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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.

Without games, NBA players use social media to spread message of coronavirus safety

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Cleveland’s Kevin Love did his best to reassure a skittish and scared public.

Denver’s Jamal Murray sat at his piano and played theme songs.

Atlanta’s Trae Young shot balled-up socks into a trash can.

Miami’s Goran Dragic, in his native Slovenian, told people to stay inside.

This is the new NBA normal in a coronavirus-dominated world.

Even without games, the league is trying to engage and even encourage fans in these tough times.

So far, almost 20 current and former players have partnered with the NBA and WNBA for a new sort of public-service announcement as the world continues dealing with the coronavirus pandemic that is known to have struck about a quarter-million people worldwide, killed nearly 10,000 and has essentially shut down sports around the globe.

“We’re able to reach a number probably in the hundreds of millions, but as far as kids go, tens of millions of kids just by pressing send on an NBA PSA,” Love said. “So for me, it was considering that community aspect as well as, you know, thinking of young kids now being at home being homeschooled, at-risk youth being homeschooled … we have to reach them.”

Love’s PSA, released earlier this week, went for nearly three minutes and was a continuation of sorts of the conversation he’s been having publicly for some time about mental health. “Now more than ever, we have to practice compassion. … We need more of that,” Love said in his video.

Love went public two years ago about his struggles with depression and was one of the first NBA players to announce a donation to help arena employees who aren’t at work right now because of the shutdown. He gave $100,000 and has been raising money through his Kevin Love Fund to directly donate to mental health organizations working with high-risk children and teens who need help with their mental well-being.

Love didn’t hesitate before deciding whether to talk directly to fans.

“This is just incredibly anxiety-ridden, stressful, and I think the unknown is what really scares us,” Love said. “So, it’s completely normal to feel this way and what people are feeling is normal. And I think that just being isolated at your home, it’s tough to stay away from this 24-hour news cycle where all people are getting are things that will send them down a slippery slope and in a spiral because it just seems to be so negative.”

The league started these PSAs on March 13, two days after the NBA’s shutdown because of the virus went into effect. In less than a week across all platforms – NBA.com, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok – the videos collected more than 36 million views, or reaching, on average, 70 people every second.

“Just a reminder to make sure you guys wash your hands, avoid large crowds and if you might be sick, quarantine yourself,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said in his PSA. “This is only a virus that we can beat together.”

Toronto coach Nick Nurse was one of many who spoke about the need to listen to medical professionals and wash hands frequently; the official guideline is 20 seconds, Nurse suggested raising the bar to 24 seconds in a nod to the NBA shot clock.

“This is one time we don’t mind a shot clock violation,” Nurse said.

Other NBA players are making sure to keep their social-media contact with fans up in different ways. Phoenix’s Frank Kaminsky and New Orleans’ JJ Redick are among the players who have dropped podcasts this week, and the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James took his enormous following inside his home for a 45-minute live video Thursday night while he played cards with his family.

James talked about such things as the Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals when he led Miami to a season-saving road win at Boston – “if we lose, Pat Riley may break us all up,” he said, recalling what his mindset was that night – to his favorite wines and sneakers, to how he hopes to remain with the Lakers for the rest of his career.

“I might do this more often, man,” James said shortly before he ended the live broadcast. “Going to be quarantined for the next 12, 13 days.”

More PSAs are coming from the NBA and some will be geared toward the league’s international fan base. Slovenian star Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks is part of a PSA, as is Spanish legend Pau Gasol. Ricky Rubio of Spain, Danilo Gallinari of Italy, Rui Hachimura of Japan and Buddy Hield of the Bahamas have ones scheduled to be released soon.

Plus, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell – Utah Jazz All-Star teammates and the first two players in the NBA to have positive tests for COVID-19 – taped PSAs in the opening days of the initiative.

All the messages are different, but to Love, the theme is the same: The virus is affecting virtually everyone on the planet. And if NBA players talk about their angst, maybe fans won’t find their own angst to be so troubling.

Mock NBA expansion draft: Nuggets, Timberwolves, Thunder, Trail Blazers, Jazz

Mock NBA expansion draft
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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, and Pacific Division). Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Northwest:

Denver Nuggets

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: Denver had maybe the easiest protections decisions in the NBA. Two rotation players (Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee) are ineligible, so the Nuggets simply protect their other rotation players.

Keita Bates-Diop is the exact type of player an expansion team should snag. He’s shown some upside in limited minutes. Vlatko Cancar has the benefit of an additional year on his contract, and will be only 23 years old at the start of next season.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 1

Analysis: The Wolves are keeping guys who might be a part of the future. Most were no-brainers. The decision point was Omari Spellman v.s Juancho Hernangomez. Keeping Hernangomez doesn’t mean Minnesota will definitely re-sign him, but he has more upside than Spellman.

After Spellman, the rest are take it or leave it. Also, the Timberwolves aren’t paying either expansion team to take James Johnson off their hands.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 3

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: If this was done before the season, there could have been an argument for the Thunder to expose both Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder. Both have played far too well to chance that now. Steven Adams is overpaid, but not by enough to leave him unprotected. The rest of the players, led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, are young players with upside.

Abdel Nader has been a part of the rotation at times for OKC, but he’s not getting protected over a younger player. Deonte Burton and Mike Muscala were easy decisions due to their minimal roles for the Thunder.

Portland Trail Blazers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 3

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: Portland is keeping its key veterans and younger players. The decision point was Wenyen Gabriel vs. the three unprotected veterans. In the end, the Trail Blazers chose to protect Gabriel, who they’ll likely renounce in free agency.

As for the three veterans, they all had strong cases against protecting them. Trevor Ariza is overpaid at this point his career. Rodney Hood is coming off a torn Achilles’. And Mario Hezonja just isn’t worth protecting, even despite his minimum salary.

Utah Jazz

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 2

Analysis: Utah’s first seven players were easy decisions. They are all rotation players. The decision point was keeping a non-guaranteed player (ultimately chose 2019 second-round pick Miye Oni) over either Mike Conley or Ed Davis.

The Jazz are leaving Conley and Davis unprotected because neither acquisition has worked out as hoped for. If Utah can clear Conley’s salary, that would be helpful for a team that is starting to get very expensive. Davis makes less than Conley, but the fit just doesn’t work. And of the minimum players, none have found a rotation role.

Could healthy Ben Simmons, Kevin Durant, others change course of June NBA playoffs

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This June — *knocks on wood* — we will have NBA playoff basketball. That may be the optimistic scenario (and it may be without fans in the stands), but we here at the NBC NBA page are optimistic people. We want to believe.

If a June postseason comes together, those playoffs will look a lot different from what we would have seen in mid-April — and that was already shaping up as one of the most wide-open, interesting playoffs in a decade.

The whole point of “load management” has been to keep guys healthy for the playoffs. This is government-forced load-management.

“If you give these guys a break going into the playoffs and you build the anticipation of the NBA coming back, you’re giving the best players in the world an extra two, three, four weeks off,” Matt Barnes said on ESPN’s First Take a week ago, at the time underestimating the length of the break.

“The energy in the playoffs is going to be off the charts. It’s going to be the best playoffs we’ve seen because everyone is fully rested and fully healthy.”

Fully healthy could be the key — players who would have been out, or at least slowed, due to injury, could be back at 100 percent. Here is a look at how a late playoff could be changed by health.

• A fully loaded Brooklyn Nets team. At the top of the list of potential game-changers is Kevin Durant. Durant did not set foot on the court for the Nets this season as he recovered from his torn Achilles (suffered in the NBA Finals), but that recovery seems to be going well.

Durant would not rule out playing in the Tokyo Olympics this summer, which would have required him on a court starting early July at USA training camp. So if the NBA playoffs get pushed back to a June start and run into August, would Durant suddenly be able to jump in?

Probably not. Durant’s business partner and manager Rich Kleiman was on ESPN radio and said of a return, “Honestly, not very realistic from my standpoint and not even spoken about.” Maybe that’s Durant’s camp keeping expectations down, although it’s more likely the truth and KD will not play until whenever next season starts. It would be asking a lot to have Durant come back, have some of his first games be high-level playoff games, and then have a short turnaround until the next season starts.

Kyrie Irving is the other Brooklyn wild card. He had shoulder surgery in February that was going to end his season, but if he could come back for a playoff push, that might interest Durant. With Durant and Irving, the Nets would be the most dangerous seven seed we’ve ever seen.

But most likely, the Nets stay focused on next season and keep their superstars on the bench in June.

Ben Simmons returns to a fully healthy 76ers team. Things were falling apart for the 76ers when the season shut down, they had gone 5-5 since the All-Star break with a bottom 10 defense, and both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons had missed time with injuries.

Embiid had returned for the last game before the shutdown when he had 30 points and 14 boards against Detroit. However, a little more rest gets him fully healthy for a postseason run where he will have to play a lot of minutes.

Simmons is dealing with a pinched nerve in his back and the 76ers hoped they could get him back for the playoffs. Now, he could be back and at 100 percent for the playoffs, serving as a needed ball handler and shot creator for Philly.

Is that enough to fix their Island of Misfit Toys roster? Probably not. Brett Brown will pay the price for that. But a fully healthy 76ers team is long, athletic, veteran, and dangerous in a playoff matchup. If Simmons and Embiid are fully healthy, the 76ers are a real threat.

Malcolm Brogdon could return to the Pacers. Indiana, sitting currently as the five-seed in the East, was already a sneaky-dangerous team who could get to the second round and push a team like the Bucks. They become that much more dangerous with Brogdon back. He likely was out for the season with a torn left rectus femoris (connecting the hip and quad), but if he can return with his 16.3 points and 7.1 assists per game, the Pacers just became a much tougher out.

Add to that the hiatus brings more time for Victor Oladipo to find his legs and his shot, and suddenly Indiana looks a lot more threatening.

• Boston will have a fully healthy Jaylen Brown back. The Celtics would have had Brown back anyway for the postseason, but he had missed games due to a strained right hamstring, and those can linger. Maybe that would not have been an issue in the playoffs, but now there are no worries. With Brown and Jayson Tatum, Boston may be the biggest threat to Milwaukee in the East.

• Orlando could get Jonathon Isaac back. Is this going to win the Magic a playoff series? No. But getting their breakout player back makes the Magic better — and more watchable. Isaac had been out due to a posterior lateral corner injury of his left knee as well as a bone bruise, and he was thought done for the season. Now, he could return. On offense he’s still a work in progress, but he averaged 12 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, both career bests. Isaac is already a game-changer on the defensive end, where he is a long, athletic, switchable defender averaging 2.4 blocks, and 1.6 steals a game. He’s had the kind of season that would get him All-Defensive Team votes, getting that kind of player back helps.

• Memphis will have Justise Winslow, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Brandon Clarke all back and healthy. Much like the note on Orlando above, the fact that these three players will be healthy is not going to lift the eight-seed Grizzlies past LeBron James and the Lakers in the first round. Not a chance. But for a young team looking to build for the future getting their young core — along with a healthy Ja Morant — playoff game experience is a big step forward for them. Plus, it makes that first-round series a little more interesting to watch.

• Portland could have big men Jusuf Nurkick and Zach Collins back, but no postseason to play them in. The Trail Blazers sit as the nine seed in the West, 3.5 games back of Memphis. It is highly unlikely they are going to get to play enough regular season games to catch them and become a genuinely dangerous first-round team (you think the Lakers want to see Damian Lillard in the first round?). But indulge the what-ifs here: What we learned about Portland this season is just how much Nurkic means to the team, now he would be back, with Zach Collins playing either next to him at the four and/or as a backup five, depending upon the situation. Portland would be a lot more dangerous, but we likely don’t get to see that.

Three Things to Know: Memphis loss, Portland win tightens race for eight seed in West

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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) Memphis loss, Portland win tightens race for eight seed in West. There is only one race left in the NBA this season. We know who the top seeds in each conference will be, and in the East we know who the eight teams headed to the postseason will be (although there is some jockeying for seedings still taking place).

What we don’t know is who will be the eighth seed in the West.

Tuesday night, the current eight-seeded Memphis Grizzlies took an early lead but couldn’t hold it against Orlando, ultimately falling 120-115. That opened the door a little for Portland, which beat Phoenix behind 25 points from Damian Lillard, while San Antonio got LaMarcus Aldridge back and beat the Mavericks. Memphis’ loss also helped out New Orleans and Sacramento, who had the night off.

Here are the standings at the bottom of the West and what the playoff picture looks like:

Traditionally a 3.5 game lead with 17 games to play would be seen as nearly insurmountable, but that’s where the remaining schedule comes into play. Let’s break it down for each team:

• Memphis (32-33). The Grizzlies have the eighth seed in hand thanks to a Rookie of the Year season from Ja Morant and the rest of a young core stepping up in a way few expected (maybe less than few). However, the Grizzlies have the toughest remaining schedule in the West, including facing the Bucks once and the Raptors twice. It’s so tough that fivethirtyeight.com’s RAPTOR projects them to go 6-11 the rest of the way. Memphis, however, is getting Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. back healthy soon, and they have been pulling off upset wins (the Lakers at the end of last month, for example). If they can win showdowns like the one at Portland on Thursday, and at least split the home-and-home with New Orleans in just more than a week, they will hold on to this spot.

• New Orleans (28-36, three games back in the loss column). With Zion Williamson making the Pelicans must-watch television, this is the team a lot of fans want to see go up against the Lakers in the first round. (You can be sure this is the team television executives are rooting for to get the spot.) If Zion wants to win Rookie of the Year, he has to lead New Orleans past Morant and Memphis (and that may not be enough, but it makes it interesting). What the Pelicans have going for them is the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA — two games against Atlanta, two against Washington, plus a home-and-home against Memphis. It’s that schedule that has fivethirtyeight.com’s RAPTOR projecting them to go 40-42 — meaning a 12-6 record the rest of the way — and with a 60 percent chance of making the playoffs. That’s a lot of things that have to come together, but the Pelicans have been better than their record all season and they are due for a run of good luck and good wins.

• Portland (29-37, four games back in the loss column). Their case for catching Memphis goes like this: We have Damian Lillard, we are about to get Jusuf Nurkic back, and we have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way. Which is a pretty good case to make; fivethirtyeight.com’s RAPTOR projects them to go 9-7 the rest of the way, finishing with 38 wins. Any chance they have has to start with a win Thursday against Memphis, then holding together during an upcoming six-game road trip. It’s a longshot, fivethirtyeight.com gives them just a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs, but bet against Lillard at your own peril.

• Sacramento (28-36, three games back in the loss column). The Kings are the hottest team in this group, having won 7-of-10, and they have a softer schedule than the Grizzlies (although the Kings do have the Lakers twice and the Clippers once remaining). De’Aaron Fox is trying to lift the Kings to their first playoff berth since 2006 (the longest drought in the league, one of the longest in league history). Kings ownership and management are desperate to get in, but fivethirtyeight.com’s RAPTOR projects them to go 9-8 the rest of the way and fall just short. It gives them an eight percent chance at the playoffs, if the Kings are getting in they need to pull a few upsets down the stretch.

• San Antonio (27-36, three games back in the loss column). The Spurs have made the playoffs for 22 straight seasons, are you going to bet against them? San Antonio also has a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way and they just got LaMarcus Aldridge back, the question is can they overcome what has been a terrible defense all season? Fivethirtyeight.com’s RAPTOR doesn’t think so, projecting the Spurs will go 8-11 the rest of the way, and it gives them just a two percent chance at the postseason. San Antonio beat Dallas on Tuesday and will need a few more upsets like that to extend its playoff streak to 23.

2) Lakers fall into trap game, LeBron James and Anthony Davis miss in the final seconds, Lakers lose to Brooklyn. After beating the Bucks and Clippers over the weekend in emotional, showcase games, this was always a trap game on the schedule for the Lakers. It was a game where they would relax and would then run into a scrappy Brooklyn team that finds a way to compete.

No player on the Nets better epitomizes this ethos than Spencer Dinwiddie, and he hit what proved to be the game-winner.

The Lakers had their chances — and with the ball in the hands of their best players. LeBron James’ game-tying layup attempt rimmed out, and Anthony Davis’ three ball to end it did not fall.

The Lakers are still solidly the top seed in the West and may try to get their stars a little rest down the stretch of the season. The only question is if they want to push to catch Milwaukee for the top seed in the entire league (the Lakers are three games back of the Bucks), and knowing LeBron’s history that should matter less than rest and health.

3) The NBA is increasingly serious about moving games or playing in front of empty arenas. The more you talk to people around the NBA, the more you get the sense the league is dead serious about making some bold moves in the face of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States (the number of confirmed cases climbed in the USA climbed north of 1,000 yesterday).

Wednesday, the NBA owners will have a conference call with Adam Silver and other top officials from the league, then on Thursday it’s team presidents and GMs on more conference calls. On those calls, the league is going to lay out a range of options, including trying to move games to cities where outbreaks have not hit, or to playing games in empty arenas with no fans. The idea of pausing the league is not off the table, but that is the most desperate of acts.

Teams are already facing choices. On Tuesday, Ohio governor Mike DeWine requested there be a pause in mass indoor gatherings to watch sporting events, which would impact the Cavaliers. Other states are expected to follow suit.

It’s tough to say what the NBA will choose to do, in part because the lack of testing has left the United States with an incomplete picture of just how much the virus has spread and where. The league is listening to experts and following guidelines, and that could mean a few radical shifts coming in the next few days. Maybe. Nobody really knows.