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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.

Report: NBA executives expect busy in-season trade market

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For the first time in years, the NBA feels wide open — more than 10 NBA front offices think they have a shot at an NBA title next season (a few of them are delusional about that, but they believe). It’s one of the reasons we saw such an aggressive trade market last summer, teams thought they had an opening so the Clippers (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George), Lakers (Anthony Davis), Nets (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant), Houston Rockets (Russell Westbrook), and others were aggressive on the free agent and trade markets to land stars.

Expect that aggressive mindset to carry over to the in-season trade market.

That’s what executives have been telling Sean Deveney of Heavy.com.

“We’ve been getting calls all summer,” one general manager told Heavy.com. “There are a lot of things we are considering. The dust settles a little, you’re aware of your weaknesses and your holes and so you find ways to address that. I think we’re going to see more of that than usual. I think if you look at the market, there is going to be a very brisk trade market this winter for a few reasons.”…

Chief among those reasons is a sense that next spring’s Larry O’Brien trophy is up for grabs, a feeling that took hold during last year’s Finals when Kevin Durant of the Warriors ruptured his Achilles tendon and crystallized when Golden State lost to Toronto, then saw Durant sign with the Nets as a free agent…

The other big driver of the trade market this season figures to be the open, empty crater that the 2020 free-agent class has become. Teams hoping to make significant changes in their direction won’t have free agency to lean on. Trades will be the way to go.

The lack of a decent free agent class in 2020 is why teams are still eyeing and calling Washington about Bradley Beal (and those calls continue to be rejected, Washington is not interested as of now and Beal himself wants to stay because he wants to qualify for the $250 million supermax contract and only the Wizards can give it to him). The only big 2020 free agent is Anthony Davis and nobody around the league thinks he’s leaving the Lakers and LeBron James after all he did to get there. After that, the biggest unrestricted names are Kyle Lowry, Andre Drummond (player option), DeMar DeRozan (player option), Danilo Gallinari, and Goran Dragic. There are restricted free agents such as Brandon Ingram and Jaylen Brown, but they will be expensive to steal away.

With high expectations in a lot of front offices after last summer, when the reality of the season hits and holes in the roster are exposed — or injuries create new ones — teams are going to make moves to fill them. Trade rumors are going to fly around the league and the rumor mill will continue to be on full tilt, something fans love but the league is wary about. Owners and NBA league execs don’t like the focus on player movement being bigger than the games themselves, in part because the games are where the money is made, the teams don’t cash in from trade rumors. Put simply, winning Twitter doesn’t put money in an owner’s pocket.

That’s not going to stop the rumors, expect them to be flying again all season long.

Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball reportedly working out with no restrictions in NOLA

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The New Orleans Pelicans have a bright future ahead of them. This season will be the first for No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson, and the team is expected to be a playoff contender thanks to a solid young core and proven veterans like Jrue Holiday.

But one of the things that could hold the Pelicans back? Health.

Both Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball — two of the cornerstone pieces sent over in the Anthony Davis trade with the Los Angeles Lakers — have battled various ailments. Ingram had a blood clot that knocked him out in March. Ball had been dealing with an ankle injury for most of 2019.

A team with this many fresh faces will need as much time together as they can get, and so it’s good news that both Ingram and Ball are reportedly getting some run in recent practices.

Via ESPN:

New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram and guard Lonzo Ball have been full participants in the team’s voluntary offseason workouts in New Orleans, a source told ESPN on Tuesday.

Neither player has been restricted by the injuries that shut them down last season while members of the Los Angeles Lakers, representing a significant step with training camp around the corner on Oct. 1.

New Orleans is expected to be a challenger in the Western Conference, which has been weakened by the departure of Kevin Durant (and the injury to Klay Thompson) in the Bay Area. Yes, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George represent a formidable force for the Los Angeles Clippers, but the parity in the Western Conference should allow a team like the Pelicans to make some noise.

If his team can get healthy and find some rhythm, it might be a quick turnaround for David Griffin after losing Davis via trade not so long ago.

Joel Embiid says he’s lost 25 pounds this summer (VIDEO)

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The big knock against Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid was that he just wasn’t in shape enough to play NBA basketball. Several times down the stretch last year, and Embiid couldn’t be relied upon to play from a conditioning standpoint.

But all that might be about to change.

In a recent video posted to social media, Embiid could be seen eating extremely hot chip as part of a marketing campaign. As Embiid gulped down the fiery junk food, he mentioned that he had actually lost 25 pounds over this summer.

“This summer I lost about 25 pounds,” said Embiid as he struggled to deal with the heat from the Carolina Reaper-laced chip by gulping down glasses of milk. “I’m about to put it back on with this milk.”

That’s a huge bit of news for Sixers fans who have derided Embiid’s lack of willpower when it has come to his diet. The Cameroonian center famously loved Shirley Temple’s, and there have been stories of him eating huge amounts of Chik-fil-A and up to four milkshakes in one sitting.

A thinner, slimmer Embiid should not only take some weight off of his knees and ankles, but it might also allow Brett Brown to keep his best player in the game for longer stretches in important situations.

Summer in the NBA is rife with news of #musclewatch, but for now here’s hoping that Embiid can keep the weight off. Keep counting those calories, my dude.

Rudy Gobert says lack of Team USA stars in World Cup will continue

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The 2019 FIBA World Cup is over, and the United States did not medal. It was a disappointing showing for Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum, who led the U.S. national team in a year in which several stars did not want to participate.

Instead it looks as though players like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will play next year in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Meanwhile, what can FIBA do to entice stars to play in their tournament?

There are lots of issues with how the World Cup works, including the wonky qualifying windows and the fact that the Olympics come in short succession. That’s not to say that folks back in the States don’t want the World Cup to be a big deal — USA basketball head Jerry Colangelo has said that he wants the FIBA contest to be a premier event.

But some, like Utah Jazz and French national team big man Rudy Gobert, don’t ever see that happening. Speaking to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Gobert said that he doesn’t believe players will join in on the FIBA games thanks to how the modern NBA works.

Via NY Times:

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert said of the modern N.B.A. player’s approach in the Load Management Era. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

Although FIBA has been around since 1932, it’s not a part of American culture yet and thus the Olympics seem to be what both players and fans care about in comparison. That the U.S. men’s team didn’t come away with the gold doesn’t even seem to be that big of a deal, culturally.

Gobert has the right idea in terms of the reality of the situation. Until respective national team organizations can entice their own players to join in, it’s not clear what the World Cup will mean for basketball fans in North America moving forward. As such, we are unlikely to see a star-studded World Cup Team USA in the near future.