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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.

Raptors, Pascal Siakam reportedly agree to four-year, $129.9 million max contract extension

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Pascal Siakam is going to be the face of the Toronto Raptors going forward.

This was expected. Toronto was never going to let its young star slip away; the only questions were when it a contract extension got done and the price.

The answers came Saturday, with the Raptors and Siakam’s agents reaching terms on what will be a four-year, $129.9 million max extension for the reigning Most Improved Player. Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN broke the news.

There are no player or team options, this is a straight four years.

Last season, his third in the league, Siakam made a huge leap. He averaged 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, shot 36.9 percent from three, took on a larger role as a shot creator, played impressive wing defense, and was a key part of the Raptors winning the first title in franchise history. He is at the heart of their future and a guy the Raptors wanted to keep through whatever rebuilding/retooling process comes in the next few years.

The Raptors could have played it out, and let Siakam go to restricted free agency next summer. However, in what will be a down free agent market, some team would have tried to poach the young wing — a real position of need around the league — with a max offer. The Raptors would have matched, but all that drama might have created bad blood. Maybe the Raptors overpaid a little, but they get to keep their guy and have him happy.

Siakam is the third player to get a max extension to their rookie contract this summer. Both Ben Simmons (Philadelphia) and Jamal Murray (Denver) signed five-year, $170 million max extensions. Siakam decided to take one year fewer, but also hits free agency again a little earlier.

Chinese state media says Adam Silver will face retribution for ‘defaming’ China

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Adam Silver has worked to portray the NBA as a progressive league that favored free speech. However, when push came to shove in a conflict with China over a Tweet from Rockets GM Daryl Morey supporting protesters in Hong Kong, Silver’s first statement seemed to protect the status quo and the cash the world’s largest nation generates for the NBA.

That backfired, and Silver came out with a stronger second statement that backed Morey’s right to free speech. Since then, the league has worked to emphasize that position.

In an interview at a TIME Magazine event this week, Silver added to that sentiment saying China asked for Morey to be fired and the league said no. “We made clear that we were being asked to fire him, by the Chinese government, by the parties we dealt with, government and business. We said there’s no chance that’s happening. There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”

The Chinese government denied this, and now Chinese State media is saying there will be retribution for Silver. From the South China Morning Post:

Chinese state media has warned that NBA commissioner Adam Silver will face “retribution” for defaming China in the latest twist to a dispute that began with a basketball team executive tweeting his support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong…

“Silver has spared no effort to portray himself as a fighter for free speech and used freedom of speech as an excuse to cover for Morey, who voiced his support for the violent actors in Hong Kong,” it said. “This has crossed the bottom line of the Chinese people.”

Silver’s handling of the controversy had proved his “double standards”, the broadcaster said, adding that he had “defamed” China on the international stage.

“To please some American politicians, Silver has fabricated lies out of nothing and has sought to paint China as unforgiving,” it said.

Silver didn’t fabricate this. We’re all smart enough to know how this went down: Chinese officials would never outright say “you need to fire Morey” but they could strongly imply it with words and actions. Silver’s phrasing on this — that it was “made clear that we were being asked to fire him” — suggests precisely this scenario. It’s how people with power ask for something unethical or illegal, whether we’re talking mob bosses or politicians, the ask is strongly implied but not direct, allowing denial later.

China wanted its pound of flesh, maybe to fire Morey but at least a public rebuke and fine/suspension. They got none of it. Now they can use Silver’s comment — clearly aimed at the domestic market to bolster the NBA’s image in the US — to cause a little more pain. China has shown it can hit the NBA’s bottom line, it flexed its muscle, but how far does either side really want it to progress?

As we have been saying all along, this issue is not going away anytime soon. It may fade from the spotlight, but the NBA/China relationship is a story that will be a cloud over this entire season.

 

Does the East have a better chance of winning the Finals with crowded, deep West?

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The Golden State Warriors will be hampered without Klay Thompson to start the season. The sharpshooting guard is a crucial part of what the Warriors bring to the table sans Kevin Durant, who is now with the Brooklyn Nets. Even with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George with the Los Angeles Clippers, many have considered the Western Conference to be more open for the taking this season. It’s been thought that this makes it more likely the Eastern Conference can field a second consecutive NBA champion.

Leonard’s decampment from the Toronto Raptors has made way for the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, and Milwaukee Bucks to ascend into the Finals to take on the Western Conference’s best. All of these teams have tried to add pieces with this idea of a wide-open NBA table in mind: The Sixers now have Al Horford, the Celtics Kemba Walker, and Milwaukee a cavalcade of veteran talent including Kyle Korver.

And indeed, the more proven championship-caliber teams are out east. Philadelphia, for all its growing pains and issues arising around Joel Embiid‘s conditioning, added the one player in Horford who was able to put a stop to them. Well, save for Leonard, who put in a bouncing jumper to end the Sixers’ season last year.

That again, Philadelphia is missing two key pieces from last year that we don’t know how they will make up for. JJ Redick is now with the New Orleans Pelicans, and his shooting presence will be missed. Redick made 240 threes last year for the Sixers. Landry Shamet was second on the team with 99. Jimmy Butler is now with the Miami Heat, and his dynamism on the wing will be difficult to replace.

The Celtics and the Bucks have similar issues when looking at their championship resumes. Boston has a glut of wings, although it’s not clear how good any of them are outside of Marcus Smart. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are dueling for future contract extensions. Gordon Hayward didn’t look great last season, and although there is hope he will be his old self this year, we’ll have to wait and actually see it to feel comfortable. That’s before mentioning that Horford is no longer anchoring the paint for the Celtics.

Milwaukee found a hard stop last year when it came to its playoff readiness. The Bucks were not particularly steady in the postseason, and teams were able to plan around Giannis Antetokounmpo and his lack of 3-point shooting. Last season’s MVP has said that his goal is to get better from beyond the arc, and any improvement in 2019-20 would be acceptable. Even despite the team adding Kyle Korver, they will be relying on Wesley Matthews, George Hill, and Pat Connaughton to flesh out the wing. Gone is Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers, perhaps their most reliable player in the playoffs.

Put together, all three championship contenders in the Eastern Conference have their issues. But so to do the newly-minted challengers out west. There’s a thought that both of the Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers — who now have Anthony Davis — will show some weakness to start the year. The Clippers will need to use load management on both Leonard and George, the latter of which is still recovering from double shoulder surgery. And although the Clippers were one of the best teams in terms of depth last season, how adding two new stars changes that dynamic is not yet known.

On the other side of the hallway in Los Angeles stands the Lakers, who outside of Davis, LeBron, and Danny Green don’t have much to show for all the bluster around their title hopes. The Lakers roster is flat-out bad, and despite tons of optimism around media types, I’m just not buying that they are a championship-level squad yet. The Lakers have real injury concerns, and until they make it all the way through to the Western Conference Finals, those will always be top-of-mind.

The second-tier in the west is plucky, but not necessarily ready for overt dominance. The Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, and Portland Trail Blazers, and San Antonio Spurs will all be in the running for the middle of the pack next year. Do any have championship rosters? Some of these teams are top-heavy, including Houston with James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Others, like the Nuggets and Jazz, will rely on their depth. Harden and Nikola Jokic could be legitimate MVP candidates, and that’s a problem in a league where it’s difficult to make it to the Finals without one.

That puts us in a difficult position in terms of “counting out” the Warriors. Thompson has said that he is going to take his time coming back from his ACL injury, but he should be a part of a Warriors playoff run in the spring of 2020. Without Durant, both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will be extra motivated to prove themselves as the core pieces to the team that dominated the NBA long before Durant came to the Bay Area.

Health will be another concern for Golden State, particularly with Curry and his ankles. Weight, if you can call it a health concern in context of the NBA, is what most will be raising questions about when it comes to Green. He entered the season last year a bit slower, and burned off 20 pounds at the All-Star break to make a playoff run. They will need the former Defensive Player of the Year to come into the preseason already able to do what he did last year: Disrupt opposing offenses and pressure the defense with his pace-pushing offensive style.

For now, at the precipice of the season, it seems clear that the Eastern Conference is the odds-on favorite to repeat as champions. At least, as a group. This isn’t a Tiger vs. the field situation for the Clippers. They just aren’t that strong, and in this case the safer bet would be on one of the Eastern Conference powerhouses instead of just L.A. It’s possible that the Clippers are will be as dominant as projected. In that case, it would be a bitter irony for the East to be subjected to yet another super team on the West Coast just as one appears to have a chink in its armor.

New teams coming together — particularly super teams — have not always had the best track record. Will the Clippers be LeBron James with the Miami Heat in 2008? Or will they be Durant with the Warriors in 2017? Consistency and familiarity cannot be ruled out as a function of success in the NBA. It would be smart for teams in the East to continue to build on their core as long as the teams out west are starting to form theirs. They may only have a short window with which to strike before the Warriors, Clippers, or some other team takes control of the league.

Kyrie Irving: ‘There’s enough oppression and stuff going on in America’

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Kyrie Irving finally got some preseason run on Friday night. A fracture in his face had limited his time on the court, including playing just one minute in China against the Lakers, but back home in Brooklyn he put on a mask and dropped 19 points in almost 25 minutes of action.

However, the issues from China followed the Nets back to Brooklyn.

Hundreds of supporters of the Hong Kong protesters attended the Nets game, wearing “Stand with Hong Kong” T-shirts and masks.

After the game, Irving was asked about the protesters and the now scarred NBA/China relationship. He mentioned the meeting with Adam Silver and said he understood the protestors but his focus was more domestic, via Nets Daily.

“Listen, I stand for four things: inner peace, freedom, equality and world peace, man. So if that’s being conflicted inside of me, I’m definitely going to have something to say, and I left it in that room,” Irving said of his conversation with Silver [adding the teams agreed after that meeting to play the games]…

“When you think about communities across the world, a lot of people would stand for world peace,” Irving said. “Government gets involved, it impacts different communities in different ways. And the reality is as individuals it’s our job to stand up for what we believe in. Now, I understand Hong Kong and China are dealing with their issues, respectively. But there’s enough oppression and stuff going on in America for me not to be involved in the community issues here as well.

“That’s one of those four pillars that goes in terms of the black community, colored people here in America. We’re fighting for everyday freedoms. So when I think about Hong Kong and China, the people are in an uproar; and for us as Americans to comment on it, African Americans or American Indians to comment on that, you’re connected nonetheless, especially when it impacts freedoms or world peace.

“So for me as an individual I stand up for those four pillars; and when they’re being conflicted I can understand why protestors come to the games.”

That is much better handled than LeBron Jamessomewhat rambling statement that mentioned financial repercussions. Irving supported the rights of the protesters at the game, but he avoided touching the third-rail issue in China (or, at least with Chinese officials) of the protests in Hong Kong themselves. Remember, Irving does have shoes to sell.

We’ll see if there’s any fallout on the issue, but Irving is not as big a brand and target as LeBron.

Some of those lined up to bash the NBA on this issue will use what Irving said to continue doing so (and many would have no matter what Irving said). There are people who didn’t like what LeBron and Irving and Kevin Durant and others had to say when they spoke out on issues such as Black Lives Matter and now they see an opening to make lazy political points. It’s the way of the world.

However, as much as the league wishes it would the NBA/China issue is not going away. It may go dormant for a while — the NBA certainly wants it to as they try to promote the start of the season this week — but it will flare up again, one way or another. Hopefully, the league’s response next time comes with a better understanding of its priorities and what it stands for.