It may not be via blowouts, but USA still team to beat in hunt for Rio gold

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Team USA is undefeated at 5-0. The Americans have outscored their opponents by an average of 23.4 points a game. As a team the USA is shooting nearly 50 percent in Rio and hitting 39.3 percent from three — both of those numbers considerably better than their opponents. Through five games they have gotten to the free throw line 65 more times and hit 50 more free throws than their opponents. The USA is outrebounding their opponents by 7.2 per game. They have turned the ball over 34 fewer times than the opposition.

Yet, all the talk around the USA men’s basketball team is about what’s wrong, about how vulnerable they are.

The USA has not dominated the completion as we have come to expect. It has been a blow to American exceptionalism in hoops. Their last two wins, over France and Serbia, were three point games, Australia pushed them but eventually fell to the USA by 10.

It’s time to adjust expectations about this USA squad. For one, the idea that they are playing terribly is wrong — they are playing better than any other team in this tournament.

For another, that the USA needs to win every game via blowout.

That’s not happening with this team. But they remain the favorite to win the gold.

It hasn’t been easy. Look what Paul George told Michael Lee of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“I think to start out, personally, I thought we were going to dominate and these games were going to be easy,” said Paul George. “We started playing better competition, I think you see, across the board, these teams are pretty good. The luxury they have is they’ve been together for so long. You really can’t stress that enough. You see it. They just read each other so well. I think that’s the biggest thing that really separates us from them.”

No doubt this USA team has not coalesced the way past American squads have. Part of that comes from the roster itself — remember that the combination of injuries and guys choosing not to come to Brazil for the games robbed Team USA of many Olympic regulars. These are guys who were talented and have a chemistry together: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and the list goes on. Team USA players this year said from the start that their biggest challenge would be coming together as a team.

Offensively, we have seen a team that spends more time than they should in isolation rather than running plays and moving off the ball. The offense is stagnant and can be defended.

The bigger challenge is defensively, where the USA does not communicate well leading to botched pick-and-roll coverages. Beyond that, guys are ball watching and getting destroyed on back-door cuts or just off-the-ball movement in general. There is a lack of focus.

Teams that have coalesced have made things close.

But the USA has still won.

They still have Kevin Durant averaging 16.8 points a game on 60 percent shooting in Rio. Carmelo Anthony is averaging 15.2. Kyrie Irving is averaging 12.6 points and 6 assists per game.

No doubt the Americans will need to play better starting Wednesday when they face Argentina in the first game of the eight-team win-or-go-home tournament that will determine the medals in Rio. While the Americans destroyed Argentina 111-74 in an exhibition, this is a much better version of this Argentinian team as they have played their way into better shape, and gotten back in their old groove as a team that has played together for years. This game will be closer than the last.

But the Americans are still fairly heavy favorites.

Same vs. France or Spain, the next game. Or in the gold medal game after that.

It’s not going to be pretty. After blowout wins (both in the exhibition season at in the first two games in Rio) against weak Chinese and Venezuelan teams we mistakenly started comparing this USA squad to the dominant versions that came before it. Teams that won by an average of 30 or 40 points a game and were barely tested.

This team is not those teams.

But this team may well come home with the gold. And in the end, that has always been the primary goal.

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.

 

Cavaliers Evan Mobley out 1-2 weeks with sprained ankle

2022-23 Cleveland Cavaliers Media Day
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The Cleveland Cavaliers might have the best frontcourt in the East this season with All-Star Jarrett Allen and the emerging star Evan Mobley, but it may be a few weeks before we see them together.

Mobley is out 1-2 weeks with a sprained right ankle, the Cavaliers announced a couple of days before their preseason opener. Mobley stepped on a teammate’s foot and rolled his ankle during practice, according to Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com.

Mobley, who finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting, averaged 15 points and 8.3 rebounds a game in his first campaign, but his more significant impact was on the defensive end. Mobley earned All-Defensive Team consideration as a rookie — an incredibly rare feat — and with Allen formed an impressive backstop for teams trying to drive the paint.

Reports out of Cavaliers training camp rave about the improvements made in Mobley’s offensive game, but we’ll have to wait a few weeks to see that for ourselves now. Mobley, with a more consistent face-up game and jumper, has the potential to develop into a top 15, maybe even top-10 player in the league. The Cavaliers are banking on the young core of Mobley, Allen, Darius Garland and the just acquired Donovan Mitchell to be able to take the team far in the next few years, with Mobley’s improvement key to just how far they can go.

It sounds like Mobley will be good to go for the start of the season.

Karl-Anthony Towns just cleared to walk Saturday following non-COVID illness

Karl-Anthony Towns Offseaon Workout
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Karl-Anthony Towns has not been in camp with the Timberwolves, sidelined by a non-COVID illness. Beyond that, there were not a lot of details other than his girlfriend Jordyn Woods saying on social media that she had taken him to the hospital.

Towns spoke to the media for the first time this season on Monday and said he was just cleared to walk again on Saturday, but did not get into detail about whatever illness he is dealing with.

First, it is Towns’ right if and when to disclose what he went through. This is not an on-court injury leading to a loss of playing time, and it is his call to talk about.

Towns has been sidelined before by illness, including COVID. After losing his mother and other family members to the disease, he also had a long battle with it. Fortunately, this is not that virus, but whatever it was it sidelined him for a couple of weeks.

That missed training camp is a setback as the Timberwolves try to get used to a two-big lineup with KAT and Rudy Gobert, plus some other new faces. Still, Towns and Minnesota should be good to go by the start of the season, a team thinking playoffs and much more after spending big this offseason.

Lakers reportedly ‘seriously considered’ Westbrook trade for Hield, Turner

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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it. So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That was Lakers GM Rob Pelinka on media day talking about the possibility of the Lakers trading the only two first-round picks they control this decade — 2027 and 2029 — to upgrade this roster around LeBron. Pelinka was clear the Lakers were committed to building a winner around LeBron, “We have one of the great players in LeBron James to ever play the game, and he committed to us on a long-term contract, a three-year contract… He committed to our organization. That’s gotta be a bilateral commitment, and it’s there.”

But should that include a Russell Westbrook trade to Indiana for Buddy Hield and Myles Turner? Shams Charania of The Athletic updated and added to the extensive previous reporting on this trade, saying the Lakers kept the door open right up to the start of training camp but didn’t pull the trigger.

Vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka, owner Jeanie Buss and senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis seriously considered sending Westbrook and unprotected first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 to the Pacers for center Myles Turner and guard Buddy Hield, sources said. They held a series of meetings in the days leading up to camp to analyze the possible Pacers deal from every angle, with the views of Ham and Lakers executives Joey and Jesse Buss also being strongly considered in the process. The organization even delayed the midweek news conference for Pelinka and Ham as the debate continued…

If they were going to gamble on a make-or-break move of this magnitude, the thinking went, then everyone had to have confidence in the same vision. But when that wasn’t the case, sources say, the choice was made by Pelinka to remain patient and see, yet again, if Westbrook might find a way to make this imperfect fit with the Lakers work.

Hield and Turner would absolutely improve the Lakers. Turner can play the five, is an elite shot blocker who could provide a strong defensive back line next to Anthony Davis, and is a respectable 3-point shooter who can space the floor. He’s a natural fit. Hield brings shooting that the Lakers have coveted for years and need more of now.

That trade would have moved the Lakers up the ladder to a solid playoff team in the West. Would that trade make the Lakers contenders? Probably not. It still would have come back to the bubble version of Davis and LeBron being ready for the final 16-game sprint to have a puncher’s chance (that may be the case regardless of other moves). Also, it would have messed with future free agency plans in Los Angeles — the Lakers can have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase Kyrie Irving (although Shams reports that’s not in their plans) or other name players, Hield is owed $19.3 million next season and Turner will be a free agent the Lakers would need to re-sign. This deal would end the dream of a free agent taking a little less than the max to come to the Lakers (a dream not likely to come to reality anyway).

As Pelinka said, the Lakers have one shot with trading their two picks to upgrade the roster — they have to hit a home run, this can’t be a solid single. The Lakers were not convinced Hield and Turner could be that home run tandem.

So Los Angeles will go into the season with a starting five of Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn, LeBron, Davis, and Damian Jones, with a bench of Patrick Beverley, Thomas Bryant, Austin Reaves, and Dennis Schroder. The Lakers will see if it fits, how far it looks like this group can take them under new coach Darvin Ham, and watch the market to see what other stars could become available.

The Lakers aren’t done dealing, but it looks like a deal with Indiana is now in the rearview mirror.