Travis Schlenk

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Steve Kerr wonders if NBA players will play in Tokyo Olympics

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Golden State coach Steve Kerr was supposed to be in Tokyo for the Olympics this summer. And now he’s supposed to be there for the rescheduled version next summer.

Then again, Kerr isn’t certain if he — or anyone else from the NBA — will be there at all.

With the next NBA season not expected to start until at least Dec. 1, that calls into some serious question whether that could overlap with postponed Olympic qualifying tournaments that some nations will need to endure in June 2021 and the Tokyo Games themselves the following month. And Kerr, who is slated to be an assistant under San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich for USA Basketball in Tokyo, said Tuesday that he doesn’t have any idea how the schedule will work.

“Believe it or not, I haven’t had a single conversation with Pop about that,” Kerr said. “And the reason is because we don’t know. We’ve been talking almost daily now for the last couple of weeks and before that we were speaking once every few weeks. So, we haven’t even had a single conversation because there’s nothing to report.”

The U.S. is among eight teams who have already qualified for the 12-team men’s tournament at the Tokyo Olympics, which were pushed back a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Americans had a ton of interest from top NBA stars for this summer; now with things delayed a year, USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo has said he and Popovich will wait until the NBA schedule plans for 2020-21 become certain before mapping out an exact plan to build the roster.

FIBA pushed back the dates for the four remaining qualifying tournaments to June 29 through July 4, 2021, meaning they would end 19 days before the rescheduled start of the delayed Tokyo Olympics. There will be four different six-team, winner-goes-to-the-Olympics tournaments hosted by Canada, Croatia, Lithuania and Serbia.

Toronto coach Nick Nurse is scheduled to coach Canada in that qualifying tournament and, he hopes, the Olympics. But he expects that international travel is one of the last things that will return to normal, or whatever the new normal will be in a world dealing with COVID-19.

So, he’s like Kerr and left wondering what’ll happen.

“It’s complicated, is my best thought,” Nurse said. “I just don’t know enough to tell you what next season is going to look like. I don’t know. When’s it going to start? I think they’re talking about pushing it back, but I don’t know if they’re going to play games closer together. I don’t think so, that’s kind of a thing that everybody’s been happy that they continue to spread them out and lessen the back-to-backs and all those things.

“But if they do that, then it’s probably going to run into the Olympics, or really close to it, right? Lots of things that I don’t have a crystal ball on,” Nurse added.

Nurse, Popovich and Kerr surely aren’t the only coaches wondering on this point. Golden State associate head coach Mike Brown is set to coach Nigeria in Tokyo, Toronto assistant Sergio Scariolo will coach Spain and Philadelphia coach Brett Brown will coach Australia. Nigeria, Australia and Spain have joined the U.S. as having earned Olympic berths already, along with host Japan, Argentina, Iran and France.

And at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, a record 46 players from the NBA participated. Had the Olympics gone off this summer as planned, even more NBA players could have been there depending on which teams won the final four qualifying spots.

If the 2020-21 NBA season starts in December, that would likely mean a May finish to the regular season and serious potential for a schedule collision — NBA playoffs going off at the same time as the Olympic qualifiers and perhaps the Olympics themselves. The NBA has told players that it is planning for a December start to the season, given that this season’s NBA Finals once things restart next month at the Disney complex near Orlando, Florida could last until Oct. 12.

But one way the NBA could alleviate the potential for an Olympic problem is to get away from the player-friendlier scheduling models used in recent seasons that greatly lowered back-to-backs and eliminated the dreaded stretches of four games in five nights. If the league did that, it could buy some time and possibly make the Olympics fit on some player and coach schedules.

“They’ve talked to us on our team calls that it might be a condensed schedule next year, more so than in the past,” said Atlanta general manager Travis Schlenk, whose coach — Lloyd Pierce — is also scheduled to be a USA Basketball assistant next summer along with Kerr and Villanova’s Jay Wright.

Whether that’ll happen or not is anyone’s guess. Until that is known, it is very much a waiting game.

“We’re just sort of waiting to hear what the news is,” Kerr said. “If the news is good and we’re going to be able to take part, we’ll be ready to roll. And if not, we’ll deal with it later.”

Coronavirus exposes NBA’s late-season tanking wasteland

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The Knicks won one game – one game! – in all of March 2019. So, they certainly proved their losing bona fides entering an April Fool’s Day matchup with the Bulls. But Chicago had a perfect counter: A starting lineup of Walt Lemon, Wayne Selden, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Robin Lopez. The Bulls fell behind by 20 in the first quarter. Though New York gave 41 minutes to Damyean Dotson and used just three reserves (including Lance Thomas playing 31 minutes), it was too late.

The Knicks had been out-tanked.

***

These types of all-too-common ugly games are the subtext to the NBA’s coronavirus-crisis plans.

The league could resume by jumping straight into the playoffs or some enhanced postseason – either a play-in tournament or group stage – with 20-24 teams. All 30 teams returning has been discussed only as a cash grab. Continuing the regular season at all has been favored only as a ramp up to the playoffs.

But everyone finishing the regular season because it actually matters?

That’s a non-starter.

***

Sam Hinkie – who oversaw “The Process” with the 76ers – has become the face of tanking in the NBA. He took Philadelphia through an ambitious multi-year plan to lose a lot and reap the rewards.

In response, the NBA reformed its lottery. Now, there’s less incentive to finish with the league’s very-worst record.

But a team setting out to tank multiple seasons was incredibly rare.

The far more pervasive problem: Teams that enter a season trying to win, fail then pivot into tanking.

At that point, what is there to lose by, um, losing? Once out of the playoff race, the lure of a high draft pick is just too tempting. Even minor improvements in lottery odds come with the upside of a young franchise-changer. Additional wins carry minimal tangible value.

***

The NBA has spent more effort fighting discussion of tanking than tanking itself.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver defines tanking by its most narrow terms – players and coaches actively trying to lose games. But tanking manifests in other ways.

General managers trade away quality players. Teams become beyond cautious with injuries. Raw young players get more playing time. Coaches experiment with odd lineups. A general malaise sets in as everyone sees the true goal.

That’s why I define tanking as anything a team does intended, at least in part, to improve draft position by losing.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when each team begins tanking. But official elimination from the playoff race is a generous starting point. Most tanking teams adopt the approach even earlier.

***

When the season was halted, 259 regular-season games remained. Far too few of those will be missed.

From the same point last year through the end of the season, 47% of games included a team already eliminated from the playoff race.

It was even worse the prior season. In the same time frame, 50% of games included a team already eliminated from the playoff race.

At best, eliminated teams have already traded their draft picks and have no incentive to lose. Even then, those teams have shown minimal desire to win.

At worst, teams are aggressively chasing better draft position. In 2018, an owner reportedly berated his coach for winning. George Karl said he had a similar experience while coaching. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has repeatedly trumpeted tanking. Travis Schlenk acknowledged the Warriors tanked to get Harrison Barnes. Bryan Colangelo admitted the Raptors tanked under his watch.

Fans – wisely – feel let down when their already-lousy team wins to hurt it’s draft position.

That’s an awful setup.

***

Every so often, the NBA is forced to confront its annual tanking epidemic.

After the Pelicans denied Anthony Davis‘ trade request and kept him past the trade 2019 deadline, they had a standoff. Davis wanted to play. The Pelicans wanted to sit him. They preferred to tank for a better draft pick and protect their superstar asset in a lost season. Eventually, the NBA threatened to fine New Orleans, and the sides struck an imperfect compromise.

The year before, the NBA warned the Bulls to stop resting healthy players.

But coronavirus has shined a much brighter spotlight on the problem

It’d be practically criminal to force bad teams to quarantine, live in an isolated environment, risk injury after a long layoff, risk contracting and spreading coronavirus… just for games they want to lose, anyway. Damian Lillard put voice to the issue, saying he wouldn’t play if the Trail Blazers can’t make the postseason this year. The already-eliminated Warriors have made clear they prefer just to be done.

It’s obviously far more tolerable to play these games in normal times.

But the NBA ought to reconsider a system that creates so many games of awful product.

***

I still believe a draft that rewards losing teams is good for the NBA. It’s important to engage every fan base. If fans of a bad team can’t enjoy wins, at least they’ll have hope.

But the league should strike a better balance.

I’ve advocated for a system that improves draft position with early losses and late wins. Most teams enter a season trying to win, and those that fail would get draft help. But teams – from the top down – would also be incentivized to remain competitive throughout the season. Intentionally losing early then winning late would be a nearly impossible needle to thread.

There’s plenty to sort out – how to value early losses vs. late wins, when to flip the switch, etc. I’m even open to including a Silver favorite – a play-in tournament (that also boosts draft position for teams that win).

But, please: Do something to reduce the large number of late-season tank games.

This situation shows how frivolous they are.

DeAndre’ Bembry gets ejected for taunting Ricky Rubio, continues talking (video)

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The Hawks are rapidly changing. General manager Travis Schlenk took over just two years ago and has already turned over nearly the entire roster. Only DeAndre’ Bembry remains as an inherited player.

It’s not an easy situation for Bembry, who’s headed toward free agency next summer. He’s playing for a team with a lead executive who never chose him. Bembry can’t count on any team investing in him.

That’s the context in which Bembry got ejected from Atlanta’s loss to the Suns last night. He blocked Ricky Rubio‘s shot, taunted the Phoenix guard, got a technical foul, kept talking and got another technical foul.

The ejection seems pretty weak, but Bembry left himself vulnerable to the techs.

Hawks rookie Cameron Reddish also got ejected for multiple flagrant fouls.

Hawks progressing nicely in rebuild

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

It seems as if the Hawks have been rebuilding for ages.

Really, they’re only one season removed from a decade-long playoff streak, the NBA’s second-longest at the time.

General manager Travis Schlenk has swiftly done what his predecessors didn’t – dismantle a team that won 60 games and commit to rebuilding. In fact, Schlenk has advanced far enough that he’s already well into building Atlanta back up.

Only Kent Bazemore remains from the playoff-series-winning team in 2016, let alone the 60-win squad in 2015. Heck, only Taurean Prince, DeAndre’ Bembry and Bazemore remain from the team Schlenk inherited just last year.

The Hawks aren’t done dismantling. They’re poised to tank another season. But their rebuild has already seen a defining move.

On draft night, Atlanta traded the rights to No. 3 pick Luka Doncic to the Mavericks for the rights to No. 5 pick Trae Young and a future first-round pick. That decision will take year to evaluate and will linger over both franchises far longer.

For now, it seems about fair. I rated Doncic ahead of Young and both above their draft slots. The Dallas pick – top-five protected the next two years, top-three protected the following two years and unprotected in 2023 – roughly bridges the gap between the players.

If the Hawks preferred Young anyway, they did a great job leveraging an extra first-rounder and still getting their man.

Atlanta’s other first-round picks – Kevin Huerter (No. 19) and Omari Spellman (No. 30) – were also sound. Squint hard enough, and Young and Huerter comprise a backcourt that somewhat resembles Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. That’s the easy comparison considering Schlenk came from the Warriors’ front office, though that’d probably make Spellman the next Marreese Speights.

And that’d make Dennis Schroder the next Monta Ellis, a talented player it was time to move. Though Schroder is just 24, he’s too combustible with and away from the team. Young is the Hawks’ future at point guard.

Rather than pay Schroder $46.5 million over the next three years, Atlanta is better off sinking $25,534,253 into a waived Carmelo Anthony this season. And the Hawks got a potential first-rounder in the deal!

The Thunder pick is lottery-protected in 2022. Otherwise, it converts into two second-rounders. So, there’s a decent chance Atlanta never receives a first-rounder. But unloading Schroder, who had negative value to many teams around the league, was enough. Getting a pick or two – who knows how good Oklahoma City will be in four years? – is gravy.

The Hawks also swapped Mike Muscala for Justin Anderson in the three-way trade with the Thunder and 76ers. For this team in this league, going from the 27-year-old center to a 24-year-old small forward  is an upgrade. Anderson must gain traction in his career, but it’s worth the bet he does so in Atlanta.

Alex Len makes sense as another flier. The former No. 5 pick had moments in five years with the Suns, and he took major strides forward last season. Perhaps, the 25-year-old is on the verge of emerging as capable of being in a good team’s rotation. I’m surprised the price (guaranteed $8.51 million over two years) was so high, but the Hawks had cap space to burn. Better to get their preferred project center.

To that end, Atlanta splurged a lot of its cap room on Jeremy Lin, getting the point guard with just a smattering of second-round considerations going between Atlanta and Brooklyn. Could that cap space have been put to better use, like a salary dump or even just saving ownership money? Did the Hawks acquire Lin as a fan draw? Will Lin generate more revenue than his $13,768,421 salary? He could work well as a veteran mentor, but that’s a lot to pay a veteran mentor.

With Young, John Collins and Taurean Prince at the forefront and Spellman, Anderson and Len diversifying the portfolio, the Hawks have a nice core to build around. They’ll add to it with their own first-rounder, the extra first-rounder from Dallas and a potential first-rounder from Cleveland (top-10 protected the next two years or else it becomes two second-rounders).

Atlanta lost a good coach in Mike Budenholzer, but he didn’t seem eager to oversee a rebuild. Lloyd Pierce, known for player development and teaching defense, takes over. Like practically every first-time NBA head coach, Pierce is a roll of a dice. Maybe the Hawks could have leveraged Budenholzer into securing compensation from another team for letting him leave or even just paying off less of contract. Instead, they just sent him packing.

Sometimes, it’s best to make a clean break and move on.

Offseason grade: B-