Plenty to watch at World Cup


VIDEO: Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis talk about the upcoming FIBA World Cup

GRANADA, SPAIN – The FIBA Basketball World Cup is the best hoops you can get outside of the NBA season. Yes, it’s better than the Olympics.

There are twice as many teams, allowing for more depth from Europe and the Americas. And there’s an extra round of single-elimination, tournament play, giving us 15 win-or-go-home games once pool play is completed.

No, the NBA’s top two players aren’t here. But there are 46 guys currently on NBA rosters, a high for any international tournament. And because Kevin Durant and LeBron James aren’t representing the United States, and because there is so much depth among the second tier of teams, the competition for medals will be captivating.

Along with the U.S., Spain is the co-favorite. As the hosts they will enjoy a home-court advantage, which helped propel Turkey to the final game four years ago. But they also have a ton of talent and experience, both in the NBA and in making the U.S. sweat for a gold medal. The reason U.S. has four centers on its roster is because Spain has Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka.

Beyond the top two, the competition to reach the semifinals could be wide open. Pool play will help sort things out somewhat, but as many as 10 other teams could have dreams of making the semifinals and playing for a medal.

Most of those teams will be on Spain’s half of the 16-team bracket after pool play is completed. In Group A play in Granada, the hosts will face Brazil, with its three NBA big men and terrific point guard, France, the 2013 European champion with five NBA players on is roster, and Serbia, who knocked out Spain in the quarterfinals of this tournament four years ago.

When pool play is completed, the top four teams from Group A (Granada) will match up with the top four from Group B (Sevilla) on the Madrid side of the bracket. Group B features Argentina, Croatia, Greece and Puerto Rico.

The U.S. has an easier path to the final. In Group C pool play in Bilbao, its toughest opponent will likely be Turkey, which has fallen hard since the 2010 World Cup, or the Dominican Republic, which the Americans blew out in New York last week.

Group D (Gran Canaria) features two tougher teams – Australia and Lithuania – which the U.S. will likely face on the Barcelona side of the bracket.

The USA’s history in this event (formerly called the World Championship) is not great. Prior to 2010, it had only won 1954, 1986 and 1994. Yugoslavia, which continued to exist as a basketball team after it dissolved as a nation, won five World Championships.

But Mike Krzyzewski has compiled a 43-1 record and a 36-game winning streak in his nine-year tenure as the USA head coach. He won this tournament four years ago with a roster of 12 guys who had never played a senior-level international game. And the world has yet to experience the defensive of new assistant Tom Thibodeau first hand.

The U.S. won its four exhibition games by an average of 29 points, but could still use improvement, especially on offense. Pool play, beginning with Saturday’s game against Finland (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) will allow them to work some things out, but it’s doubtful that anything can prepare them for a potential gold-medal game against Spain in Madrid.

Before we can think about that, there is a ton of high-quality basketball to be played and plenty of reasons to watch.

There are key players on NBA contenders — Derrick Rose and Anderson Varejao — looking to get back into basketball shape after injury-riddled seasons.

There is the last stand of Argentina’s golden generation and their beautiful brand of basketball, represented by Andres Nocioni, Pablo Prigioni and Luis Scola.

There’s the continued growth of Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Senegal’s Gorgui Dieng, and Lithuania’s Jonas Valanciunas

There are six incoming rookies, including Australia’s Dante Exum (Jazz), Greece’s Kostas Papanikolaou (Rockets) and the Croatian pair of Bojan Bogdanovic (Nets) and Damjan Rudez (Pacers), to watch and figure out how they might contribute to their new teams.

There are 2014 draftees like Croatia’s Dario Saric (Sixers) and Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic (Suns), who might eventually be NBA contributors. And there are a few potential prospects, like the Ukraine’s Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (who will play at Kansas next season), to keep an eye out for.

There’s the curiosity of how veteran Euroleague floor generals like Marcelo Huertas (Brazil) and Milos Teodosic (Serbia) would fit in the NBA.

There’s the Dragic brothers racing up the floor at every opportunity for Slovenia. There’s Andray Blatche playing point-center for the Philippines. And there’s the flair of real point guards like Carlos Arroyo and Ricky Rubio.

Seventy-six games over 17 days. If you can’t wait the upcoming NBA season, with Kevin Love joining LeBron in Cleveland, the Spurs trying for their first repeat, and Rose back in a Bulls uniform, the FIBA World Cup should hold you off for a while.

Cuban’s summer: ‘Could’ve been worse’

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

One of the biggest summer acquisitions in Dallas was former Mav Tyson Chandler. (Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)

Mark Cuban is more than pleased to have Tyson Chandler back in Dallas. (Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)

FORT WORTH, Texas – With the hour-long line of smiling fans asking to take selfies, requesting autographs and even pitching business ideas as if this was a super-market version of Shark Tank finally dwindling, Mark Cuban leaned back on a shopping cart filled with palm-sized boxes of Simple Sugars facial scrubs, of which he owns a 33 percent stake, and exhaled a relieving, “Ahhhh…”

“It’s been a long day,” Cuban said, his recently replaced left hip reminding him that he’s still only five weeks removed from the operating table.

Dressed in his traditional blue jeans and a T-shirt, this was his final stop of a whirlwind Thursday at four Central Market grocery stores at opposite ends of the expansive Dallas-Fort Worth area. Cuban was promoting four products he’s backed on the television show “Shark Tank” and are now being carried by Central Market.

Cuban claims more people these days recognize him as a shark than as the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. But, make no mistake, while Cuban enjoys helping burgeoning entrepreneurs obtain the American Dream, his undying passion remains running the Mavs.

And for the first time since Cuban chomped on a stogie and clutched the Larry O’Brien Trophy three summers ago, a bubbling of excitement surrounds the team. Among those who waited in line to shake Cuban’s hand or give him a hug: a wide-eyed dreamer who asked how to start some kind of mesquite wood business; the student council president of a local high school who pitched a-day-in-school idea; and an affable, gray-haired fellow Cuban said was his acting coach from 20 years ago (Cuban thought acting class would aid his social scene) who handed him a manuscript he wants made into a movie (Cuban owns Magnolia Pictures).

But many, many more asked one simple question: “Are we going to win this year?”

“I hope so!” Cuban responded to each.

Mavs fans had become used to disappointment in the post-title summers as Cuban failed to land a marquee free agent. He didn’t get a big fish this summer either, but a series of moves have ignited serious intrigue, starting with the reacquisition of championship center Tyson Chandler in a deal with the Knicks.

“It was kind of surprising that we got it done, just because with that many pieces and the fact that no one finds out,” Cuban said of the trade in brief moments when the selfie line died down. “I’m glad we got it done. We’re excited. He can kind of quarterback our defense, he makes everybody better defensively and he’ll make Monta [Ellis] better offensively.”

A few weeks later Cuban gambled and won, stealing up-and-coming small forward and restricted free agent Chandler Parsons from division rival Houston with an out-of-this-world offer sheet, a move that could have also blown up in his face. Cuban flew to Orlando, Fla., to hand deliver the contract offer at midnight and then he went out for drinks with Parsons and his parents.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey would have 72 hours to match the three-year, $46 million offer. In the meantime, Houston signed Trevor Ariza, also a Mavs target, and the speculation game was churning hard on what Morey would do.

“I was 90 percent,” Cuban said of his confidence that he’d land Parsons. “Because of the way the numbers worked, and they’re a very logical organization, they’re very obvious, like we all are, like a lot of teams are, about their approach to building a team and flexibility.”

Then came a wrench. LeBron James signed with Cleveland, leaving former Heat teammate Chris Bosh in limbo. Reports suggested Bosh was leaning toward signing with Houston, and if he did, the Rockets reportedly would match the Parsons offer.

“I don’t think that [Bosh's decision] mattered all that much, honestly,” Cuban said. “I guess they said they’d go for it if he [Bosh] had gone [to Houston]. That would have put them in a tough spot and they probably would have tried to do a sign-and-trade. And if they did a sign-and-trade then they would have had a hard cap, like you’re seeing with the Clippers, and that would have meant they couldn’t add anybody else at all.”

Ultimately, Bosh took Miami’s max deal and Morey pulled the plug on Parsons. Last week, Team USA pulled the plug on Parsons, cutting him from the squad that will compete starting Saturday at the World Cup in Spain. It might have been the only thing this summer as pleasing to Cuban as actually getting Parsons.

Cuban is a longtime critic of NBA players being used in international competition for reasons the Indiana Pacers are now dealing with, among others.

“He knows how I felt,” Cuban said. “I told him, ‘Look, whatever you want I’m going to support you 100 percent — because I have to.’ But he knew where I stood and he wanted to make the team. He also understood that while, for him especially, for younger guys, you don’t get to work on your game there. Unless you’re starting, you’re not getting a lot of minutes, you’re not getting a chance to work on your game. Its not like you’ve got guys that we can just bring and work out with you. So being on Team USA, in my opinion, would have hurt his game development.”

Needless to say Cuban is looking forward to his young acquisition relocating to Dallas in the coming weeks and joining Ellis, Chandler, Jameer Nelson, Devin Harris, Brandan Wright plus other more under-the-radar pickups in Al-Farouq Aminu, Greg Smith and Richard Jefferson, and then eventually the elder statesman and now the heavily underpaid 7-foot Dirk Nowitzki when he returns later in September.

“I try to keep an even keel,” Cuban said of his excitement level for the season. “I don’t get all excited about winning the summer. That’s almost the kiss of death.”

Still, as summers go, this one was pretty good.

“It could’ve been worse,” Cuban said.

Krzyzewski keeps teaching, learning


VIDEO: Mike Krzyzewski shares his view on Team USA as FIBA play nears

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Mike Krzyzewski came back for more.

After originally deciding to end his tenure as the U.S. National Team’s coach, Krzyzewski changed his mind last spring and signed on for another four years. Now, he’s putting a 43-1 record and a 36-game winning streak on the line at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, which begins Saturday in Spain.

There’s no arguing with Krzyzewski’s success, either on the college or international level. With four national championships at Duke, two Olympic gold medals and a World Championship gold medal, his legacy is set. He certainly didn’t need to coach this team again.

The goal, of course, is two more golds.

“Obviously, the best moment is when there are 45 seconds to go and you know you can’t get beat,” Krzyzewski told NBA.com last week. “Those are the defining moments.”

But coaching the National Team is a whole lot more than that for Krzyzewski. And it’s the journey, as much as the destination, that brought him back for three more years.

No easy task ahead

The 2014 World Cup is likely to be Krzyzewski’s biggest test with USA Basketball. The U.S. doesn’t have LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul or Kobe Bryant. The two stars Krzyzewski had at the starting forward positions for the first week of training camp – Kevin Durant and Paul George – aren’t with the team anymore.

There are five players on this year’s roster with Senior National Team experience, but four of them had limited roles on the teams they played on in 2010 or 2012. And the fifth is Derrick Rose, who’s working his way back after playing just 10 games over the last two NBA seasons. There also aren’t as many natural ball-sharers on this roster than there have been in years past.

The host of the World Cup – Spain – is the team that came close to knocking the U.S. off in the gold medal games of the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, when Krzyzewski did have James, Anthony, Paul and Bryant on the roster. The Spanish team also has more NBA experience (total regular season and playoff games) than the U.S. team does.

Yes, the U.S. always has a talent advantage. No coach in the world feels sorry for Krzyzewski, who seemingly just has to steer the ship in the right direction.

But the talent advantage and the margin for error are reduced in a 40-minute game and in a single-elimination format. And when everyone expects you to win (and most of the arena wants you to lose), the pressure can be overwhelming in the closing moments of a tight game.

So, with just 21 days to prepare for the World Cup, Krzyzewski has to use every opportunity to make the most of his roster. As the U.S. has learned in years past, talent alone doesn’t win these games. There will be moments in the next 18 days when the USA’s talent will need to be supplemented by both chemistry and effort. And there’s nobody better than Krzyzewski to build that chemistry and elicit that effort.

Building relationships


VIDEO: Coach K talks with players during the team’s training camp in Las Vegas

Krzyzewski has never been and never will be an NBA coach. But he certainly knows how to connect with NBA players.

“That’s what he does best,” USA assistant Jim Boeheim said. “He’s a tremendous communicator.”

Krzyzewski knows that communication takes effort. He doesn’t view this as just a summer job. He makes sure to build a bond with his players throughout the year.

“During the NBA season,” Krzyzewski said, “you try to text them a few times or give them a call if you knew there was a special event or something really good happened or something not so good happened, and continue having a relationship. So when you do get together in the summer, it’s not ‘Oh, I remember when we went to summer camp together last year.’ It’s ‘Oh, we touched each other a few times’ to maintain a relationship.”

When he does get his players in the gym, Krzyzewski doesn’t just focus on basketball.

“I try to touch a few guys each day,” he said. “Not these big individual talks, but just goof around with them and just try to get to know them.”

At Duke, Krzyzewski has four months to get to know what makes each guy on his team tick. With the National Team, he has five weeks. But he uses the relationships he has with guys who have played for him to build ones with the new guys. He may be 40 years older than his players, but all those years have helped him develop the requisite leadership skills for this job.

“He just knows subtle ways to talk to you,” Stephen Curry said, “whether it’s cracking jokes or getting on you if he needs to, but not in a disrespectful way at all.”  

Morning shootaround — Aug. 29

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Lawson expecting big things in Denver | Griffin defends Cavs’ pursuit of Calipari | Trainer raves over Bryant’s pain tolerance

No. 1: Lawson sees big things ahead for Nuggets — In 2012-13, the Denver Nuggets were a 57-win team and boasted and up-and-coming, exciting team that seemed on the verge of being a contender. Last season, though, was a different story, as Denver fell to 36-46, most of which could be blamed on injuries decimating the roster. Point guard Ty Lawson was one of the players who dealt with the injury bug in 2013-14, but he’s on the mend and is expecting a Nuggets bounce back in 2014-15. Our Jeff Caplan caught up with Lawson, who talked about that and more:

Expected to be back in business is forward Danilo Gallinari, a career 41.9 percent 3-point shooter who missed all of last season after tearing his ACL in April 2013. So is 7-foot center JaVale McGee, whose bid to mature his way off the Shaqtin-a-Fool all-time list was snubbed after five games due to a stress fracture in his left leg. So is Nate Robinson (missed 38 games). And Wilson Chandler (missed 20 games). And J.J. Hickson (missed 13 games). So is Lawson himself, who missed 20 games due to injury in last year’s 36-46 season, the first under coach Brian Shaw.

At the tail end of last season, the 5-foot-11 Lawson, who registered career-highs in scoring (17.6 ppg), assists (8.8) and minutes (35.8), thought about all the injuries, all the adversity (including but not limited to Andre Miller) and just how far the team had come despite the sub-.500 record. He even suggested the Nuggets could possibly be a top-four team next season.

“People,” Lawson said, “are probably going to sleep on us this year because of what happened last year.”

Lawson, heading into his sixth season in Denver, spoke to NBA.com earlier this week from Los Angeles. He believes the Nuggets are deep at every position, are determined to become a good defensive team and he still believes they can sneak up on last season’s playoff teams.

NBA.com: With so many injuries last season, the team never found a rhythm. How do you see the roster shaping up assuming good health all around?

Lawson: I think at every position we’re pretty deep. At center, we’ve got JaVale and Timofey Mozgov, who started playing well throughout the last year. We’re so deep, I think that’s a gift and a curse. Everybody is going to want to play. I already told B-Shaw, I was like, ‘yeah, it’s going to be a problem that you’re going to have, divvying up minutes and making sure everybody’s still happy.’ That’s a gift because say somebody goes down, God forbid, we’ll still have somebody step right in. Also, there’s so many different lineups we can have. We can go small, go big, we’re so versatile.

NBA.com: Everybody knew the team’s identity under George Karl. After one season under Shaw, again, considering all the injuries, has the team taken on a clear-cut identity?

Lawson: This year it’s going to be more of a defensive mindset. I already know we can score, everybody knows we can score with the best of them. But my mindset going into training camp is everybody buying into the defensive end. We’ve got to make stops. I feel like if we can do that, and score in the half court, we’ll be one of the top teams out there.


VIDEO: Ty Lawson runs wild in a win over the L.A. Lakers last season  

Lawson: ‘People are probably going to sleep on us’

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Ty Lawson made his presence felt in Denver’s best plays last season

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – NBA schedules haven’t been out long, but Ty Lawson has already been studying up on the Denver Nuggets’ first month.

“We’ve got the Chicago Bulls, the Cleveland Cavaliers twice, We got OKC twice,” Lawson said. “Our first month is crazy so I was like, ‘coach, we’ve both got to be ready coming in, we’ve got to all be focused when we get in there [to training camp].”

Lawson didn’t mention two games against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first month and the Phoenix Suns in the powerful Western Conference.

“I even feel like Sacramento is going to be decent,” Lawson said.

Oh yeah, add a pair against the Kings in the opening month, too.

Throw in a game against the healthy New Orleans Pelicans and that’s 12 of the Nuggets’ first 16 games.

“When it first came out,” Lawson said of the schedule, “I checked and was like, ‘man!’

The Nuggets’ explosive point guard has been working hard during the offseason in Los Angeles. He will soon make his way back to Denver and begin working out with teammates as the countdown to the start of training camp officially begins. This particularly excites the ever-improving Lawson, one of the more under-talked-about point guards in a conference overflowing with All-Star candidates at the position, because it’s been a long time since he’s played with a few of them.

Expected to be back in business is forward Danilo Gallinari, a career 41.9 percent 3-point shooter who missed all of last season after tearing his ACL in April 2013. So is 7-foot center JaVale McGee, whose bid to mature his way off the Shaqtin-a-Fool all-time list was snubbed after five games due to a stress fracture in his left leg. So is Nate Robinson (missed 38 games). And Wilson Chandler (missed 20 games). And J.J. Hickson (missed 13 games). So is Lawson himself, who missed 20 games due to injury in last year’s 36-46 season, the first under coach Brian Shaw.

At the tail end of last season, the 5-foot-11 Lawson, who registered career-highs in scoring (17.6 ppg), assists (8.8) and minutes (35.8), thought about all the injuries, all the adversity (including but not limited to Andre Miller) and just how far the team had come despite the sub-.500 record. He even suggested the Nuggets could possibly be a top-four team next season.

“People,” Lawson said, “are probably going to sleep on us this year because of what happened last year.”

Lawson, heading into his sixth season in Denver, spoke to NBA.com earlier this week from Los Angeles. He believes the Nuggets are deep at every position, are determined to become a good defensive team and he still believes they can sneak up on last season’s playoff teams.

NBA.com: You and Kenneth Faried both had strong seasons in Shaw’s first year despite all the injuries. Was it important for you two to set the tone in a transition year?

Lawson: I think so. We found ourselves, especially Kenneth. He found out he can score in the post, run the floor and also his decision-making after getting the rebound and taking it downcourt and able to make the right pass, the right decision. I think it was a positive on both ends and I think it’s going to help for this year coming up.

NBA.com: As a team leader, do you keep up with your teammates during the offseason?

Lawson: Definitely. JaVale’s in L.A., so I see him and we talk all the time. I stay in touch basically with everybody, making sure everybody is getting their work in and that they’re ready for this year because we can make a lot noise.

NBA.com: Speaking of McGee, he signed the big contract, but his season ended five games into it due to injury. Even then he had not earned a significant role under Shaw and he has yet to be able to rid himself of the perception of having a low basketball IQ. Do you really believe he can begin to elevate his game and be a significant contributor?

Lawson: I can see that he’s taking a more serious approach. When he was at Washington he was just about, ‘OK, I’m here, I’m 7-foot, I’m playing.’ But now he’s really actually trying to get better. You can see that. When he’s working out and he misses a jump hook or something he actually gets mad.

NBA.com: With so many injuries last season, the team never found a rhythm. How do you see the roster shaping up assuming good health all around?

Lawson: I think at every position we’re pretty deep. At center, we’ve got JaVale and Timofey Mozgov, who started playing well throughout the last year. We’re so deep, I think that’s a gift and a curse. Everybody is going to want to play. I already told B-Shaw, I was like, ‘yeah, it’s going to be a problem that you’re going to have, divvying up minutes and making sure everybody’s still happy.’ That’s a gift because say somebody goes down, God forbid, we’ll still have somebody step right in. Also, there’s so many different lineups we can have. We can go small, go big, we’re so versatile.

NBA.com: Everybody knew the team’s identity under George Karl. After one season under Shaw, again, considering all the injuries, has the team taken on a clear-cut identity?

Lawson: This year it’s going to be more of a defensive mindset. I already know we can score, everybody knows we can score with the best of them. But my mindset going into training camp is everybody buying into the defensive end. We’ve got to make stops. I feel like if we can do that, and score in the half court, we’ll be one of the top teams out there.

NBA.com: You already mentioned how tough the schedule is the opening month. Overall, how do you see the West shaping up?

Lawson: The West is going to be crazy. Everybody got better. Houston may have slipped a little bit, but I feel like you’ve got to be ready to go every night against the West. There’s not going to be any slouch teams. I even feel like Sacramento is going to be decent. You’ve got to be ready to play in the West, there’s not going to be any easy games like last year where you knew you were going to win that game. It’s not going to be that easy, any team can beat you in the West.

NBA.com: Some feared you might not be as effective in Shaw’s more halfcourt-focused offense as opposed to Karl’s full-throttle approach. You still managed to thrive. Where do you want to take your game next season?

Lawson: I’m more confident in my jump shot, I think I shoot well. Sometimes if I miss a couple, my confidence goes away. So I watch a lot of tape of shooters. I feel like Steph Curry and Damian Lillard just have no conscience. They miss a couple, they know the third or fourth one’s going in. That’s probably the main thing. And probably my stamina for the defensive end; picking up the point guard further up instead of letting them come down and set their offense up so close to the 3-point line. If I push them back, it pushes the offense back and I think it’s harder for them to score, so that’s the main thing I’ve been working on.

‘Bron, Wade toted elite style, execution


VIDEO: LeBron and Dwyane Wade didn’t spare us the highlights over the past four years

They didn’t have a nickname for the ages, but their work on the floor was sufficient enough. So sufficient that the good folks (shout out to Jonathan Scott) at the NBA Digital headquarters saw fit to produce their best moments together. It’s cool. It’s a must-watch. It’s what you want to see as a hoop head.

Their recipe was simple: We’re faster than you, we can jump higher than you and we’re going to look for each other at any given tick. The crosscourt alley-oops, cutting and weaving and defensive ball-hawking that evoked the work of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were fruits of this strategy.

When The Decision happened in 2010, we saw two supremely gifted alpha players in their primes make a conscious effort to join forces. It didn’t seem fair and gave us an open lane to cast them as villains.

Two championships, four straight Finals trips… yeah, it wasn’t fair. There have been many duos that gave us moments, but only a few compare with the level of synergy and high-level production that the Tandem Formerly Known As ‘Bron and D-Wade brought. Unless they get the opportunity to pair up during All-Star weekend, you won’t see it live again.

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade joined forces as superstars and didn't disappoint.

In 2010, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade joined forces as superstars. They didn’t disappoint.

LeBron James is a lock to garner more midseason trips. You have to figure Dwyane Wade has a couple more in him, but his knees present questions. So nothing is guaranteed, nothing lasts forever, blah, blah blah. Some may find this a bit schmaltzy. It’s not.

Greatness is greatness and it demands a corner of recognition. When it’s here, we bask in it. When it’s gone, we look for The Next. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will give ‘Bron new tools to work with and by this time December, we’ll probably be seeing a boatload of Love-James and James-Irving roundball duets in Cleveland, making the Miami pairing a distant memory sooner than later.

Wade still has Chris Bosh. He also has Luol Deng. He’s not playing with slouches, but he won’t have a 6-foot-8 Akron gazelle running the wing ready to catch and finish any pass he throws up anymore. When LeBron and Flash partnered up, few saw them only lasting four years. So peace out, you two. We hardly knew ya.  What part we did know was something we aren’t likely to forget.

Buyers? Bucks to reward ticket ‘users’


VIDEO: Jabari Parker talks with Bucks.com about his off-the-court interests

At first blush, the Milwaukee Bucks’ current ticket promotion, “Cheer The Future,” sounds like an old joke: the prize for first place is one week in Milwaukee! The prize for second place is two weeks in Milwaukee …

The Bucks were so bad last season, so seemingly far from playing competitive basketball, that the sales department’s offer of a steep discount on tickets in 2015-16 – as steep as free! – based on tickets bought and used this season might seem more punitive than generous, going strictly by their 15-67 finish in 2013-14. Milwaukee pulled off what looked to be one of the great shell games in recent NBA history, pledging not to “tank” — then-owner Herb Kohl flatly said so on Media Day — and then outtanking the other league’s bottom feeders to grab the best odds in the Draft lottery.

The move, driven by injuries and underperformance as much as any rebuilding strategy, worked out beautifully. The Bucks landed the No. 2 pick and, in selecting Duke’s Jabari Parker, wound up with a draftee most scouts think can contribute immediately. Parker also has said all the right things about pledging his services to Milwaukee long-term, and he has a built-in fan base 90 miles to the south in his hometown of Chicago.

But all that losing came at a price, and not just in pride or – for coach Larry Drew and his staff – in job security. Milwaukee’s attendance went from an average of 15,348 in the previous seven seasons to 13,511, a drop of 12 percent. After ranking between 22nd and 27th from 2006-07 through 2012-13 in home attendance, the Bucks finished last in 2013-14.

It wasn’t even just a money thing, as bad as the hemorrhaging was. The BMO Harris Bradley Center on too many nights went limp, the empty seats of the upper bowl and the quiet ones down below feeling like a betrayal of the franchise’s headier times: The championship era of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1970s. Don Nelson’s Marques Johnson-Sidney Moncrief powerhouses of the ’80s. The excitement when Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell missed the 2001 Finals by one game. And even the “Fear The Deer” surprise late in 2009-10.

That’s why this “Cheer The Future” season-ticket scheme matters not just as a way to sell tickets but to get those buyers into the building.

“We believe the best way to build our fan base and increase attendance is to show them our young, exciting team,” Ted Loehrke, the Bucks’ senior vice president and chief revenue officer, said by phone Thursday. “The whole concept is to re-introduce the Bucks to Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin, especially young professionals and college students.”

The prices and seat locations should fit their budgets, especially if they max out the benefits. It works like this: Fans are required to commit to a two-season purchase, with discounts offered on the second year. Those who attend at least 30 games will get their 2015-16 tickets at half price. If they use tickets this season at least 35 times, the discount grows to 75 percent. And those who attend all 40 Milwaukee home games (the team plays a designated home game at London’s O2 Arena on Jan. 15 vs. New York) will get their same tickets next season for free.

The team set aside 500 seats for the promotion, which runs through Sunday. Loehrke said the response has been strong, with the remaining seats and the deadline pretty much in synch.

NBA teams have marketed hard-to-sell seats via various gimmicks. For instance, Minnesota used a “pay the pick” plan in which fans paid a per-ticket price equal to the team’s lottery position (the Wolves drafted fourth, so those seats cost $4 each). Other clubs have offered future discounts. But Loehrke said the Bucks were unaware of any team bundling purchase, attendance and discount together like this.

Milwaukee already has had an eventful offseason, starting with Kohl’s sale of the franchise to billionaire investors Wes Edens and Marc Lasry for a whopping $550 million. Parker’s selection and presentation were well-received, and the startling hire of Jason Kidd as coach – after some un-Milwaukee-like machinations behind GM John Hammond‘s back to oust Drew – generated headlines, too.

The continued development of last season’s lottery pick, Greek phenom Giannis Antetokounmpo, and 2012 first-rounder John Henson, along with some presumed face-saving resurgences by Larry Sanders, O.J. Mayo and Ersan Ilaysova are added reasons for optimism in 2014-15.

“There’s been a buzz around the team this summer unlike any we’ve seen in recent history,” Loehrke said.

Edens and Lasry are eager to energize the Bradley Center, too, to win over local and state officials and the citizens overall to their quest for a new, partially public-financed downtown arena. Sports teams know that seats, like unused hotel rooms, are an expiring asset. The Bucks want those in their aging building to be very expiring.

Mostly, though, they want them filled. This season and next.

Summer Dreaming: Most Valuable Player

We’ve been to the beach to soak up the rays and the scenery and did some snorkeling to take a peek at life beneath the water’s surface. We’ve risen at dawn and hiked up through the cool morning air on narrow trails to get a glimpse of what’s over there on the next mountain. We’ve gone bungee jumping just to see if we had it in us. We’ve floated down long, lazy rivers to navel gaze and find out how long we could keep that umbrella drink balanced on our bellies.

What else is left to see on these sultry summer days except to lie back in a hammock and dream of MVPs who’ll make things hot on all those winter nights?

While we’re still several pages on the calendar away from the 2014-15 season openers, we’re taking off from the free-throw line in our naps and soaring all the way to April for the top five contenders on my ballot.

Send us your picks.


VIDEO: LeBron James returns home to Cleveland

LeBron James, Cavaliers — He’s back at home in Ohio, all is forgiven and it’s safe to like him again. Add in the fact that he lost out on the MVP trophy to Kevin Durant last season — even though it was silly to even think that he wasn’t the best player in the league — and there’s reason to expect bigger things than a pregame mushroom cloud of resin dust in Cleveland. Chalk last year up to “LeBron Fatigue” from a voting roll that simply got tired of writing his name in on the top line of the ballot, even if it was the right thing to do. So now “The Homecoming” will have him in the same situation he faced after Derrick Rose copped the MVP from him in 2011. All James did was respond by winning the award two straight times. A fifth MVP this season will move him into a tie with Bill Russell and Michael Jordan and, at just 29, LeBron in his prime will be stalking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time record of six.


VIDEO: Brent Barry goes one-on-one with Chris Paul

Chris Paul, Clippers — Does anybody really think head cheerleader and screamer Steve Ballmer would have plunked down $2 billion to buy the Clippers if Paul hadn’t already done the seemingly impossible and removed their name as the punch line from every NBA joke? Yes, Blake Griffin is a bonafide All-Star. Yes, Doc Rivers is an elite level coach who was tapped into the psyche of DeAndre Jordan to push him into the conversation as one of the best centers in the league. But it’s Paul who is the face, heart, teeth and claws of the franchise. With career averages of 18.6 points, 9.9 assists, simply the best handle in the game and a nose for ballhawking defense, CP3 has a pot that’s been bubbling for nine NBA seasons and is ready to boil over and take the Clippers to the next level. This could be the year. Paul has driven the team to win a franchise record 56 and 57 games in each of the past two seasons and if he can do it again to set up a deep playoff run, the shiny hardware could be his reward.


VIDEO: Kevin Durant talks about his 2013-14 MVP season

Kevin Durant, Thunder — He capped off another splendid and relentless season by winning his first MVP award last season and then upped his game by delivering one of the great acceptance speeches of all time. Go ahead, admit that you wiped a tear from the corner of your eye. What’s going to change on the court this time around? While teammate Russell Westbrook rides the roller coaster of fandom up and down with his off-the-charts play mixed with the “what-was-he-thinking?” shot selection, Durant will continue to be the spindly-legged racehorse that pulls the Thunder wagon. He’s won the scoring title four of the past five seasons, had a string of a dozen straight games of scoring at least 30 a year ago, which brought out the Jordan comparisons. But with all of the hullaballoo surrounding LeBron’s return to Cleveland, last season could one day be remembered as K.D.’s only MVP win if he can’t get the Thunder over the hump to win a championship.


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony elects to stay in New York

Carmelo Anthony, Knicks — Last season was the first time in his career that Anthony’s team did not make the playoffs, yet he still finished third in the MVP voting. That speaks not only to the depth of his own talent, but a lack of depth on the Knicks roster that forces him to be the do-it-all force every night. Other than the arrival of Phil Jackson in the executive suite and Derek Fisher on the bench, little has changed at Madison Square Garden. Melo went window shopping in the free agent market, glimpsing at the goods in Chicago and Houston, then opted to take the largest bundle of cash — five years, $124 million — to remain in New York and continue to keep his name in lights on Broadway. He’s lost weight. He’s gained confidence. He says he can get the Knicks back into the playoffs. In a rebuilt Eastern Conference that now has real challengers up and down the standings, that will be a tall task. But if Anthony can take the Knicks there, he’ll deserved to be in the conversation.


VIDEO: Stephen Curry’s top plays of 2013-14

Stephen Curry, Warriors — Curry is the best pure shooter in the league today. It’s not just the number of times he puts the ball into the basket, but his ability to get the shots off so quickly, at all angles, from virtually anyplace on the court. Give him an open dribble as soon as he crosses the mid court line and you might have given up a bucket. But it’s more than just scoring 24.5 points a game. It’s Curry’s ability to dish the ball from either hand with a magician’s flair for 8.5 assists that makes him truly special. He was already knocking on the door of the top five a year ago, finishing sixth in the MVP balloting. If new coach Steve Kerr can get the Warriors to take the next step and boost them into the upper half of the Western Conference bracket, Curry could be a dark horse in the race.

‘Free agent’ coaches seek work in ever-shifting job market

One by one, in something approximating inverse order of desirability, the names of NBA free agents have come off the proverbial big board. What began with the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Pau Gasol has dwindled now to fellows such as Andray Blatche, Dante Cunningham and Ekpe Udoh.

This game of offseason musical chairs is played for even more blood among coaches. There are fewer jobs to be had in the first place (five or six per team vs. 15 player positions), and it’s not nearly the meritocracy that it is for players. Abilities, work ethic and results matter less than connections or change for its own sake.

There are a lot of coaching free agents still on the board, both former head coaches and notable assistants. Among the former, we have George Karl, Jeff Van Gundy, Scott Skiles, Mike Woodson, Doug Collins, Vinny Del Negro, Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni, Keith Smart, Avery Johnson, P.J. Carlesimo, Lawrence Frank and Maurice Cheeks.

The latter group, even bigger, includes Jack Sikma, Mario Elie, Terry Porter, T.R. Dunn, Igor Kokoskov, Scott Williams, Bill Peterson, Bernie Bickerstaff, Brian Hill, Bob Ociepka  and, hey, Rasheed Wallace. Actually, you could go dozens deep with solid coaching pros who once were in but now are out, the one place few of them want to be.

“There’s an old expression in the NBA, ‘Never get off the bus. Stay on the bus!’ ” said Jim Boylan, an NBA assistant for most of his 22 years in the league who survived a coaching change in Cleveland this offseason. “We all realize it too — it’s a privilege for us to be involved in the NBA and to coach athletes at this level.”

But it’s fleeting. Coaches face more scrutiny and grab more headlines when they’re fired, but their landings are often cushioned by seven-figure paychecks. Assistant coaches get flushed, and that six-figure salary — while comfy by most folks’ standards — doesn’t go quite so far when you account for the costs of multiple residences or constant moves.

Ociepka, who entered the league in the 1980s as a part-time volunteer scout after a storied career as a high school coach in the Chicago area, scrambled through five NBA teams in five years in the ’90s. Boylan and his wife, Jane, counted recently and realized they have owned or lived in 25 homes during his basketball career.

“It’s not a surprise when you’re an assistant coach in the NBA,” Sikma, the former Seattle and Milwaukee center, said recently. “You look at the number of staffs that have turned over in the last few years — it’s more of a constant than not. You know you’re probably going to have to bounce around a little bit.”

There are a multitude of factors for the turnover, most obvious the turnover at the top. When a coach gets fired, some or all of his staff typically gets shown the door with him. And there has been a LOT of turnover lately — nine new NBA coaches this summer, 13 such changes a year ago. Going back just five years, to the start of the 2009-10 season, only San Antonio (Gregg Popovich), Miami (Erik Spoelstra) and Dallas (Rick Carlisle) now have the same coaches. And both the Spurs’ and Mavericks’ staffs have changed considerably.

“Most people who are making the decisions probably have a narrow list going on, from relationships or what they’re looking for,” Sikma said. “It’s a transient line of work for sure. So you have to be quick on your feet.”

Here are glimpses of three assistant coaches whose dance cards are filled to varying degrees. Sikma would like very much to get back in after spending the past seven seasons working with now-retired Rick Adelman. Boylan beat the odds by surviving a coaching change in Cleveland, then beat them again when LeBron James’ yearning for home rocked the Cavaliers’ landscape. And Ociepka is at the point, after so many hirings and firings, where he might prefer more stable options.  

Morning shootaround — Aug. 28


VIDEO: Relive the top 5 plays from the USA-Slovenia exhibition game

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Harden emerging as leader on U.S. team | Hinkie unsure if Embiid will play next season | Clips keep Rivers in the fold

No. 1: Harden emerging as Team USA leader — If you missed it yesterday, our John Schuhmann had an excellent stats analysis of Team USA and its rampage through exhibition play as it readies for the upcoming FIBA World Cup. One of the key points he noted is how well the squad has fared when James Harden and the rest of the starters set the tone in games. Aside from how his play is helping the U.S. team on the scoreboard, guard James Harden has also shown himself to be a leader in other ways for Team USA. Michael Lee of the Washington Post has more on that topic:

Harden’s responsibilities increased once more when Kevin Durant, his close friend and former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate, backed out of his commitment, citing fatigue and not the injury to George as the reason. That left the lefty Harden as the only first-team all-NBA player remaining on the squad. The earlier withdrawals of Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook also meant that Harden and Anthony Davis were the only holdovers from the 2012 London Olympics team.

“Right now, I think I would look to Harden as that leader,” USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said as his team continues to prepare for the tournament in which the winner earns an automatic berth in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. “Harden is kind of a natural leader and he seems to be willing to accept that role. And you can just kind of feel it and sense. He’s the one.”

Harden’s career changed dramatically after that summer as Oklahoma City traded the then-sixth man of the year to the Rockets. He became an all-star in his first season, playing so well that Dwight Howard forfeited a bigger pay day from the Los Angeles Lakers to join forces with him in Houston a year later. The constant adjustments have been so common for Harden that the steadily-evolving situation with Team USA over the past few weeks feels almost normal for him.

“It’s so many things these last couple of years that’s been thrown at me, from me being traded, to people talking, just everything,” Harden said. “I try to focus on myself and how can I be a better basketball player. It’s still basketball at the end of the day. I try to do it to the best of my ability and continue to work hard.”

Harden declared himself as the best player alive two weeks ago, expressing a sentiment that was neither delusional nor particularly serious. But it represented a mindset that is required for elite-level basketball players – especially one with obvious deficiencies on the defensive end who also happened to be a viable candidate for league most valuable player last season. When pressed about that opinion, Harden didn’t backtrack.

“I think everybody feels that way. Every NBA player. Even growing up, growing up youngins have dreams that they want to be the best basketball players in the world,” Harden said. “As a basketball player, or any athlete, you got to have confidence, you’ve got to have confidence the whole time. You just go out there and do your job and have confidence that your abilities are good enough. Whatever is thrown at me, I just try to take it for what it is and just have fun.”


VIDEO: Take a slow-motion look at Team USA’s victory against Slovenia