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2019 FIBA World Cup will have international star power

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The reigning NBA MVP is headed to the basketball World Cup. So are three other members of this past season’s All-NBA squad, and so is the starting center from the team that won the NBA championship a couple months ago.

Most of those guys won’t be playing for the United States.

The majority of America’s best players are sitting out the World Cup, while many of the best international players are not. NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece, fellow All-NBA players Nikola Jokic of Serbia and Rudy Gobert of France, and Marc Gasol of Spain – a significant part of Toronto’s run to the NBA title – are among the headliners who won’t be in U.S. colors when the tournament starts Saturday in China.

“We’re going to China with the goal of a medal,” Jokic said.

The Denver star isn’t just looking for any medal. He’s seeking gold.

And the Serbians would seem to have as good a chance as anyone in a tournament that suddenly looks wide open.

France and Australia – which is coming off a 98-94 victory over the United States on Saturday that ended the Americans’ 78-game winning streak in international play – are expected to have five NBA players on their rosters for the World Cup, and Serbia is likely to bring four. In all, more than 60 players with NBA experience are likely to participate in the tournament and only 12 of them are playing for the U.S.

“A lot of teams can be in the medal spots and it’s going to be intense, very hard for every team to be in those spots,” said France’s Nicolas Batum – the only player from the last World Cup All-Tournament team in 2014 who is expected to compete in this year’s event. “But every team, including ours, is going to fight for it, to play at its best level to try to come back home with a medal.”

The only U.S. World Cup player who was an All-NBA pick this past season is Kemba Walker, then of the Charlotte Hornets and now of the Boston Celtics. Look at the NBA stats from last season for World Cup-bound players and the leading scorer, the top three in assists per game and the top seven rebounders all are on international rosters.

The world is getting better.

That means the U.S. is no lock in this tournament.

“There are a lot of contenders out there,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said.

The Americans are the only team with a roster composed entirely of NBA players, but that isn’t stopping some from scoffing at the notion that the U.S. is vulnerable heading into this tournament because its World Cup roster doesn’t have anything close to a Dream Team-esque level of star-studded names.

Spain coach Sergio Scariolo bluntly dismisses that notion.

Scariolo, a Toronto assistant coach when he’s not leading Spain, is quick to point out that a glance at the NBA salaries of the U.S. players dwarfs the combined salaries of every other World Cup roster. When the Americans played Spain in an exhibition earlier this month, the U.S. sent out a starting five that will make roughly $105 million this season.

So yes, in terms of earning power, no other team in the world comes close to the roster that the Americans are bringing to China this week.

But as evidenced by how Australia battled the U.S. twice in a pair of exhibitions in Melbourne, and beat the Americans there on Saturday, at least some of the world’s best teams aren’t exactly fearful of the two-time defending World Cup champions.

“Let’s let them play their basketball and we will play ours,” Serbia coach Sasha Djordjevic now-famously said earlier this month. “And if we meet, may God help them.”

Clearly, the tournament means quite a bit to Serbia. It means plenty to other nations as well.

Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee star who won NBA MVP this past season, even said earlier this month that he would give back the award if it could be exchanged for a World Cup gold medal for Greece.

“I believe him,” U.S. center and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks teammate Brook Lopez said. “That’s how much he wants this.”

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-