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Three big takeaways from USA Basketball’s early World Cup exit

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When USA Basketball does not win gold — when it does not win, period, and do so convincingly — it dents the American ego. We see this as our sport. Basketball was invented in the USA, and as a nation we have dominated it for so long, so convincingly, that any change is a shock to the system.

But times, they are a changin’.

The USA got bounced from the World Cup on Wednesday by a French team that was simply better that day. The length and aggressiveness of the French defenders on the perimeter threw off the Americans, and the USA did not have anyone who could match up with Rudy Gobert in the middle. This was not a disaster for the USA, this was no embarrassment, this was not a lack of effort, it’s simply another sign that the basketball universe is changing.

Here are the three big takeaways from the USA’s World Cup experience in China.

1. TALENT WINS OUT

We see it every NBA season. We especially see it every NBA playoffs. And we saw it with this edition of Team USA: The talent gap between the top 10 players in the world (give or take a few) and everyone else is massive, and without those guys its hard to win big.

It’s the obvious, easy takeaway from this World Cup, but that doesn’t make it wrong: The USA did not send its best players and they couldn’t win without them. The members Team USA should not be embarrassed by the loss to France — the Americans were not lazy, they brought their best effort, France was just better on Wednesday. Talent won out.

As has been discussed in great detail in the run-up to the tournament, the best American players chose to stay home — as is their right. There are legitimate reasons for their decisions (keep reading to No. 3), but it still stung. C.J. McCollum added an interesting angle saying concerns about losing played a role and may have led to a snowball effect: A few guys decided to stay home, which led to fears of losing, which led more guys deciding to stay home, which led to more concerns about losing, and so on and so on.

Would Team USA still be playing for a medal if James Harden/Stephen Curry/Kawhi Leonard/Damian Lillard put on the red, white, and blue? We’ll never know for sure, but the USA struggled to score consistently throughout this tournament and had six straight empty possessions in crunch time in the fourth against a strong French defense, which helped decide the game. After taking the lead in the third quarter with good ball movement, tempo, and a burst from Donovan Mitchell, the USA fell back into the habit of half-court isolation plays when the game got tight, and they didn’t have a Harden or Leonard to make that work. Kemba Walker is an All-Star/All-NBA level player, but he is not one of those top 10 game changers, and when he had an off night —2-of-9 shooting — the USA stumbled on the offensive end.

I believe Donovan Mitchell will grow into one of those elite players — and he had 29 against France, the game is not close without him — but at age 22 he is not there yet.

This World Cup was a big step along that learning curve for him, but he was scoreless in the fourth quarter (the team went away from him, at one point for a Harrison Barnes postup) and the one time he did attack Gobert rejected his shot. Mitchell is still growing at age 22. If he were the third-best scoring option on this team, would things be different?

Talent is not everything — the Greeks had Giannis Antetokounmpo but next to nothing around him, plus they used him poorly, and they struggled — but at the end of the day the Americans sent their B team, maybe their C team, and that’s not enough anymore. One key reason is…

2. THE GAP BETWEEN THE USA AND THE REST OF THE WORLD IS NOT THAT BIG

This is not 1992 anymore, when opposing players were asking the Dream Team members for autographs on the court after the game. This isn’t 2008 either, when a stacked Redeem Team reasserted Team USA’s dominance in the sport.

This is 2019, and the gap between the USA and the rest of the world is much smaller than it was even a decade ago. That is the new reality. There is much less margin for error for the Americans — especially if we don’t send our best.

In NBCSports.com’s recently completed “50 best players in 5 years” projections, three of the top five players are not Americans (Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic). The USA still has more depth than any nation in the world, and that was true 1-12 on this USA squad, but the gap is much smaller, especially among the guys getting heavy minutes. Against France, two of the three best players on the court were French NBA players in Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier. That — and a strong game from former Spur Nando De Colo — was enough to knock off the USA.

If the best players in the USA are going to treat the FIBA’S World Cup as a secondary event, this will continue to happen. And the best Americans likely will continue to treat the World Cup that way because…

3. THE WORLD CUP IS NOT THE OLYMPICS, (AND FIBA’S WORLD CUP “IMPROVEMENTS” HURT THE USA)

FIBA has a fever dream to turn its basketball World Cup into the kind of cash cow, “the-world-stops-to-watch” event that FIFA’s soccer World Cup is. FIBA is desperately making moves to try and make that dream a reality.

The results have been terrible. For Team USA and the tournament as a whole.

For American-born players, the Olympics remain the gold standard of international tournaments. The USA performed well enough in this World Cup to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo games — and next summer expect many of the USA’s best players to agree to go. For the USA the Olympics are the bigger stage, the bigger marketing platform, the tournament with more prestige. That’s the gold medal American players want.

FIBA is no fan of the Olympics (because the International Olympic Committee makes the money, not FIBA) and seems to be working to undercut the 5-on-5 games at the Olympics.

Nobody in America cares about the World Cup. Until we lose.

FIBA made a few changes in the run-up to this World Cup to help boost the event’s standing. They backfired.

First was to move the World Cup to 2019 — one year before the Olympics — instead of 2018, when it would have traditionally fallen. The reasoning FIBA gave was to get its World Cup out of the same year as the soccer World Cup, which obviously overshadows it. With the change, the basketball World Cup could serve as a primary Olympic qualifying event, too.

This shift drove some players away. To play for Team USA is a five-to-six week summer commitment, during the offseason when players are trying to rest, get their bodies right, relax a little, and spend time with friends and family. Most players are willing to make that sacrifice to play for the USA every other year (which is how the World Cup and Olympics had been spaced out), but when FIBA moved the tournament to 2019 it became back-to-back years of major summer commitments to play for Team USA. Players decided to take one of them off, and the World Cup is always going to lose that fight.

Also, FIBA scheduled this World Cup for early September, so it runs right up against the start of training camps around the globe, with little break for the players. That also was a strike against the event for players. (It wasn’t just the USA, international players such as Nikola Mirotic begged off, too, because of the event timing.)

FIBA’s other big change was to move World Cup qualifying around and have the games during what would be the season for the NBA and other major leagues in Europe. That is what FIFA does for soccer, except no major basketball league was going to take an “international break” — as the major European soccer leagues are doing this week — so the best players can take part in qualifying. It’s part of the soccer’s culture, basketball was not going to bend that way. The NBA did not release players, and neither did the major European leagues. That meant the best players in the world were not part of qualifying at all — the USA qualified by sending a team of G-League guys coached by Jeff Van Gundy.

For the World Cup itself, that qualifying system meant not all the best teams made the cut— Slovenia, the current European champions, did not qualify for the World Cup. That’s a team led by Goran Dragic and with Luka Doncic potentially, but they didn’t make it to China because their best players couldn’t take part in qualifying.

FIBA is a mess of an organization, and its lust for money and power hurt the World Cup, and it hurt the product the USA could put on the court.

But that was just one of the American’s problems.

Jamal Crawford finds it “baffling” no team has called to sign him yet

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Iman Shumpert got his call from the Brooklyn Nets.

Carmelo Anthony got his call from the Portland Trail Blazers.

Jamal Crawford is still waiting for his call, and he’s confused why it hasn’t yet come. From Shaun Powell of NBA.com.

“I know I can play,” Crawford told NBA.com, “and I would think my reputation is still solid. It’s baffling to me…

“Physically, I feel better than I did last season,” he said. “I’m able to get my body together. My skill set is sharp. I feel that I’m good. My mindset is be patient and hopefully something good comes about it. I’ll be ready for the opportunity.”

Like Anthony, Crawford needs the right role, but he can help teams.

He’s not young at age 39 but, in the right situation, he could help a team get buckets off the bench. The three-time Sixth Man of the Year has slowed in recent years, and his defense is a bigger concern to front offices, but the man still averaged 7.9 points per game last season off the bench and lit it up for the depleted Suns at the end of last season (including a 51-point game against Dallas). 

Some team is going to give Crawford a chance. Probably. Until then, he is staying ready, waiting for the phone to ring.

 

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks over not one but two Pacers (VIDEO)

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Once Giannis Antetokounmpo gets rolling downhill, good luck.

The Pacers found that out the hard way with not one but two players getting dunked on by the Greek Freak. On the same dunk.

Damn. That’s not fair.

It’s also not the only highlight play for Antetokounmpo on the night.

Milwaukee was up double digits on the Pacers early in the fourth quarter, and of course, Antetokounmpo was leading the way.

NBA teams enhancing fan experience with high-tech replays

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ATLANTA (AP) — NBA fans will soon be able to look up at the big videoboard above the court and get a different look at that deep Trae Young 3-pointer early in the first quarter. Or see a different perspective of that monstrous Giannis Antetokounmpo dunk.

In a reversal of roles, NBA teams are bringing the video game experience back to the live action – one arena at a time.

The Atlanta Hawks Friday will become the fifth NBA team to unveil significant financial investments into new 360-degree replay technology designed to eventually give fans the power to change the way they see the game.

“It’s the wave of the future,” said Hawks vice-president of live experience Joe Abercrombie, who says the technology also is “one more thing to give people a reason to come” to the arena.

The Bucks, Mavericks, Pacers, Wizards and now the Hawks are using the technology to package and replay highlights in the arena during games. The Bulls, who host the 2020 All-Star game, are scheduled to come online next month.

“It’s very nice. I especially like that up-above view,” said Allen Hazlett a fan from New Berlin, Wisconsin, after seeing the new technology at Thursday night’s Bulls-Bucks game in Milwaukee.

“I think it’s an added benefit for the fans. For those that aren’t here all the time, to see that, I think, really ups the fan experience for them. I don’t think people realize until you go somewhere else and you don’t see it how lucky we are to have this arena. Everything here is state of the art.”

The six teams have joined NBA partner Intel, which provides the technology for the new video replays. The process begins with 38 5K video cameras strategically located around arenas. The high-tech cameras work together, bringing 360-degree replays to in-game video boards, TV broadcasts and fans’ devices through social media.

It’s the latest effort by teams to entice ticket-buying fans to come to new and renovated NBA arenas. Atlanta spent almost $200 million to renovate State Farm Arena; Milwaukee last year opened its $477 Fiserv Forum.

“For us it was really a no-brainer,” said Matt Pazaras, the Bucks’ senior vice president for business development and strategy.

“There’s nothing like seeing a Giannis dunk live, and if we can supplement that experience with this technology, great. But if people are experiencing the Bucks wherever they are, hours away or thousands of miles away, we can still make the experience better.”

NFL fans already have seen 360 replays on TV. Those replays start from the traditional side camera before swinging around to bring the viewer behind the quarterback.

Not that the NFL was first in line.

Gamers have been manipulating all-angle replays for years. Video game-savvy kids may roll their eyes when their parents come home from NBA games eager to share their stories about their first looks at 360-degree replays.

Those video games were designed to mimic the real games. Now it’s time for some role-reversal.

Rich Green, Intel’s director of sports, said popular video games Madden NFL 19 and NBA 2K20 “have camera angles and if you do replays, you can spin the camera around.”

Added Green: “Now we’re going to have that in live games. Now they can watch their favorite player and follow just him. It increases their level of engagement.”

The new technology isn’t just for the fans.

Coaches and scouts can make use of the enhanced replays to improve player evaluations.

“I think the future of this is going to weigh heavy for basketball operations and player development,” Abercrombie said.

Players now have better tools to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Abercrombie said players who take dozens of shots in a practice can now study their shooting form in a new way.

“Players have asked ‘Can I shootaround and you take a look at the way I’m shooting and I want to spin around and take a look at the way I’m releasing,”‘ he said. “You think about traditional coverage of a game, there’s only four angles. Two on the floor and two up.

“When you think about 360 view and repetitive shooting over and over again, they can say ‘Oh, I see where my tendencies are.”‘

Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, a former executive at Turner Entertainment, says TV sports leaders have dreamed for years of the day fans could control the way they watch a game.

“We’ve been reading for years that ‘You can be the director,”‘ Koonin said. “Actually, you can do that with this. The capabilities are unbelievable. … We think it’s the next generation of sports media.”

Green said there is more to come as new ways to utilize the technology will be found that are not yet possible.

Green said such high-tech terms as “voxels” – similar to pixels in the 3D age – and “volumetric video” will become common. He said fans will be able to follow a game from the viewpoint of their favorite player.

“How you watch a play could be completely different from how I watch it based on how we control what angle we want to see,” Green said. “That’s why we’re just scratching the surface.”

 

Watch Lance Stephenson get into flopping battle in China

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You can take the flopper out of the NBA but you can’t take the flopping out of his game.

Unable to land an NBA contract this season, Lance Stephenson signed with the Liaoning Flying Leopards of the Chinese Basketball Association. He has taken his flopping skills to China.

However, he may have met his match with one Chinese player, who tried to sell a non-contact, off-the-ball, sniper-in-the-grassy-knoll level flop that even legendary flopper Vlade Divac would have called extreme. The Chinese referees saw through that and awarded a technical to Stephenson’s team.

Then Stephenson drew another foul later in the game with a flop as he tried to grab the ball away from a player after the play. That drew a foul on the opposing player, who complained and then got his own technical.

It’s all just Lance being Lance.