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Team USA scrimmage shows team chemistry is work in progress

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LOS ANGELES — It led to some raised eyebrows in the Lakers’ practice facility, where Team USA continues its training camp for FIBA World Cup that starts in China in two weeks.

Then it led to some overreaction on NBA Twitter. Because that’s what Twitter does.

The USA Select squad — made up of G-League players and NBA fringe players — beat members of Team USA 36-17 in a 10-minute scrimmage Wednesday, about half of it in front of reporters. It was the second time that practice the select team knocked off a team of some of the USA main squad guys.

While the outcome is a mild surprise, remember this is a practice scrimmage, to read much into it would be a massive mistake. Second units beat the starters in scrimmages all the time, and this was not the USA’s top lineups being put together.

That said, two things were clear watching the scrimmage:

One team had players who had built chemistry and trust through a series of hard-fought tournaments.

While the other team looked just thrown together.

“[Team USA’s chemistry] is coming along,” the Bucks’ Khris Middleton said. “We’re basically strangers in some ways, but [coach Gregg Popovich] and the guys around here have made a huge emphasis to get to know each other, to create a bond…

“We need that chemistry, that bond, that love for one another.”

“Your off the court relationship transfers onto the court, I’ve always been big on that,” Kemba Walker said.

The USA Select team players have already formed that bond. These are guys who had put on the USA jersey and played for Jeff Van Gundy and their country through the FIBA World Cup qualifying process (which overlapped with the NBA season, so players with an NBA contract could not take part). That experience showed. During the scrimmage select players moved on a string on defense, collapsing to take away drives and covering kick-out passing lanes, they knew where guys liked to spot up on the break, and just looked comfortable with one another and the system.

The teams the USA will face in China during the World Cup already have that bond, too. Teams like the Czech Republic (the USA’s opening game on Sept. 1), or Australia, or Spain (which the USA faces Friday night in an exhibition) have played together since their youth. They know each other’s tendencies and styles, and they play as a unit.

The regular USA team players are still trying to figure all that out, which leads to rough patches.

“You don’t want everything to be seamless right now,” Brooklyn’s Joe Harris said. “These are the moments right now in practice where you want it to be difficult, take your licks a little bit, and figure it out. It’s making us come together.”

A few areas specifically appear to need work. One area of focus is finding the balance between passing and when to attack. Popovich has pushed for more ball movement from Team USA, but that has limits.

“They’re doing really well [playing his style], they’re probably overdoing it, actually,” Popovich said. “They’re a good group, they try to please, they want to play the right way, it’s a teachable group.”

Another area of adjustment is the physicality allowed in the paint. A couple of times in the scrimmage Walker or Utah’s Donovan Mitchell would drive the lane, the Select Team defense would collapse and be physical protecting the rim, Walker or Mitchell would end up on the ground, and there would be no foul call. That’s FIBA basketball.

“That’s going to be a little different for all of us,” Middleton said of the level of physicality allowed. “The NBA, FIBA are two different styles of play, the referees let it get a lot more physical, but we got to adjust to it, and adjust to it fast. We can’t just complain about calls, we’re not going to get them.”

“We have to adjust, we just have to. If we want to win, we have to adjust to this game,” Walker said.

USA Basketball — with many elite NBA players choosing to take the summer off — cannot just overwhelm the best teams in the world with talent, not this summer. Serbia is a legit challenger for the title. Spain can be, too. There are others as well. The Americans need chemistry to compete, and through a couple of weeks in Las Vegas and now Los Angeles, they believe it is coming along.

“We’ve got the group text going already,” Middleton said. “Practices, we’re constantly talking to each other. The bus rides, the breakfast meetings when there’s no phones, just getting to know each other to see what they’re all about, see how they are, just get to know them.”

“I do [think the chemistry is improving], we just have a bunch of high character guys, hungry guys who want to be here, guys who want to win,” Walker said. “So it’s been easy for us to get along.”

A good test of how that camaraderie is transferring to the court will come Friday night when Team USA takes on a Spanish squad, led by Marc Gasol, that has a masters in team chemistry.

Before that, don’t read too much into a practice scrimmage.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.

Losing Kemba Walker would always sting. Hornets made it nearly as painful as possible

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hornets faced a miserable choice this summer:

  • Lose not only their by far best player, but the greatest player in franchise and someone with a deep connection to the community
  • Sign a point guard to an expensive contract that will further inhibit an already-strapped team from competing at even a moderate level

Charlotte’s choice? Both.

The Hornets let Kemba Walker leave via free agency and replaced him with Terry Rozier (three years, $56.7 million). That’s a failure, not one of solely this offseason, but a failure nonetheless.

At 29, Walker would’ve likely become a negative value on a long-term deal. But at least he would’ve kept Charlotte more firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the near term – not that on the fringes of that competition is a great place to be. There were reasonable arguments for and against keeping Walker.

But if the Hornets were willing to offer him only $160 million (about $62 million less than his super max), they should have traded him before it got this far. Why did they keep him past last season’s trade deadline? To have him represent Charlotte in the All-Star game there? To make a longshot run at the No. 8 seed? Without knowing exactly what other teams offered, that seems highly likely a mistake.

The Hornets weren’t good enough to make the playoffs with Walker. What makes them think they’ll be good enough with Rozier?

Losing Walker always would’ve invited a year of pain. Charlotte is too capped out, too veteran-laden to pivot in a meaningful way. But at least Bismack Biyombo‘s, Marvin Williams‘ and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s contracts will expire next summer. Nicolas Batum‘s and Cody Zeller‘s will expire the following year.

Now, Rozier is on the books another year after that.

Maybe Rozier, 25, will become a key part of the Hornets’ next successful era. He has the requisite athleticism and has shown flashes of being a good starting point guard. But he’s coming off a down year. That counts, too.

It’s easy to pin Rozier’s struggles on a tough situation behind Kyrie Irving. That surely factored. Still, most players on a starting track would’ve fared better in those circumstances.

Credit Charlotte for creativity. By signing-and-trading Walker to the Celtics for a signed-and-traded Rozier, the Hornets got more spending power. But they probably would’ve been better off with a point guard in the mid-level-exception range like Tomas Satoransky, Delon Wright or Tyus Jones. It’ll take a major jump for Rozier to justify his near-$19 million-per-year salary.

Charlotte isn’t giving him much help. Jeremy Lamb left in free agency. Even though they have enough breathing room under the tax line to use the rest, the Hornets haven’t used their mid-level exception other than sliver for No. 36 pick Cody Martin.

Internal prospects look limited. Charlotte didn’t place anyone on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years. No. 12 pick P.J. Washington probably won’t change the franchise’s arc.

The Hornets didn’t reach this dismal point in one offseason. But this summer worsened the predicament.

Offseason grade: D-