Bam Adebayo

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Olympics postponement should force USA Basketball to change roster strategy

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USA Basketball named 44 finalists last month for the Tokyo Olympics.

No Zion Williamson. No Ja Morant. Not even Trae Young, who’s already an All-Star starter and on track to get even better.

USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo explained: Though young players would eventually get their turn, the 2020 Olympics would be for players who previously represented the U.S.

Except there will be no 2020 Olympics.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Games have been postponed to 2021. By then, USA Basketball’s plan to build an older roster – already a suspect strategy – will become even less tenable.

The 2019 FIBA World Cup showed the Americans’ vulnerability. They finished seventh – their worst-ever finish in a major tournament. The United States’ advantage is depth of star talent. That has carried Team USA through deficient cohesion and comfort with international rules/style. The 2019 squad lacked the usual star power.

Anything USA Basketball does to lower its talent level – including giving preferential treatment to past-their-peak players based on prior contributions – increases risk of another letdown.

Chris Paul sounded ready for Tokyo. But he’ll turn 35 this spring and would have been one of the oldest players ever on Team USA if competing in an on-time Olympics. LeBron James – who is at least open to another Olympics – is even older than Paul. Several other aging veterans are in the mix.

Already, half the finalists will be in their 30s by the time the Games were originally scheduled to begin.

Though that doesn’t necessarily mean the final roster would have been old, it’s a telling starting point. The average age of the finalists is 28.1.* In 2016, it was 26.4 In 2012, it was 26.8.

*On Feb. 1 of that year

Again, the final roster could have shaken out differently. But imagine this team:

A little backcourt-heavy? Yes. But so is the United States’ top-end talent.  Will Stephen Curry play? His father said yes, though that was before Curry was sidelined even longer than he expected. So, there’s plenty of room to quibble with the selections. But it’s at least a reasonable facsimile of the final roster.

The average age* of that group: 29.5.

That’d be the second-oldest Team USA in the Olympics, shy of only the 1996 squad. It’s even older than the original Dream Team, which – as the first Olympic team to include NBA players – definitely prioritized rewarding career accomplishments.

Here’s the average age* of each Team USA since NBA players began competing in the Olympics:

*Age for Team USA’s first game or, in 2020, first originally scheduled game of the tournament

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see taking that same group to Tokyo in 2021 would make it Team USA’s oldest-ever squad, advancing the average age a full year to 30.5.

Plenty will change in the next year. It’s easy to project growth from players like Trae Young, Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. But whether or not those three in particular meet expectations, other young players will rise. Some of these older players will decline further.

Of course, there will still be room for some veterans in 2021. Chris Paul is flourishing with the Thunder and could continue to play at a high level. LeBron James is so dominant, he has plenty of room to decline while remaining elite.

But USA Basketball should be open-minded about emerging young players. That’s the only way to ensure a maximumly talented roster.

In 2020, it was foolish to pretend it’s 2016 or even 2012.

It’d be even more misguided to do so in 2021.

USC big man Onyeka Okongwu declares for the NBA draft

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Onyeka Okongwu started turning heads early during USC’s season.

It was easy to project his athletic finishing and rim protection into the role of a four or small-ball five in the NBA. He shot up NBA team draft boards.

Now he has made the expected official and has declared for the 2020 NBA Draft.

Okongwu is projected as a top 10, maybe top-five pick in the upcoming draft, which makes his leap to the next level the right move for him.

Okongwu averaged 16.2 points and 8.6 rebounds a game at USC, with a very efficient 61.6 shooting percentage and a 31.1 PER. Watch video of him and you see an incredible leaper, a guy who can face up with a fantastic first step, and a guy with good shot-blocking instincts.

The challenges are that at 6’9″ he is not going to be able to play center all the time at the NBA level, and he does not have great shooting range (he only took four threes all season at USC). Think a Montrezl Harrel/Bam Adebayo style of game, which is impressive but can have its limits (and not that he will be as good as them, that is a high bar).

In a down draft, he could be a guy a team falls in love with — plus he has a high floor — and that gets him taken inside the first five.

That love may primarily be based on film; this year’s draft process has been thrown into chaos by the coronavirus and NBA hiatus. There likely is no combine, no face-to-face interviews — hello Skype — and no workouts with teams. Plus, nobody knows when the draft itself will take place (the league has to figure out what’s up with the rest of the season and playoffs before getting into the draft and free agency timelines).

But for a likely lock top 10 guy like Okongwu, it makes sense to come out now.

Mock NBA expansion draft: Hawks, Hornets, Heat, Magic, Wizards

Mock NBA expansion draft
(AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
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The NBA season is on hiatus. NBC Sports is not – even if we have to venture into fantasy.

We’re holding a mock NBA expansion draft. Keith Smith is setting protected lists for existing teams. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman will run two new teams as this project culminates in an expansion draft.

Current teams can protect up to eight players. Each team must make at least one player available. If selected, restricted free agents become unrestricted free agents. Pending options can be decided before or after the expansion draft at the discretion of the option-holder. Anyone selected in the expansion draft can’t return to his prior team for one year. Players entering unrestricted free agency and players on two-way contracts are essentially ignored.

We’re unveiling protected/unprotected lists by division (here is the Atlantic Division, Central Division, Pacific Division and Northwest Division). Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Southeast:

Atlanta Hawks

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: The Hawks protections are very straightforward. Every player they are protecting is either a rotation player, under team control for a while or both. No hard decisions here.

That means that Atlanta is leaving their restricted free agents and Brandon Goodwin unprotected. No major concerns over losing any of the four.

Charlotte Hornets

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 3

Ineligible – 2

Analysis: Charlotte’s decisions were fairly easy. Terry Rozier, Devonte’ Graham, Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington are all core pieces. Despite his suspension, Malik Monk still has upside. And the three young forwards (Cody Martin, Caleb Martin and Jalen McDaniels) are locked in on low salaries for a while.

Keeping the three minimum salary forwards meant leaving Dwayne Bacon unprotected. Bacon had been out of the rotation and sent to the G-League, so he’s out of the plans for now. As for Nic Batum or Cody Zeller, the Hornets would welcome getting either big salary off the books.

Miami Heat

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 1

Ineligible – 6

Analysis: Miami was really helped by having six players ineligible because they are unrestricted free agents this summer. That left just this decision point: Andre Iguodala vs KZ Okpala vs Kelly Olynyk.

Okpala is a minimum salary player, so that means he stays. Iguodala was just added and given an extension. He stays. That means Olynyk and his $13 million salary are left exposed.

Orlando Magic

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 2

Analysis: Orlando had seven fairly easy protections. Their five starters, sixth man, and their promising young big man in Mo Bamba.

That left Khem Birch vs Al-Farouq Aminu vs Wesley Iwundu. Aminu was left unprotected due to salary and coming off a knee injury. It’s unlikely he’ll be selected and the Magic will be happy to have him back. That means it came down to Birch vs Iwundu. It’s more likely Birch will be selected, given his low salary and skill as a big man, so Iwundu was left unprotected.

Washington Wizards

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 3

  • John Wall – $41,254,920
  • Isaac Bonga – $1,663,861 (Non-Guaranteed)
  • Anzejs Pasecnicks – $1,517,981 ($250,000 Guaranteed)

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: The Wizards are taking a gamble. Most of the protections were pretty easy. Bradley Beal and Thomas Bryant are key players. Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown, Mo Wagner and Jerome Robinson are all on their rookie scale deals.

Then things get interesting. Leaving John Wall unprotected may seem crazy, given he’s a former All-Star. But Wall is coming off two lost seasons due to injury and will be 30 years old at the start of next season. He’s also owed $133 million over the next three seasons. Ish Smith and Admiral Schofield stay and the Wizards throw caution to the wind. It’s unlikely Wall will be selected, but just the chance of clearing that salary off the books is a gamble worth taking for Washington.

Repeatedly slighted, Jarrett Allen rising above it for Nets

Nets center Jarrett Allen
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DETROIT – Jarrett Allen ran off the court after a Nets win and jumped to high-five a fan about 11 feet off the floor. The crowd in that section buzzed at Allen’s above-rim-level leap.

Then, Kyrie Irving came through.

The ovation swelled for the the star who had just dazzled with 45 points.

“I’m going to pretend they’re cheering for me, Ky,” Allen said as he and Irving ran toward the locker room.

“They are cheering for you,” Irving replied.

That was rare affirmation for Allen, who has repeatedly appeared overlooked with Brooklyn.

Despite Allen proving himself as a quality young starting center on a playoff team last season, the Nets signed DeAndre Jordan – notably a friend of Irving and Kevin Durant – to a lucrative four-year contract last summer. Jordan, 31, is nearly a decade older than Allen.

A couple months ago, Irving said it’s glaring Brooklyn needs another piece or two to complement himself, Durant, Jordan, Garrett Temple, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. Omitted from that list: Allen.

Ironically, Allen is the type of low-maintenance role player the Nets could really use around Durant and Irving.

Allen brushed off noise about Jordan supplanting him, kept his starting spot and bonded with the veteran center. Allen also said he spoke to Irving and quickly put that quote behind him.

“I wasn’t really concerned,” Allen said. “At the end of the day, I can’t really control any of that. So, I’m not going to worry about it has been my philosophy.”

It’s a philosophy that fits Allen’s no-nonsense game.

He runs pick-and-rolls. He finishes lobs. He protects the rim.

Durant and Irving will dominate the ball next season. That leads to complications with Dinwiddie and LeVert, two young players who are also better on the ball. Allen carries no such fit concerns.

Allen has possessed the ball just 53 minutes all season. For perspective, that’s less than Nets backup shooting guard Theo Pinson, who’s not even in the rotation. It’s less than half as much as Montrezl Harrell, another energy big.

Yet, Allen still contributes. He ranks 46th in the league with 4.3 PIPM-based wins added.

Allen ranks among the league leaders wins added per 100 minutes of possession:

Nets center Jarrett Allen

Helping without the ball is such an important skill next to Durant and Irving. Allen checks that box.

How much do the Nets value it?

Allen will be eligible for a contract extension this offseason. His 18.7 career win shares (and counting) entering his rookie-scale-extension window put him in line to slightly outpace comps like Greg Monroe, Kenneth Faried and Jonas Valanciunas.

The Pistons reportedly didn’t offer Monroe an extension in 2013, watched him accept the qualifying offer then lost him to a max deal from the Bucks in unrestricted free agency in 2015. The Nuggets gave Faried a four-year, $50 million extension in 2014. The Raptors gave Valanciunas a four-year, $64 million extension in 2015.

The salary cap has escalated significantly since. The extension market changes each year, as deals influence each other.

Allen ranks second in win shares among players who’ll be eligible for rookie-scale extensions this summer, behind only Heat big Bam Adebayo:

Nets center Jarrett Allen

Obviously, Allen isn’t as good as Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell. Win shares probably overrates efficient, but limited, bigs like Allen. There is also a surplus of effective centers around the league, lowering all their values.

But this speaks to a truth: Allen has consistently produced in his role.

In Brooklyn or elsewhere, expect that to continue.

“He’s too good, obviously,,” Dinwiddie said, “not to be a factor in the league.”

Three Things to Know: Looking at odds to win MVP, Rookie of Year, more

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday during the NBA regular season we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) What are the odds? Examining the betting line for MVP, Rookie of the Year, more. With a little more than 20 games to go in the NBA season, the attention is shifting to the races for the NBA’s end-of-season awards…

Except some of them aren’t much of a race anymore. That includes MVP.

Let’s take a look at the current betting odds for the top races, with the odds coming via Draft Kings.

MVP
Giannis Antetokounmpo -670
Luka Doncic +800
LeBron James +900
James Harden +1200
Anthony Davis +5000
Nikola Jokic +5000
Kawhi Leonard +5000
Damian Lillard +5000

It’s Antetokounmpo and then everyone else in the odds, which reflects the attitude of voters I have spoken with. These odds also seem a little dated, the guy with the best chance to catch the Greek Freak right now — maybe the only guy — is LeBron (and he will need some luck, but he has the “carrying Kobe’s team” narrative). Doncic’s missed time due to injuries has knocked him down the board a little. Just a word of advice to people actually betting this: Don’t be tempted by the big potential payouts for Jokic or Davis, both have been good enough to make the top five, but if the bet is to win that’s not going to pay off.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Ja Morant -400
Zion Williamson +250
Kendrick Nunn +5000

This is a two man race, and it might not even be that. Yes, Zion Williamson is tearing up the league. Yes, Zion is the best player of this rookie class right now and (barring injury) will be the best in this class three years from now. Yes, we all love to watch him play.

But “availability is the best ability” and Zion can play, at most, 37 games (ultimately, he likely plays in a couple fewer than that). Morant — averaging 17.7 points and seven assists a game, leading a team expected to be one of the worst in the league to a potential playoff berth — can play in as many as 76 games, although that likely ends a few lower as well. If Morant plays 35 more games, he is the Rookie of the Year.

Matt Moore at the Action Network did a straw poll of 12 likely voters and only four said that maybe Zion could do something to catch Morant at this point. Much like when Joel Embiid didn’t win ROY because he only played in 31 games, Zion just missed too many games (and Morant has been very good).

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Anthony Davis -152
Giannis Antetokounmpo +275
Rudy Gobert +350
Brook Lopez +5000
Joel Embiid +5000

A month ago I might have said Rudy Gobert was well on his way to a three-peat, and he still might be, but the Jazz stumbling on defense of late has opened this race up. The Greek Freak and AD have legitimate chances to win it.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR
Dennis Schroder +130
Lou Williams +175
Montrezl Harrell +200
Derrick Rose +1000

Another race that seems wide open, especially if the two Clippers players split the vote. That could open the door for Schroder, who has gained a lot of momentum as people realize it’s not just Chris Paul having an impressive season for the surprisingly good Thunder. There is a sentimentality behind Derrick Rose and his best season in a long time, but how bad the Timberwolves have been does not help his cause.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Brandon Ingram +150
Bam Adebayo +300
Jayson Tatum +450
Luka Doncic +500
Devonte’ Graham +1000

Graham was running away with this award early, but he has come back to earth and the race is now wide open. With everyone tuning in to see Zion, people are realizing how good Ingram has been this season. Boston’s surge may help Tatum, and both he and Adebayo surged to become All-Stars this season. Our own Dan Feldman has made the case for Doncic.

Not listed in the odds was Coach of the Year, but my sense talking to voters and people around the league is Toronto’s Nick Nurse has a narrow lead in what is a very crowded field.

2) Miami Heat defense holds Giannis Antetokounmpo to 13 points, Heat upset Bucks. Milwaukee entered Monday night having win six in a row and on pace to win 70+ games. They had lost twice in their last 20 games.

Miami just shut them down. Bam Adebayo had a fantastic defensive game, leading Miami’s ability to take away the Greek Freak’s favorite moves and make him uncomfortable. The sharpshooting Bucks also went ice cold from three for the night, shooting 7-of-34 (20.6 percent), meaning the Heat did not pay for their attention to Antetokounmpo.

Miami had its usual balanced attack. Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder each had 18 points, Goran Dragic 15, and Adebayo had 14 points and 13 boards to go with his stellar defense.

The most talked about sequence in this game came late. First, Miami’s Dragic went up for a shot knee first and caught George Hill right in the, er, groin. Hill was down for a bit. On the next trip down the court Antetokounmpo gave Goran a check from behind, just to balance the scales.

3) Knicks get physical with small-ball Rockets and pick up win. From the first day the Rockets went all-in on small ball the counter-reaction has been “just go big” and bully them. Utah tried to do that, but the Jazz are slumping, Rudy Gobert seemed off (or was thrown off by the style of play), and the red-hot Rockets handled the Jazz with little trouble.

The first team to use size to bully the Rockets? The Knicks.

In the first game under new team president Leon Rose, the Knicks were physical and took the Rockets out of their game, ultimately leading to a 125-123 New York win. That ended Houston’s six-game winning streak. RJ Barrett led the way wtih 27 points.

The Knicks got 16 points and 16 boards from Julius Randle.

James Harden had 35 points and eight assists but shot 3-of-13 from three. Russell Westbrook had 24 points and nine rebounds but missed a mid-range shot that could have sent the game to overtime.

It was a good win for the Knicks, the question is can other teams follow the same model for success against these Rockets?