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James Harden, Anthony Davis headline invitees to USA Basketball training camp

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Some of the biggest stars of the NBA decided to take this summer off…

And Team USA is still going to be STACKED for the World Cup this summer in China.

Ridiculously stacked. USA Basketball has released the names of the 20 players invited to take part in its training camp this August in Vegas, as part of the run-up to the FIFA World Cup this August and September in China. By the time of the World Cup at the end of the month, this group will be narrowed down to 12 players who will represent the United States.

The Invitees are:

Harrison Barnes (Sacramento Kings)
Bradley Beal (Washington Wizards)
Anthony Davis (New Orleans Pelicans)
Andre Drummond (Detroit Pistons)
Eric Gordon (Houston Rockets)
James Harden (Houston Rockets)
Tobias Harris (Philadelphia 76ers)
Kyle Kuzma (Los Angeles Lakers)
Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)
Brook Lopez (Milwaukee Bucks)
Kevin Love (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors)
CJ McCollum (Portland Trail Blazers)
Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks)
Paul Millsap (Denver Nuggets)
Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz)
Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics)
P.J. Tucker (Houston Rockets)
Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers)
Kemba Walker (Charlotte Hornets)

Notice that only one player from these NBA Finals is on that list, Lowry, but no Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard. USA Basketball reached out to each of them, but in the case of the three Warriors they have put a lot of miles on their bodies in recent years with five straight Finals appearances, and they wanted the summer to recover. Leonard is coming off a season where he and Toronto made the term “load management” famous (or, infamous), so it’s not a surprise he didn’t accept (it is more than any issues with coach Gregg Popovich from his Spurs days).

LeBron James also decided not to play to rest his body (plus the timing of the event could push up against the shooting of “Space Jam 2” this summer). Russell Westbrook and Paul George also did not accept invitations, although both have represented the USA in the past.

Still, there is a lot of talent on the roster, and balanced talent at that.

“The flexibility of positions and roles was very important, so you go through this roster you see a lot of ones who can be twos, threes who can be fours, fives can be fours, things like that,” Popovich said.

Even without those stars, this list has the potential for a roster that can play the attacking, up-tempo style coach Gregg Popovich wants. There’s an abundance of athleticism for plays in transition, plus plenty of shooting, including from the big men. Also, there are a handful of grinders who can play a physical game and crash the boards (the international game tends to be more physical, and the referees let more go than in the NBA).

Popovich will follow the model Mike Krzyzewski had before him with Team USA — not merely a collection of stars, but a balanced roster that can play as a unit. The USA’s athleticism can overwhelm all but a couple of teams in this tournament, the goal is an aggressive defense that leads to a lot of transition points, just overwhelming teams with that athleticism and depth. There’s a reason the USA has gone 88-1 in major men’s international competitions since 2006. The couple of teams that can hang with the USA (Spain the past couple of Olympics, for example) require more strategy and matchups.

That athleticism and potential are why three young, first-time USA Basketball performers were in the mix — Tatum, Kuzma, and Mitchell.

“Each of the three have already made their mark during this early part of their career,” USA Basketball President Jerry Colangelo said of their inclusion. “You need to have some kind of balance and youth as we develop our infrastructure and as you develop your national team rosters.”

This World Cup is the primary qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Players who take part here, or have a history with Team USA, will have priority for making that roster.

At the training camp, these players will go against a USA Select group of up-and-coming stars who are being groomed to represent the USA in future years. Zion Williamson will headline those 10 players. Those players will be coached by Jeff Van Gundy, it was announced. Van Gundy also will provide some international scouting help to Popovich and staff as it was Van Gundy that coached the USA select team, made up mostly of G-League players, who qualified the USA for the World Cup.

The U.S. is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

How Raptors defense pounded Warriors in Game 1

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The Toronto Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals, 118-109, on Thursday night in Canada. It was a monumental victory for the Raptors, and Pascal Siakam had the game of his life, scoring 32 points to go with eight rebounds and five assists.

One of Toronto’s most important players, Siakam led a defensive charge for the Raptors that wasn’t apparent just by looking at the box score. And while the story of Game 1 will probably be about Siakam’s offensive explosion for 32 points, it was the Raptors defense that led them to the first Finals win on Canadian soil.

More switchable and more athletically able to match up with Golden State than the Portland Trail Blazers did in the Western Conference Finals, the Raptors shut down just about everything be defending Champions did correctly in their last playoff series.

Split cuts? Gone.

The ability of the Raptors to simply stay home and not get overactive fighting around screens was crucial. Portland made the mistake of being too antsy to stop the Warriors shooters last round, and it led to Golden State getting easy assists as their screeners cut early toward the basket for open looks.

Nick Nurse and his staff clearly prepared his team on how to combat perhaps the most recognizable sequence in the Warriors’ offense. It helped that both Danny Green and Siakam were able to fight through screens while guarding Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Portland guards did a poor job of getting around Golden State’s picks, but with more length on their side, Toronto narrowed the space available and added over-the-top pressure on Warriors shooters.

Siakam played a critical role, both in defending Curry on-ball and against Draymond Green. The Golden State forward dismantled the Trail Blazers in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals by taking defensive rebounds all the way to the other end of the floor as a one man fastbreak. The result was that Portland was often left with smaller players like CJ McCollum defending the larger Green, creating an imbalance that allowed the Warriors to score with ease.

Thanks to his 6-foot-8 stature and nearly nine-foot standing reach, Siakam was able to pose a larger threat to Green as well as act as a better vertical on-ball defender at the rim.

The net effect of Toronto’s strategy was significant. Golden State shot just 60 percent at the rim — a poor mark for this postseason — and just 27.8 percent on non-corner threes, according to CleaningTheGlass.com. The Raptors were also able to limit the amount of 3-pointers taken by the Warriors stars. While Golden State shot 37.8 percent from beyond the arc, Curry shot just nine times from deep and Thompson six.

The Raptors were able to easily turn turnovers into points, scoring 24 of their 118 in transition. Golden State turned the ball over 16 times, which Warriors head coach Steve Kerr pointed out as his team’s biggest issue.

“Our transition defense was just awful,” Kerr said after the loss. “That’s the game, really.”

Toronto was a team that was led by one man over the first round and parts of the second. Leonard appeared to be doing it all himself, and the team atmosphere around the Raptors was no longer the talk in Canada. But since this team’s Eastern Conference Finals win over the Milwaukee Bucks, that narrative has shifted. So too has the reason for Toronto’s playoff success, with Nurse cooking up a special solution against probable league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Just as it was in the ECF, the Raptors are a capital “T” Team once again, and defense was at the core of their first-ever NBA Finals win. It might be an impossible task to beat the Warriors over a seven-game series, but smart coaching and excellent execution from top to bottom has us thinking the Larry O’Brien landing outside the U.S. this June might not be so crazy after all.

Game 2 is on Sunday at 5:00 p.m. PST.

Three things Warriors must do vs. Raptors in NBA Finals

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It seems that many believe that the Golden State Warriors are on their way to a third-straight NBA championship. They need to dispatch Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals first, but Golden State is still the overwhelming favorite in the season-ending postseason series.

The Raptors have shown surprising resilience, most recently in the Eastern Conference Finals against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. Leonard and his band of merry men beat the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference, and it appeared that Nick Nurse created an excellent game plan to combat the league’s likely MVP.

With Leonard on another level, and with Toronto’s coaching staff ready to take on the biggest challenge in the NBA, it’s not a given that Golden State will win another NBA title. Now is the time for maximum effort, and no doubt Steve Kerr’s squad will give it.

That being said, here are three things the Warriors need to do in order to beat the Raptors and take home the Larry O’Brien.

Set solid screens

This seems sort of obvious, but looking at game tape and analyzing Stephen Curry‘s worst performances of the year, one of the best things that the Warriors can do is set solid screens. Curry has struggled from the 3-point line this season only when players are able to effectively fight over the top of the Warriors screens.

The Portland Trail Blazers did a poor job of this over the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, and many thought that Curry’s onslaught was a result of Enes Kanter sitting back laughably low in the paint, particularly in Game 1. Instead, it was really the fault of the Portland guards and wings — Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum — who were hung up on great Golden State screens.

Curry doesn’t struggle from 3-point range often, but many of Golden State’s awkward losses over the regular season — Orlando, Utah, Phoenix — have come when he has shot poorly and in volume from the arc. There’s no surefire way to stop him, but Toronto’s best shot is putting pressure over the top and trying to force Curry into no man’s land around 12 feet. Golden State can’t let Toronto’s athleticism get to its shooters, and they’ll need to watch tape to see what Nurse’s staff did to slow down Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton.

Stop everyone outside of Kawhi

At this point it seems like Kawhi Leonard is inevitable. The Raptors forward is playing well, so much so that Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers compared him to Michael Jordan. Leonard has been the best player of these playoffs so far, and when the Bucks were successful against Toronto in the Eastern Conference Finals, it was because Leonard wasn’t getting any help.

Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam are all susceptible to wild undulations in performance. Just a few short weeks ago people were complaining about having to watch Toronto, with an inferior roster, potentially drag down Leonard. Now that supporting cast is playing better, and those qualms have quieted. That doesn’t change the fact that Toronto is far less talented than Golden State, and its role players less reliable.

Finding a way to stop the Raptors’ new passing and 3-point attack will be crucial for Steve Kerr and defensive assistant Ron Adams. It helps that Danny Green is already in a slump, but it could be helpful to get role players uncomfortable and out of position so they can’t fire away from deep.

Leonard can’t beat the Warriors by himself, and it’s going to be easier to shut down the VanVleets and Gasols on their roster than The Klaw himself.

Let Draymond run

That brings us to our final point, and that’s the single-man fastbreak ability of Draymond Green. Against the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, Green was able to break the spirits of Portland by taking defensive rebounds deep into the opponent halfcourt all by himself.

The threat of Green’s speedy attack kept the Blazers from being able to crash the offensive glass effectively as a wing unit, and it also put Portland and a bit of foul trouble. Toronto is not the most disciplined team in the NBA, and Green could cause havoc for younger defenders in Siakam and OG Anunoby should the latter be able to return and play. That’s to say nothing of the effect Green’s running ability would have when the older Gasol or Serge Ibaka is on the floor.

Green is clearly in the best shape of any player on the Warriors roster at this moment, and he has used that to his advantage. When players have slowed down in the fourth quarter this postseason, that’s when he has shifted into his sixth and final gear. It’s unlikely that Kerr will officially program Green’s spurts into the offense, but it might be a tactic that he deploys either early in games to get Toronto off balance, or late in fourth quarters to break a tired Raptors finishing unit.

Report: Trail Blazers sign president Neil Olshey to contract extension

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Just after a rumor emerged about the Wizards trying to hire Trail Blazers president Neil Olshey…

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

It’s nice to be wanted. It always adds leverage in contract negotiations.

Olshey has done well in Portland, building a winner around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum after LaMarcus Aldridge left. But Olshey’s job will get harder now.

Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless each have another season on the expensive contracts Olshey gave them in the wild summer of 2016. That’ll inhibit flexibility this offseason.

Then, Lillard is set to sign a super-max extension that will take effect in 2021. As great as Lillard is, it’ll be difficult building a contender around someone projected to earn $43 million, $46 million, $50 million and $53 million from ages 31-34. There’s so little margin for error, especially if ownership is less willing to pay the luxury tax than the late Paul Allen was.

But Olshey has earned a chance to handle these dilemmas.

Rumor: Wizards interested in Trail Blazers president Neil Olshey

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The Wizards struck out on luring Nuggets president Tim Connelly.

Washington’s next choice?

Ben Standig of NBC Washington:

As for the rumor mill, one name stands out: Neil Olshey.

Numerous sources told NBC Sports Washington of the Wizards’ interest in Blazers President of Basketball Operations

Olshey has done a good job in Portland. He drafted Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum then built a winner around those two after LaMarcus Aldridge left. Trading for and re-signing Jusuf Nurkic to a reasonable contract looks great. Olshey also overpaid Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe and Festus Ezeli, but many teams spent wildly in 2016. It was a weird summer.

The Wizards would do well to hire such a proven executive.

Would Olshey leave the Trail Blazers? Their ownership situation remains uncertain following the death of Paul Allen in October. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has demonstrated extreme loyalty to his executives.

Portland will also reportedly sign Damian Lillard to a super-max extension – a move that practically must be made, but one that carries massive downside risk. However, if he goes to Washington, Olshey would be trading uncertainty in Damian Lillard’s value on the super-max for certain negative value with John Wall on his super-max extension.

A couple years ago, Olshey signed his own extension through 2021. Maybe he’s ready to move on.

Or maybe he’s ready to use the Wizards as leverage for a raise.