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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.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.

Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to lead peaceful protest

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While many NBA players have spoken out on social media and attended rallies in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis Police, maybe none has been as vocal and active as the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown.

Saturday, he drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to lead a peaceful protest at the Martin Luther King National Historic Park.

Brown was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Brown’s protest still had a run-in with Atlanta police.

This protest is one of many nationwide happening for a fifth straight night in the wake of the death of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. That death happened not long after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man killed while jogging in a Georgia neighborhood.

Derek Chauvin, the man pictured kneeling on Floyd’s neck — which he did for more than eight-and-a-half minutes — was fired from his job in the Minneapolis Police Department and was arrested on Friday and charged with third-degree murder.

Brown, like many nationwide, hope these protests and this frustration can be channeled into real change. Something this nation needs.