11 or 12 deep with teams that have the talent to make the playoffs. Strong teams are going to be in the play-in this year, and a couple will miss the postseason altogether.

Here are five teams ready and expecting to make the leap into the playoffs next season — or desperate to do so.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland probably should have made the playoffs last season — the Cavaliers finished as the No. 8 seed in the East but dropped a couple of play-in games and were on vacation when the playoffs actually started.

Then this summer they traded for Donovan Mitchell.

The biggest trade that actually happened this offseason gives the Cavaliers four potential All-Stars: Three who made the game last season in Jarrett Allen, Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, plus second-year star Evan Mobley, who could be the best of them all within a couple of years. Cleveland has questions about who plays the three and if they have enough defense to threaten the teams at the top, but the Cavaliers don’t have to answer all those questions this season.

This season, they are good enough to make the playoffs. It would be a major disappointment if they did not.

Los Angeles Lakers

It’s boring to put the Lakers on here. Sure, they missed the playoffs last season but they won the title in 2020, and have LeBron James and Anthony Davis — this is not a team coming out of nowhere and surprising anyone. That said, this team has playoff talent and expectations.

Along those lines, new coach Darvin Ham said Monday before the team’s first preseason game that fulfilling that goal is all about Anthony Davis.

“None of this works if he’s not available and he’s not hitting on all cylinders,” Ham said. “He’s a big piece. The biggest piece of our success.”

There are plenty of Russell Westbrook questions — how long will he buy into Ham’s system? Will they trade him? — as well as how much better the defense will be this season (it can’t be worse… can it?). In a deep West the Lakers could be a play-in team, but they should come out of that and make the playoffs.

Sacramento Kings

When you miss the playoffs 16 seasons in a row, there needs to be a culture change in an organization. New coach Mike Brown gets that.

“This is gonna be a process for us, it’s not going to happen overnight,” Brown said before the Kings’ first preseason game Monday. “There’s some things that need to change.”

Those changes may not happen overnight but they can’t take long, not when the goal is to make the playoffs in a deep conference. Potential Kings head coaches interviewed this summer reportedly were told the organization expects a Timberwolves-like turnaround.

“We want to be in the playoffs,” said Brown, the guy who got the job. “We’re not saying this is a rebuild. We’re playing for [the playoffs] and we feel confident we can get there.”

The Kings have their most talented roster in years led by All-Star Domantas Sabonis, with De'Aaron Fox, Harrison Barnes, and solid role players such as Malik Monk, Kevin Huerter, and the potential of youngsters Keegan Murray and Davion Mitchell.

Is all that good enough to be a playoff team in the West? The offense should score, but with Sabonis and Fox getting heavy minutes will they get enough stops? The Kings are desperately betting on yes.

Washington Wizards

Wes Unseld Jr. needs to put an offering of rum on the altar to Jobu, a prayer to keep Kristaps Porzingis healthy.

When on the court, Porzingis is an All-Star level big man who competes on both ends, and if you pair him with just re-signed Bradley Beal you’ve got a good two-man core. The Wizards have upgraded the rotation around that duo with Will Barton and Monte Morris joining Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija and Delon Wright. This roster has decent talent, especially if the stars stay healthy.

That’s a pretty good team. Maybe playoff good, but they will need some help from other good teams above them — the Wizards need to stay healthy and hope some other teams stumble. Make that bet if you want to, Ted Leonsis did.

Portland Trail Blazers

It’s a different conference, but Portland finds itself in the same place as Washington: A good team that may not be good enough.

It’s great to see Damian Lillard back on the court, hopefully he gets his burst back and can return to All-NBA Dame Time (one of the most watchable, entertaining players in the league). Jerami Grant was brought as a two-way wing, and Anfernee Simons was re-signed to be another ball handler and scorer. Around them are, Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Payton II, Josh Hart, Justice Winslow and others. Plus whatever talented but raw rookie Shaeden Sharpe can contribute.

Portland is a good team in a conference deep with good teams. Are they good enough? If Lillard is his vintage self and everyone stays healthy… maybe.

Presumptive No.1 pick Wembanyama set to make stateside debut

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LAS VEGAS — Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson have been linked constantly over the last couple years, with just about every prognosticator anointing them as the top two picks in the 2023 NBA draft.

Thing is, they don’t know each other.

That’s about to change. Wembanyama – officially listed at 7-foot-2 but scouts often say more like 7-foot-4 – and the Paris-based club Metropolitans 92 are in Las Vegas to take on Henderson and the G League Ignite in a pair of exhibitions, the first on Tuesday and the second on Thursday.

“We’re playing against an NBA team, with NBA rules, on an NBA court,” Wembanyama said Monday. “This is really going to be a first for me. I’m curious to know how it’s going to go. I know it’s going to go well, but I’m still curious.”

Victor vs. Scoot. Scoot vs. Victor. They’re not playing 1-on-1, but they are the clear headliners and the reasons why these first-of-their-kind games were put together.

Wembanyama is listed as a center but plays all over the floor with guard skills in a big-man frame; Henderson is a point guard who has been getting tons of attention for years.

“Out of all the prospects I’ve heard about in our class, I think he’s my favorite one,” Wembanyama said. “I think he’s the most reliable that I’ve seen. He’s really a great player. If I was never born, I think he would deserve the first spot.”

Henderson – a five-star recruit from Georgia who signed with the Ignite last year and played in 10 games – sees these two games as an opportunity, downplaying the 1-on-1 storyline.

“People always try to compare and contrast whoever. I don’t look at it like that,” Henderson said. “I look at it as two good ballplayers.”

The Ignite program exists to develop young prospects in preparation for the NBA Draft, mixing them with veteran talent to help guide them along the way. It has featured three eventual top-10 picks – Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga last year, Dyson Daniels this year – in its first two seasons.

Henderson is a huge draw for the Ignite this year. The Ignite also have Shareef O'Neal, the son of Shaquille O’Neal. But much of what the Ignite would ordinarily be doing right now would be barely noticed nationally; hence, the games against Wembanyama were put together.

The Los Angeles Lakers are playing in Las Vegas this week, a pair of preseason matchups against Phoenix and Minnesota. Wembanyama is going to those as a fan; he’ll have a slightly different view of NBA games next season.

“He’s one of those type of players, honestly, where you say like there’ll never be like another Shaq or there’ll never be another that,” Ignite coach Jason Hart said. “He’s that. You’ll never see another one of those. The scouting report on him is tough. … I’m honored that I’m getting to play him at 18, because at 24, he’s going to be something different.”

Wembanyama has been a pro for three seasons already, spending last season with ASVEL in France – a club owned by San Antonio Spurs legend Tony Parker. He made the decision this year to join Metropolitans in part to be coached by Vincent Collet, who also coaches the French national team.

Collet is welcoming the chance.

“I think he’s the best prospect we’ve ever had in our league,” Collet said. “He’s amazing, not only by his size, but incredible skills. Despite that, he still needs to learn the game. He’s very young. … We will try to give him this experience. That’s the deal we have together, him and me. We want to give him the experience before he gets to the league. It’s most important to get him ready for what will follow next year.”

Watch Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard score first buckets in returns

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It’s only preseason. But if you’ve sat out an entire season with an ACL injury,  just getting on the court feels like a milestone.

And getting your first bucket back feels memorable.

That happened for the Nuggets Jamal Murray and the Clippers Kawhi Leonard on Monday night.

For Murray, the bucket came on a corner 3 in transition.

Murray also showed flashes he’s getting his handle and wiggle back, something that made him a great fit with Nikola Jokic.

Leonard wasted no time, scoring the Clippers’ first bucket by lulling his defender to sleep and then shooting the pull-up 3.

I feel we’re going to see a lot more of that this season.

The NBA is just better with these two back on the court.