Mason Plumlee

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Kyle Kuzma’s ankle injury will keep him out of World Cup, Team USA roster now set

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Kyle Kuzma, whose game had matured in recent weeks he soaked up the wisdom of Gregg Popovich and his other USA Basketball teammates, was on the bubble but seemed likely to make Team USA.

“Playing with a team of stars is super fun, you want to play the right way, you want to make that extra pass, you want to play defense at a certain level, up to the USA standard,” Kuzma said last week when the team was training in Los Angeles on his Lakers’ regular practice court.

That is, Kuzma was on his way until he tweaked his ankle. Kuzma was sidelined for the USA loss to Australia on Saturday, and later in the day USA basketball announced that the injury will force Kuzma to miss the World Cup, leading to him withdrawing from Team USA.

That locked the roster in at 15 for the World Cup. It is:

Harrison Barnes (Sacramento Kings)
Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
Joe Harris (Brooklyn Nets)
Brook Lopez (Milwaukee Bucks)
Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks)
Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz)
Mason Plumlee (Denver Nuggets)
Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics)
Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics)
Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers)
Kemba Walker (Boston Celtics)
Derrick White (San Antonio Spurs)

This roster has one former Olympian on it — Barnes — and just two players who were All-Stars last year, Walker and Middleton.

The Americans have one more exhibition game, against Canada, then will fly to China to open up their World Cup play against the Czech Republic on Sept. 1. The USA will also face Turkey (Sept. 3) and Japan (Sept. 5) in group play. While those three games in China count, none of those are elite international teams that should be a threat to the USA (like Australia, Spain, Serbia and maybe a couple of others), giving Gregg Popovich and staff more time to build roster chemistry and improve the USA’s defense, two areas that Australia exploited in their upset win.

After the first round of group play, the top two teams from each group move on to a second round of group play with four teams per group. The top two teams from those groups move on to an eight-team knockout tournament to determine the winner.

Mike Krzyzewski stops by USA Basketball practice

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LAS VEGAS — Gregg Popovich somehow only met Mike Krzyzewski for the first time about four years ago, when the two coaching greats saw their paths finally cross when they were together at a USA Basketball event.

They’re a whole lot closer now.

USA Basketball’s coaching past was alongside its present Wednesday, when Krzyzewski – who led the national team to an 88-1 record over his 12 years at the helm – was alongside Popovich for Day 3 of the team’s training camp in advance of the FIBA World Cup. And Popovich made no effort to hide how happy he was to have his predecessor in the gym to watch practice and some scrimmages.

“We were anxious to get Coach K in town to spend a couple days,” Popovich said. “I’ve already talked to him, as you might imagine, gotten advice. But to have him here, seeing the scrimmage, now we can all go back and talk about what we think needs to happen. Having him here with that added experience is invaluable.”

Popovich wasn’t the only one in the gym feeling a boost from Krzyzewski’s presence on Wednesday. Among the others: USA Basketball forwards Mason Plumlee and Jayson Tatum, both of whom said they relished the chance to spend some extra time with their coach from Duke.

“It was great, man,” Plumlee said. “I try to see Coach once or twice a summer, so for him to come out here … he didn’t come for me, but it was great to see him.”

Tatum chatted with Krzyzewski for a few minutes after practice, and said he got some advice.

“Confidential,” Tatum said. “But it was good advice.”

Krzyzewski won five gold medals in his tenure as national team coach – including three at the Olympics and two from the world championships, now known as the World Cup – started Wednesday in a morning meeting with Popovich and other coaches. He walked into practice at UNLV alongside Popovich and was expected to take part in more meetings before departing later this week.

“He’s really the only guy that Pop can relate to in trying to bring this together so fast,” Plumlee said.

Krzyzewski, who politely declined an interview request through USA Basketball, first met Popovich around the time that the longtime San Antonio Spurs coach was accepting an invitation to replace the Duke coach at the helm of the U.S. program. They were brought together in Las Vegas by USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo during preparations for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Colangelo wanted to hire Krzyzewski’s replacement long before Rio, just to eliminate incessant speculation during the Olympic cycle about who would take over the program.

He wasn’t aware at the time that the coaches had never gotten acquainted.

“Once they got to know each other, they were like bonded immediately,” Colangelo said. “Pop was in all the meetings and the practices after they met. I wanted him to get his feet wet just to see how we had done things under Mike. And I think it was a great way to get him started. But I thought that was amazing, that they had never met each other.”

Krzyzewski and Popovich are loaded with similarities: Both went to service academies, both played for Bob Knight (Krzyzewski played for Knight at Army, and Knight was Popovich’s coach at the 1972 U.S. Olympic trials, a few years before Popovich got his first head coaching job at Division III Pomona-Pitzer). Both have five championships from their `real’ jobs – Krzyzewski at Duke, Popovich in San Antonio. They are both considered basketball royalty, the top of the top of their profession.

All that only adds to the oddity that they didn’t know each other until a few years ago.

“I’m a Division III guy at heart and that’s where I spent most of my time until I somehow woke up in San Antonio and never left,” Popovich said. “We never played Duke when I was at Pomona-Pitzer.”

NOTES: USA Basketball said Boston’s Marcus Smart is out with a left calf injury, and he will be re-evaluated when the team gets to Los Angeles for the second part of training camp next week. … In two 10-minute scrimmage periods Wednesday between the national team candidates and the select team – the younger NBA players brought into practice to compete against the varsity – there was no winner. Both periods ended in a tie, with Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton making three free throws with 0.7 seconds left in the first one to save his team. … Camp continues with Day 4 on Thursday, followed by an open scrimmage Friday night.

Mason Plumlee added to Team USA player pool (Montrezl Harrell, too, but he’s already out)

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The story of Team USA’s 2019 FIBA World Cup roster in a nutshell: USA Basketball announced Montrezl Harrell and Mason Plumlee were added to the player pool. Less than an hour later, Harrell put out word he probably wouldn’t play.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Many stars swiftly turned down Team USA for this year’s FIBA World Cup. More accepted an invitation to try out then withdrew. Now even Harrell is out.

Who’s in?

Here are the players slated to attend training camp, with rough positional designations:

Point guards

Kemba Walker (Boston Celtics)

Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors)

Combo guards

Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz)

Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics)

Wings

Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks)

Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics)

Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)

Harrison Barnes (Sacramento Kings)

Big forwards

P.J. Tucker (Houston Rockets)

Thaddeus Young (Chicago Bulls)

Kyle Kuzma (Los Angeles Lakers)

Centers

Brook Lopez (Milwaukee Bucks)

Andre Drummond (Detroit Pistons)

Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers)

Julius Randle (New York Knicks)

Mason Plumlee (Denver Nuggets)

Plumlee is an odd addition (except considering his connections). That’s so many centers – especially because USA Basketball also invited Harrell, another center. It seems original selections Lopez, Drummond and Turner could hold down the position.

The Americans could use more backcourt depth. J.J. Redick, who just signed with the Pelicans, might provide it.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

As an excellent outside shooter, Redick could fill a valuable role.

USA Basketball also announced the select team, a group of young players that practices against the senior squad:

At this rate, maybe a select-team player or two will make the final World Cup roster.

Report: Nuggets pull Trey Lyles’ qualifying offer

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The Nuggets traded a protected first-round pick to the Thunder for Jerami Grant.

We’re learning more about about how much that deal will cost Denver.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The protections on that pick look favorable to Oklahoma City. The Nuggets will likely send a low first-rounder, but in a deep Western Conference, there’s a chance Denver slips to the high end of that conveyable range. The Nuggets at least avoid massive downside risk in the unlikely event they get a high lottery pick.

Trading for Grant put the Nuggets’ team salary just $1,877,076 below the luxury-tax line. Lyles accepting his $4,485,665 qualifying offer would have put them into the tax. Denver, which hasn’t paid the luxury tax in nine years, apparently wouldn’t risk that. This is another indicator the Nuggets won’t use their mid-level exception to upgrade the roster either.

Lyles had a breakout season a couple years ago but regressed last season. The main reason: His 3-point percentage dropped from 38% to 26%.

The 23-year-old former lottery pick still has some potential as a stretch four. He belongs in the NBA. But he’s likely looking at minimum contracts, though maybe he gets offered slightly more somewhere.

He could still return to Denver. The Nuggets could sign him to a minimum contract, stay under out of the luxury tax and preserve his Bird Rights into next season. With a bounce-back year, Lyles would have a clearer path to a bigger contract in Denver than anywhere else.

But the Nuggets’ forward rotation is getting crowded with Paul Millsap, Grant, Juan Hernangomez and maybe eventually Michael Porter Jr. Denver also likes to use two-center lineups with Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee.

So, Lyles will likely get squeezed out.

We’ll see how he does as in unrestricted free agency. Restricted status could have cooled his market. But he might regret not accepting that qualifying offer while he had the chance. His minimum salary is just $1,737,145 – $ 2,748,520 less than the qualifying offer.

Nuggets must overcome extreme playoff-experience deficit against Spurs

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In Game 1 of their first-round series, the Nuggets outscored the Spurs by six points in seven minutes while both teams’ starters were on the floor. The game got away from Denver the other 41 minutes, when San Antonio gained an 11-point advantage.

“They’re coming off the bench with Patty Mills, Belinelli and Rudy Gay,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We’re coming off the bench with guys that were in the G League last year.

“We understand who we are, where we’re at.”

I don’t take Malone’s remark as a slam of his own team. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of how far and how quickly Denver has risen. Monte Morris did climb from the minor league to a key NBA role. The Nuggets did end a five-year playoff drought. They are playing the Spurs, who’ve made the postseason 22 straight years.

It’s not criticism to acknowledge the disparity of experience in this matchup.

Everyone who played for San Antonio in Game 1 had prior playoff experience. Only 35% of Denver’s minutes went to players with prior playoff experience.

Paul Millsap, Will Barton and Mason Plumlee are the only rotation Nuggets to appear in a previous postseason. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig never have.

In these 2019 playoffs, Denver has – by far – given the small share of minutes to players with prior playoff experience:

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The last team with such little playoff experience by this measure: 2016 Pistons, who had what we’ll call a Playoff-Experience Level (PEL) of just 30%. That Detroit got swept by the eventual-champion Cavaliers in the first round. Cleveland exclusively used playoff-experienced players that postseason, save four minutes for rookie Jordan McRae.

The 70-point PEL gap between those teams is also one of the highest in recent years, higher even than the 65-point PEL gap between the Nuggets and Spurs.

But the Cavs were the No. 1 seed, the Pistons the No. 8 seed. That’s usually how it goes, the more-experienced team the higher seed.

That’s not true with the second-seeded Nuggets and seventh-seeded Spurs, though. Denver outperformed San Antonio throughout the season.

Does the Spurs’ experience give them an edge now?

Here are the series with PEL gaps above 60% (using full postseason minutes) since the NBA-ABA merger. When the higher seed has a higher PEL, that series is in white. When the lower seed has a higher PEL, that series is in silver. Denver-Antonio is in gold. All teams are listed with their seed first.

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Of the few times the team with the big PEL advantage was the lower seed, the experienced team pulled the upset. That doesn’t bode well for Denver.

The largest PEL gap overcome by a higher seed since the merger? It was 59.6% by the third-seeded Celtics, who beat the sixth-seeded 76ers in the 2002 first round.

So, if the Nuggets win as a higher seed despite a 65% PEL deficit, they’ll make history.

And maybe they will.

Denver is already heading up faster than its experience level would suggest.