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Croatia asserts itself among Team USA’s biggest threat in 2020 Olympics

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Team USA was the team to beat in Olympic men’s basketball. Team USA is the team to beat in Olympic men’s basketball. Team USA will be the team to beat in Olympic men’s basketball.

The Americans have won 14 of 18 gold medals in the sport, half the misses coming in controversy – the stolen 1972 finish and a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. The U.S. has won the last two golds and carries a 23-game winning streak.

The United States’ biggest competition is the field. Play enough games in what becomes a single-elimination tournament, and you’re bound to slip somewhere.

But there are always another nations that presents bigger tests than others. Right now, Spain leads the pack. The Spaniards have won the last two silver medals, looked darned good against top competition in Rio and spooked Team USA more than anyone else.

By the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the U.S. could have a new top challenger. Keep an eye on Croatia.

Croatia was narrowly eliminated by Serbia in a quarterfinal yesterday, but the Croatians impressed prior. They beat Spain, Brazil and Lithuania to win Group B. A loss to Nigeria is inexplicable, but it can probably be attributed to another reason I’m so high on Croatia: its youth.

The Croatians – led by Bojan Bogdanovic (27), Dario Saric (22) and Mario Hezonja (20) – are the youngest team to win a game in Rio.

Here’s every team in the 2016 Olympics sorted by average age, weighted by playing time:

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China went 0-5, losing by nearly 30 points per game. It’ll take far more than typical player development for the Chinese to make an impact in Tokyo

Serbia is nearly as young as Croatia, and 21-year-old Nikola Jokic remains underrated. The Serbs aren’t going anywhere, either.

But it’s also about who’s missing. While Serbia is playing without Boban Marjanovic and Nemanja Bjelica, Croatia could add three 2016 draft picks: No. 4 pick Dragan Bender (Suns), No. 23 pick Ante Zizic (Celtics) and No. 32 Ivica Zubac (Lakers).

Of course, Croatia isn’t the only team with talent that didn’t reach Rio.

Australia – which beat Serbia, which beat Croatia – has Ben Simmons, Dante Exum and Thon Maker in the wings. But don’t count on Patty Mills (28), Andrew Bogut (31), Aron Baynes (29), David Anderson (36) and even Matthew Dellavedova (25) to be as good four years from now.

France could reload with Evan Fournier, Ian Mahinmi, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Petr Cornelie and maybe even Joakim Noah. (The Knicks think the 31-year-old Noah will be fine in four years.)

Canada, which didn’t even qualify for the 2016 Olympics, might be able to build a roster full of NBA talent. Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Trey Lyles, Jamal Murray and Kelly Olynyk look formidable.

But, aside from Team USA, nobody in Tokyo will match Croatia’s Olympic success, youth and incoming talent – at least if all goes to plan. Four years is a long time, and a lot can change between now and 2020.

Still, Croatia entered the 2016 Games looking to be an Olympiad away from seriously threatening for a medal. The Rio results should only lift expectations for Croatia in Tokyo.

Rumor: Patrick Beverley may meet with five teams before Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers want to bring Patrick Beverley back next season, his spark was at the heart of why this team made the playoffs and impressed with their potential.

First, however, the Clippers are going big game hunting for the likes of Kawhi Leonard and/or Kevin Durant (even with the Achilles injury). Beverley isn’t just going to sit around and wait for them, reports longtime NBA reporter Sean Deveney Tweeted.

The Bulls need a point guard and Beverley — a Chicago native — has said he is interested.

The Lakers also are reportedly big game hunting, but Beverley is the kind of guard they could use around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Phoenix and other teams have been mentioned.

Beverley is going to have options, but he loved his time with the Clippers last season, and that means something.

Pelicans reportedly pick up option year on coach Alvin Gentry

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David Griffin, the guy with the hammer in New Orleans, likes Alvin Gentry. They have a relationship that goes back to Phoenix, where Gentry was the coach and Griffin was in the front office (and was eventually GM).

Gentry also has a style of play — he wants to run and be up-tempo. That should fit very well with soon-to-be No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise the Griffin and the Pelicans want to keep Gentry around, as reported by Malika Andrews of ESPN.

This is another smart, stabilizing move by Griffin. The Pelicans want to build an athletic, fast-paced team and Gentry is the right coach for that style.  Maybe it doesn’t pan out, maybe the Pelicans ultimately need to go another direction with their coach, but right now this seems a good fit.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.