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Blogtable: What will Team USA look like in 2020?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most

important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Thoughts on Team USA in 2020? | Do Warriors have a short window to contend? |
Who benefits more from change in scenery: Al Horford or Dwight Howard?


> Look into your crystal ball and tell me what the U.S. Olympic team looks like in 2020? What’s the team’s personality? Who are its key players?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: My crystal ball is showing me a Russell Westbrook takeover in Tokyo, not unlike his old pal Kevin Durant‘s superstar turn down in Rio. Westbrook will be perfectly situated at that point, in terms of his chosen franchise and latest enormous contract, so he’ll be hot on the trail of his second gold medal to bookend a championship ring or, like Carmelo Anthony, to make up for the absence of one. I’m seeing five or six returnees from this summer’s squad, from among Kyrie Irving, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, maybe Durant. Then additions such as Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, either Karl-Anthony Towns or Andre Drummond and a 35-year-old LeBron James in the role Team USA impresario Jerry Colangelo had carved out for Kobe Bryant, had he wanted it this year. Kawhi Leonard seems a natural fit given his likely career arc with the Spurs and the presence of Gregg Popovich as the next U.S. coach. Then stir in fresh blood from the likes of Jabari Parker, Victor Oladipo or Brandon Ingram and the national team shouldn’t miss a beat.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Call them Team Bailout: Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Bradley Beal and maybe a veteran who wants last hurrah wrapped in the flag named LeBron James. All the stars who took a pass on Rio come back for Team USA and coach Gregg Popovich in Tokyo. Add in a couple of point guards — Chris Paul and John Wall — who were rehabbing injuries and you’ve got your gold medal roster for 2020.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The personality will be business-like. If anyone has forgotten in Tokyo in 2020 that some opponents made life interesting in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the coaches and USA Basketball leaders will be glad to remind them. The ’16 team had the right attitude, but maybe the easy victories on the U.S. tour before heading to Brazil and then the opening games of pool play created a false sense of security. That won’t happen next time. I also think the U.S. will benefit from the unique schedule coming up — World Cup in 2019, Olympics in 2020. The roster will be largely the same for both, helping with cohesion. A lot of the players from Rio will also be playing, but Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard will be added. Maybe others. Three years until the World Cup is more than enough time for a new star or two to emerge for the United States.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: The next team will have a fresh new look, starting of course with the coach. LeBron James said how neat it would be to play for Gregg Popovich but I’m not so sure LeBron will be willing to put his aging body on the line by then. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant should give the team a Warriors flavor, with help from newcomers Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker. Still can’t see another country keeping pace four years from now.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: At 31, Kevin Durant will remain the primary alpha dog among the rest. But there could be better offensive cohesion with Gregg Popovich on the bench. I think there were lessons learned this year about the value of complementary players like Paul George and DeAndre Jordan. So, while I see Durant, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis as obvious picks, there will need to be some guys that are willing to do the defensive work.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Olympic team in 2020 will once again be flush with the best homegrown players the NBA has to offer. The Golden State crew of Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will take up a quarter of the squad alongside Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, DeAndre Jordan, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and “old heads” LeBron James and Chris Paul. There won’t be any leadership or chemistry issues and the talent level will rival any group to wear the USA across their chests since the original Dream Team. It’ll be all business as the U.S. claims its fourth straight Olympic gold.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: The stars in their primes will include Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant at forward, and Stephen Curry plus Kyrie Irving in the backcourt. But the identity figures to be drawn from the potential comeback of LeBron James, who may become – if only for the 2020 Olympics – the starting center for USA Basketball. In that case the next tournament would shape up as an international celebration of LeBron’s career as well as his versatility. It could be an opportunity he cannot refuse.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog With my dirty dozen, it doesn’t matter whether the rest of the world is able to get its act together: Anthony Davis starts at the five, with Kevin Durant and LeBron James (on his international hoops farewell tour) at forward, supplemented by a Splash Brothers backcourt. Then, coming off the bench my second five is Draymond Green, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard as my frontcourt, along with a backcourt of James Harden and Russell Westbrook. DeMarcus Cousins and Kyrie Irving round out my twelve.

Morning shootaround — Aug. 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

USA’s Rio Gold Rush | Popovich takes over Team USA | Gasol not ready to end international career | Wall continues making an impact off the court

No. 1: USA’s Rio gold rush With an experienced coaching staff and roster stuffed with NBA All-Stars, the United States Men’s Basketball Team entered the 2016 Rio Olympics as heavy favorites to win the gold medal. And with yesterday’s 96-66 blowout win over Serbia, Team USA did in fact win gold, although the journey may have been bumpier than many expected. As our own John Schuhmann writes from Rio, several lessons were apparent along the way:

This team had some bad defenders, and too many of them were in the starting lineup together until head coach Mike Krzyzewski changed things up before the quarterfinals. On this team and in years past, we’ve learned how important it is to have an Andre Iguodala or a Paul George to complement the guys who can put the ball in the bucket. Kawhi Leonard, you have a 2020 roster spot if you want it.

This team also fell victim to an exhibition schedule that was too easy. That wasn’t necessarily a mistake, because they were only able to play teams that traveled through the U.S. on their way to Rio. But it was clear that the Americans weren’t prepared for a step-up in competition after cruising through the exhibitions and their first two pool play games.

And as much talent as the U.S. has, it’s impossible to make the most of it over the course of five weeks. The national team is made up of stars who aren’t used to playing with one another, and they were playing their first elimination game less than a month after they began training camp.

Other teams don’t train for much longer than that, but almost all of them have more roster continuity than the U.S. does. The U.S. had just two players back from its last Olympic Team, as well as four from the team that won the World Cup of Basketball in 2014. Serbia, meanwhile, returned nine players from the team that lost to the U.S. in ’14.

And that’s concern No. 1 for USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo. He knows that it’s always going to be difficult for the U.S. to flow freely offensively and play on a string defensively when they only have three weeks to prepare a brand new roster.

“Basketball is the ultimate team game,” Colangelo said. “And when you have 10 new people and you only have them for a few weeks, it’s not enough time. For me, I’m glad we’re past this. It’s justification for all that we’ve done. But it also says to me we need to continue with the continuity. We can’t go back again with 10 new players. It’s not going to happen.”

This year, the Americans were fortunate to have the two Olympic vets that they did. Durant put the team on his back in the gold medal game. Carmelo Anthony, who retired from the national team after Sunday’s game as the only player with three Olympic gold medals in Men’s Basketball, turned into a leader for the younger players to rally around.

Those younger guys will be asked to keep coming back. And continuity will become even more important down the line, because the rest of the world is continually getting better. While this tournament saw the final games of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in their national-team uniforms, there is more talent coming up behind them.

The 46 NBA players in these Olympics was an all-time high. Australia took a big step forward, put itself on the second tier of national teams, and has the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft in its pipeline. Serbia isn’t going anywhere, France has good, under-30 players in the backcourt and on the frontline, Croatia and Lithuania have young NBA talent, and it’s just a matter of time (and participation) before Canada breaks though.

The United States’ winning streak in international tournaments, which now stands at 53 games, will come to an end at some point. But this group of 12 didn’t let it happen on its watch.

There were close calls, but they still went 8-0, played their best game with gold on the line, and stood on the top step of the podium on Sunday afternoon. Lessons were learned, but gold was earned.

***

No. 2: Popovich takes over Team USA — After 11 years at the helm and a perfect record in the Olympics, Coach Mike Krzyzewski now hands over Team USA to San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, who will be Team USA’s new man on the sideline. As ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan writes, to truly understand Pop, you have to understand where he comes from and the disappointments that have helped shape him…

Gregg Popovich graduated with a degree in Soviet Studies in 1970 and joined the U.S. Armed Forces basketball team, touring Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, using his fluent Russian to brief his coach on helpful buzzwords.

His team won the AAU championship in 1972, and when he returned to the U.S., he learned the Olympic basketball trials would be held at the Academy. Jack Herron Jr., who was named to the 1972 U.S. Olympic selection committee, made it his charge to make certain Popovich received an invitation.

Herron, whose father Jack Sr. played for Olympic coach Hank Iba at Oklahoma A&M (later Oklahoma State), had just spent a year as an Air Force basketball assistant and recruiting coordinator. Popovich had earned rave reviews for his overseas performances, but they were neither televised nor publicized.

“It was a fight just to get him there,” says Herron. Back then the Olympic team was selected from a pool of players representing AAU, the NAIA, junior colleges, the Armed Forces, and both the university and college divisions of the NCAA. Players were split into groups of 10 to 12 and assigned a coach. Popovich played for Indiana coach Bobby Knight; one of his teammates was forward Bobby Jones.

Jones remembers that Popovich was in his group but could not recall particulars of his game, even though Popovich led all players with a .577 shooting percentage. What Jones recalls with clarity, though, was how, before the last scrimmage of the trials, Knight informed the group that only two of them had a shot at making the final Olympic squad and the rest should pass them the ball to enhance their chances.

“The two guys were Kevin Joyce and me,” says Jones. “I had never heard a coach be so honest. I don’t know how Gregg and the other players felt about it.”

Herron suspects the subtleties of Popovich’s game were lost among the other candidates who were jacking up shots and looking to put points on the board. “Gregg could have been more showy,” Herron says, “but he played the way Mr. Iba told him to play. It probably hurt him in the end.”

Herron says he attended every single Olympic selection committee meeting and that Popovich was among the top 14-16 players in each of those discussions. But as the committee began to vote on the final roster, members who hadn’t showed up at any of the previous meetings suddenly surfaced. When Herron asked why they were there, he says they told him, “We’re here to get our guys on the team.”

The process, Herron says, quickly dissolved into factions fighting for representation instead of choosing the top performers. When the final roster was announced, Popovich was left off.

“I’ve been aggravated about this for almost 50 years,” Herron says. “Gregg belonged on that team.”

Larry Brown was invited by Iba to attend the tryouts and was suitably impressed by Popovich’s moxie, so much so that he invited him to try out for his ABA team in Denver later that fall (Popovich was among the final cuts).

“Pop was real tough and tenacious, like [Cavs guard Matthew] Dellavedova, although a little more athletic,” Brown says. “But there were so many talented players there.”

***

No. 3: Gasol not ready to end international career In other Olympic basketball action yesterday, Spain defeated Australia, 89-88, to win the bronze medal, behind 31 points from Pau Gasol. And while Gasol will be 40 years old by the time of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, he’s not ready to say he’ll be finished with his international career by then:

Gasol, who will spend this upcoming NBA season in San Antonio and hasn’t committed to playing at Tokyo in 2020, and his teammates celebrated by piling on top of each other near center court. This wasn’t the medal they wanted, but after losing their first two games in Brazil, it beats nothing.

“Unbelievable,” forward Rudy Fernandez said. “It’s an amazing feeling.”

It is a feeling Gasol wishes could last. He isn’t ready to shed his Espana jersey.

“I’m getting older and at some point I’m not going to be able to play,” said the 36-year-old. “So when that day comes, I’ll accept it. It’ll be hard, but I had an incredible run. I can’t ask for anything else. Everything I gave, everything I lived as a basketball player, it’s a plus. It’s a gift.

“I’m just enjoying the ride.”

***

No. 4: Wall continues making an impact off the court Washington’s John Wall wasn’t able to participate with USA Basketball this summer because of offseason knee surgery, but his rehab from the injury hasn’t kept him from being involved off the court in D.C. As the Washington Post‘s Candace Buckner writes, Wall recently gave out backpacks at a local elementary school, his latest attempt to make a difference in his community…

John Wall remembers how as a child he had to strap on the same backpack from elementary age until seventh grade. It’s one of the reasons why Wall showed up in Southeast Washington on a blazing hot afternoon to give away 250 backpacks.

On Saturday at Malcolm X Elementary School, the John Wall Family Foundation hosted its third annual Back to School Block Party. The event featured local organizations that donated back-to-school items, a DJ blasting up-tempo tunes, a bouncy house, face painting and free food. However, the main attraction was Wall, who personally placed backpacks on children and posed for photographs.

“I didn’t have an opportunity to meet my favorite player or an NBA player [when] I was growing up,” Wall said. “But [now] I can see the smiles that I put on these kids’ faces.”

Wall arrived at the event with little fanfare — though the DJ dropped the beat to welcome the guest of honor with “Teach Me How To Dougie.” Wall then walked the perimeter of the parking lot and basketball court to shake hands with every volunteer.

Following his gratitude lap, Wall took the microphone and addressed the crowd.

“I’m excited to be at Malcolm X Elementary school to give back to the community,” Wall said. “Like I told a lot of people before, we’re not forced to do this. I do it because I want to. I do it to be involved and be involved with the kids.”

School Principal Zara Berry-Young said Wall’s foundation reached out to her school because it specifically wanted to help in the Southeast Washington community. Wall echoed this sentiment, saying he picked an area “where people and the kids are going through tough times. . . . It’s kind of easy because it’s kind of over here by where our practice [facility] is going to be. I’m going to be over here a lot and seeing these people.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: In an emotional interview following the gold medal game, Carmelo Anthony announced his retirement from Team USACatching up with Brazilian hoops icon Oscar SchmidtYao Ming reflects on his Olympic experiencesAllen Iverson picks his top five players of all-time … The Heat and Chris Bosh are reportedly still discussing his returnKobe Bryant today will announce a venture capital fund for investing in technology, media and data companies …

Morning shootaround — Aug. 21



NEWS OF THE MORNING
Melo’s long journey | Meet salary cap guru | The Coach K Effect | Embiid’s progress | Whiteside’s new expectations
No. 1: Carmelo values gold above all — He’s gone from the bronze bust of the 2004 Olympics in Athens to the doorstep of a third straight gold medal in Rio and Carmelo Anthony told Michael Lee of The Vertical that he wouldn’t trade his experience growing into a leader of Team USA for anything:

“I wouldn’t trade, hopefully my three gold medals, in for nothing,” Anthony told The Vertical. “I hope I’m never put in that position. That’s a tough position. But I always say, ‘Winning is winning is winning.’ No matter what level you win on. Hopefully, I do get an NBA ring, but that’s two things. … I wouldn’t try to compare or force myself to make that comparison.”

Anthony has come to rely on his summers with USA Basketball to provide some balance for his complex career and stumbles in his personal life. When he started recruiting talent to fill out the country’s pool for international competitions, USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo told Anthony he would overlook any past mistakes and give him a clean slate. Anthony raised his hand as one of the first to commit to what would require him to sacrifice three consecutive summers. They have proven to be beneficial: He made his first All-Star team the season after participating in the 2006 world championships. He led Denver to the conference finals the season following the 2008 Olympics. And he led the Knicks to their first division title the season following the 2012 Olympics.

“We ask the guys for a commitment and selfless service,” Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “But Carmelo is a perfect example of commitment for the Olympics. That’s his entire playing career and to devote that amount of time is remarkable really, and it’s not been done. He’s been such a good guy to coach.”

***

(more…)

Morning Shootaround — Aug. 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Team USA one win from gold | Serbia hopes for gold | How James and the Cavs came back from down 3-1

No. 1: Team USA one win from gold —Heading into the 2016 Olympics in Rio, expectations for the USA Basketball Men’s National Team were sky high. And while they may have struggled to reach some of those expectations, and haven’t blown out every opponent along the way, with Friday’s 82-76 win over Spain, Team USA is now in the gold medal game, one win from leaving Rio with their ultimate goal accomplished. Against Spain, with the offense struggling to pull away, it was the defense of DeAndre Jordan that helped Team USA survive and advance. As our own John Schuhmann writes, Jordan has embraced his role with Team USA …

The U.S. offense was never pretty on Friday. It only once scored on more than three straight possessions. Kevin Durant (14 points on 6-for-13 shooting) and Kyrie Irving (13 points on 5-for-9) were held in check. Klay Thompson led the U.S. with 22 points, but had rough moments shooting. After scoring 129 points per 100 possessions through its first six games, the U.S. scored just 82 points on 74 possessions (111 per 100) on Friday.

The second half (37 points on 39 possessions) was particularly ugly. This was not a repeat of the last two gold medal games in which the U.S. beat Spain 118-107 and 107-100.

“It was a different type of game,” Mike Krzyzewski said afterward. “It was a very hard game. It wasn’t easy flowing and both teams had to make big plays.”

Jordan made a lot of them. With the 6-11 center being disruptive on pick-and-rolls and at the rim, a potent Spanish team was held to just three scores on its first 10 possessions, allowing the U.S. to build an early, 14-7 lead that it never gave up. Jordan blocked Nikola Mirotic on Spain’s third possession, deflected a Sergio Llull pass on the next one, and forced Llull into shooting a tough, rainbow foul-line jumper two possessions after that.

“The key of the game was their defense, their athleticism, their size,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said. “They made our offense get difficult during most possessions.”

Pau Gasol led all scorers with 23 points, but needed 19 shots to get them. Jordan allowed him some open threes, but forced him into tough shots in the paint and a few turnovers.

Every night, somebody else has stepped up for the U.S. Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Paul George have all had their signature games. Though he scored just nine points and made just one of his four free throws, this game belonged to Jordan.

“He’s locked in,” Kyle Lowry said. “He wants this medal. He wants it really bad. I think we all want it and tonight he just led by example. We just feed off his energy.”

That energy came on both ends of the floor. Jordan not only affected Spain’s shots and passes, he helped get his team extra possessions. Jordan was only credited with three offensive rebounds, but got his hands on a couple of others. The U.S. finished with 21 offensive boards and 25 second-chance points.

“His activity sometimes didn’t translate in the stats,” Krzyzewski said, “but it translated into disruptive play or taking away from the continuity that Spain normally has.”

Jordan’s skill set isn’t necessarily a great fit for the international game, which values spacing and perimeter shooting. But his combination of size and athleticism can overwhelm smaller, more ground-bound opponents. And every single opponent is smaller or more ground-bound.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Spanish veteran Juan Carlos Navarro thought he had a clear lane to the basket on a fast break. But Jordan came along and erased Navarro’s shot, his fourth block of the afternoon. And by the end of the game, he had 16 rebounds.

Krzyzewski has shuffled his lineups (both the starting lineup and bench units that get extended run) much more than usual in this tournament. But he’s seems to have found a formula that works. Cousins better complements the defensive perimeter of Lowry, Butler and George, while Jordan fits better on the starting lineup with an offensive backcourt of Irving and Thompson.

As he is with the LA Clippers, he’s the role-playing complement to the stars.

“I have one job on this team and that’s to come out and play with as much energy as I can on both ends of the floor,” Jordan said. “I’m used to doing that. That’s the type of player that I am, so it just comes naturally. Anything I can do for this team to help us advance and keep winning, I’m going to do that. And I take pride in it.”

***

No. 2: Serbia hopes for gold —Team USA’s path to gold still has one major hurdle, as they will play against a streaking Serbia squad on Sunday in the gold medal game. Serbia advanced to the gold medal match yesterday by blowing out Australia 87-61. As our own John Schuhmann writes from Rio, Serbia still has designs on going home with gold …

For the second straight time in a major international tournament, it will be the United States vs. Serbia for the gold medal. And for the second time, Serbia has followed mediocre pool play results with an impressive run in the elimination rounds.

At the 2014 World Cup of Basketball, Serbia went 2-3 in pool play, beating only the two teams – Egypt and Iran – that didn’t advance out of Group A and losing to the other three teams – France, Brazil and Spain – that did. Then it beat Greece (the top seed from Group B), Brazil and France before losing to the U.S. in the final.

In these Olympics, Serbia went 2-3 in pool play, beating only the two teams – Venezuela and China – that didn’t advance out of Group A and losing to the other three teams – Australia, France and USA – that did. And now it has beat Croatia (the top seed from Group B) and Australia to face the U.S., once again, in the final.

On Friday, Serbia never trailed, beating Australia 87-61 in the second semifinal and earning their first Olympic medal in men’s basketball (since the break-up of Yugoslavia). The question now is whether it will be gold or silver.

The U.S. won the ’14 gold medal game by 37 points, but only beat Serbia by three last Friday, allowing Serbia to shoot 52 percent. The U.S. defense has shown improvement since then, but will be tested by Serbia’s passing and the playmaking (and shotmaking) of point guard Milos Teodosic.

“We gave them a pretty good fight,” Serbian big man Miroslav Raduljica said about last week’s meeting, “showed that they’re not unbeatable, and that we can play against them.”

Going to settle for silver?

“No, never,” Raduljica replied. “We are Serbian.”

***

No. 3: How James and the Cavs came back from down 3-1 After engineering a comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals, LeBron James has taken some time off this summer. But in this wide-ranging interview with Business Insider, James recalls the Cavs being down 3-1 in the Finals and how he and the Cavs were able to come from behind to win the title …

James: We lost our defensive pressure. Golden State turned up the pressure, and they were able to steal our home-court advantage to go up 3-1.

So I’m sitting at home, recalibrating and thinking about the game. And everyone is kind of down at that point. For me as a leader, I couldn’t allow myself to get in a funk. I just started to try and recalibrate and say, “Listen, we’ve got to go to Golden State for game five. We’ve got to come home anyways. So why not come home and give our fans another game, and give them an opportunity to have a game six?”

And that was my mindset. I was very relaxed going out to Golden State for game five, and obviously we saw what happened in that game. I was extremely confident in my teammates’ abilities throughout game five, and then coming home in game six to our fans, who are ecstatic and crazy as can be.

And then, in game seven, it’s one game. It’s sudden death, and it doesn’t matter what’s going on at that point. I believe in one game, I’m going to take myself every time.

If you just give me one game for it all, I’m going to take it myself. And we were able to do something that’s never been done, like you mentioned, a comeback from 3-1. And to win it on their home floor — it was an amazing feat for our franchise.

Shontell: You told a great story on the Jesse Williams “Open Run” podcast you just launched about how you spent that night of game four. You sent a group text to your troops, and you said — what did you say?

James: We have a group chat throughout the season where we talk about everything, with all the guys. We talk about everything from “Hey, this is what time we’re doing dinner” to “This is what time the bus is” or just mentally preparing for games.

I was sitting at home with my wife, and we we’re watching Eddie Murphy‘s stand-up comedy [“Raw”] because I wanted to get my mind off the game and bring some more joy into the room. And then I sent a group chat text to my guys, saying, “OK, listen: It doesn’t matter what just happened. And I know we’re all down about it, but in order for us to accomplish what no one believes we can do, we have to refocus and we have to re-lock in. You guys do your part, and I promise you, as the leader of the team, I won’t let you down. Just follow my lead.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Pau Gasol thinks Spain may have squandered their best chance for Olympic gold … Dwyane Wade says he’s always embraced being the underdog … Will the All-Star Game in New Orleans help Anthony Davis find his mojo? … Randy Foye wants to give back this season in Brooklyn … The Denver Nuggets have reportedly agreed to a deal with free agent Nate WoltersJames Harden was at Old Trafford yesterday for Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Southampton …

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 244) Summer Games

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Patriotism. Drama. Intrigue. Tom Foolery (Ryan Lochte). World class competition in every sporting endeavor, familiar and foreign.

We’ve gotten it all and more from the Rio Olympics, and that includes plenty of drama and intrigue from the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team in their quest to win gold (they face Spain in Friday’s semifinals).

Will they or won’t they make it through? The basketball world awaits the answer from Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the rest of the NBA stars who made the trip.

Meanwhile, those of us not in Rio are left to ponder the possibilities, beyond Rio and what’s in store for the stars there and those who are watching from afar. LeBron James (who has been extremely busy this summer after ending Cleveland’s 52-year title drought in June) has already admitted that he wishes he was in Rio playing and has not ruled out future Olympic competitions. He’s also talked about his dreams and aspirations beyond his playing career, things we’ve rarely heard him speak on in the past.

Listening to LeBron reflect on the bigger picture inspired us to do the same this week here at headquarters. How many guys have done what he’s done, lived up to the hype, really exceeded by most estimates, while maintaining some semblance of order in their lives?

How many guys have gone from phenom/can’t-miss-prospect to the future Hall of Fame/all-time great heights LeBron has scaled and conquered during his career?

The list is short in any sport (with decorated Olympians Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and others representing this summer), and LeBron might sit at the very top, even with plenty of years in his playing career still ahead of him.

We go off the map on this and so much more, including a mention of volleyball’s greatest competitor and one of my favorite all-time Olympians, Karch Kiraly, on Episode 244 of The Hang Time Podcast … Summer Games.

LISTEN HERE:

As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com, Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

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Blogtable: Your level of concern for Team USA?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Level of concern for Team USA? | Will Warriors, Cavs meet in 2017 Finals? |
Who will have biggest impact on Knicks?


> As we head into the quarterfinals in Rio, what’s the level of concern for Team USA? And who do you see as the biggest threat to snap the USA’s gold-medal streak?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: I ultimately think Team USA’s biggest concern will be the apathy that they’ll generate by winning gold again but not dominating the way the Dream Team did in ’92 or (in people’s memories at least) other editions of this NBA star-studded national squad did. There are reasons for the closer scores, some owing to the competition, some to holes in the U.S. team. But I think there will be a healthy mixture of respect for foes and fear of failure now for Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony et al that will see them through. Biggest threat? It’s all relative, but give me Australia, which has some brassy NBA players in Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills; some healthy disrespect for a few of their pro peers, and a pesky defensive style that might already be in the U.S. stars’ heads.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: It shocked me to read comments from Americans that essentially admitted surprise that many of the other teams are actually playing like teams, passing the ball, etc. If Team USA wants to stand around and play 1-on-1 “hero” ball, they could lose any game left to anybody. I wouldn’t have believed that before the Olympics began. I thought they had the proper mindset. But the team simply seems to have fallen back into many of the old, bad habits. Where the hell is the defense? Definitely looking more and more like time for a change. They could use a big dose of Gregg Popovich biting them in the butt right about now.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: The level of concern is cool. Not warm or hot. Yes, there have been some relatively close calls and the ride a bit bumpy, but here in the money round I don’t see the US exposing much vulnerability. The biggest threat to snap Team USA’s streak is Team USA. Only a sloppy performance would leave the Americans open to being upset by an opportunistic country such as Spain.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: The level of concern is high. The defense is the worst it’s been under Mike Krzyzewski and the Olympic field is stronger than ever, with all eight remaining teams having hopes for a medal. Still, Spain is once again the biggest threat to beat the U.S. After a sluggish first three games, Pau Gasol and his team have found their gear, crushing Lithuania on Saturday and beating Argentina handily on Monday. They have a tough test themselves in the quarterfinals, with a France team that beat them in Madrid two years ago. But if USA and Spain meet in the semis, it may be a toss-up.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: My level of concern is significant. I hope it’s the same for the members of the team as they face a very real threat from Argentina first and foremost, and either France or Spain in the semifinal round. The U.S. is at its best when it treats every opponent like a credible threat, even the teams that we all know should not come close to touching the NBA stars. In London four years ago, that attitude was prevalent. That team attacked the opposition in a way that made clear that the U.S. would not leave the games without gold. There was always a feeling in the building that no matter how hard the other team played, they would ultimately come up short. I don’t know what it feels like inside the building this time around, but I know what it looks like from afar. And I haven’t seen that same sense of urgency in Rio.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: The defense has been alarming. The USA has allowed 92 points over the last three games (equivalent to yielding 110 points over a 48-minute NBA game). Their opponents over the final three rounds – if the US gets that far – all know how to share the ball and move without it, beginning with the clever Argentines in the quarterfinal. The most dangerous opponent will emerge in the semis: France (Tony Parker) and Spain (Pau Gasol) each has the great player capable of leading and finishing the upset. For the Americans, assuming they can’t resolve their fundamental lapses on defense, the question comes down to which one or two of them is going to own this tournament in the way that LeBron James owned it in 2012. If they’re not capable of winning with fluid teamwork, then someone (Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, and/or Kyrie Irving) is going to have to take on the responsibility of carrying them.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: We’re not supposed to be concerned, right? After all, all we’ve heard is what a strong defensive team this is, and we know that the Team USA brass had their pick of dozens of players before curating this particular dozen, so why should there be any concern? Oh wait, I know why! Because this team seems awkwardly constructed. Or because their defense has never come together, and because the default offense seems to be clearing out and going one-on-one. This group is clearly talented, but they just can’t seem to get on the same page. Even if they can’t get things figured out, they will probably still win gold. But to me, Team USA’s biggest threat is themselves.

Morning Shootaround — Aug. 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Fear factor vanishing for Olympic team? | Group B gets crazy in Rio | Lebron’s new deal about more than money | Thomas convinced rest of the league knows Celtics are on the rise

No. 1: Fear factor vanishing for Olympic team? — All it takes is a couple of close calls in Olympic competition for the legion of doubters to appear for Team USA in Rio. That aura of invincibility vanishes with each and every tight game survived by this current group of All-Stars led by superstars Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving. Michael Lee of The Vertical shines a light on the turning tide in Rio as Mike Krzyzewski and his coaching staff continue to search for an identity for this particular group (perhaps in time for today’s game against France, 1:15 p.m. ET):

The hilarious Snapchat prank sessions, Facebook sing-alongs and Instagram video shenanigans were much more entertaining than the actual games for the United States men’s Olympic basketball team through a barnstorming exhibition tour and two effortless but sloppy beat-downs to start these games in Brazil. But just as this group was headed toward earning the playful title of the Meme Team, the Americans have encountered some genuine adversity in their past two games that – if mistakes aren’t corrected or adjustments not made – could find them on the wrong side of the joke.

Team USA might survive these Olympics unscathed. Ten All-Stars, including a former MVP, might prove to be all that the Americans need to escape the Rio games with gold medals around their necks. Getting shoved around by Australia and gasping for air until Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic’s potential tying 3-pointer drew iron, however, should give anyone pause that “the real world” – as coach Mike Krzyzewski has dubbed his team’s current predicament against superior opponents – is theirs to dominate. The Americans won’t be beatable until they actually lose, but the veil of invincibility has been exposed in too-close-for-comfort wins against Australia and Serbia.

“They are just players,” said Serbian center Nikola Jokic, the promising Denver Nugget who bludgeoned the U.S. for a game-high 25 points in a 94-91 loss. “If you think about who they are, you are not going to be good at this. Maybe Australia showed us they can get beat. They can get beat.”

Even without LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden or Chris Paul, the talent on Team USA is overwhelming in comparison to the other teams in this tournament. The performances have been extremely underwhelming, though, exposing the vulnerabilities and deficiencies without those aforementioned stars.

The off-court camaraderie that this group has developed appears authentic, as players have repeatedly discussed the bonds that have been formed in less than a month. But they are still learning to play with each other. Before confronting a fearless group from Australia, Team USA’s games were played at All-Star Game-level intensity and provided little in the form of preparation for what would be in store against legitimate competition outside the United States. The ease with which won made it easy to overlook that the team has 10 players making their Olympic debuts, including six who have never played any international competitions.

The Americans have all been asked to assume roles that are different than the ones they play on their NBA teams and the adjustment has been far from seamless. On the previous two Olympic gold medal-winning teams, Paul or James controlled the floor, Kobe Bryant embraced the role as defensive stopper, Dwyane Wade and later Westbrook came off the bench as cold-blooded assassins and Chris Bosh and later Tyson Chandler served as the defensive anchor protecting the rim and covering mistakes.

Through four games, this team is still waiting for those positions to be filled. Wins over Australia and Serbia were claimed in disjointed, grinding fashion. 

Team USA hasn’t looked sharp. Winning the past two games by a combined 13 points makes it obvious that something is amiss, but before trouncing Venezuela by 43, the Americans were tied with one of the worst teams in Group A after the first period.

“We got to expect this,” said DeMarcus Cousins. “Every time we step on the floor, guys are going to give us their best effort, everybody wants to beat Team USA. We know that coming in, but at the same time, we can’t crumble the way we’ve done the past two games. Right now, we’re hurting ourselves. Not taking away credit of how Serbia played, because they played amazing tonight. But we’ve got to be a lot stronger mentally.”

*** (more…)

Morning shootaround — Aug. 9

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Okafor hoping to re-enter NBA this season | How good can Saric be? | USA ready for stiff challenge in next game

No. 1: Okafor seeks NBA comeback — Just 10 or so years ago, Emeka Okafor was a former Rookie of the Year winner and one of the promising young big men in the NBA. Fast-forward to today and Okafor has been out of the NBA for three seasons and last played in an NBA game on April 12, 2012 as a member of the Washington Wizards. A herniated disc in his back has kept Okafor from playing in a game since that date, but in an interview with ESPN.com’s Jackie MacMullan, Okafor is working toward a return to the league:

Emeka Okafor, the former No. 2 overall pick who has been out of the NBA for three seasons, has decided to attempt a comeback with an eye toward joining a “contending team” in December or January.

Okafor’s agent, Jeff Schwartz, confirmed that Okafor, who last played for the Washington Wizards in 2012-13 before suffering a herniated disc in his neck, is in the gym training and working on his conditioning.

“He’s probably five or six months away,” Schwartz said. “He’s been working hard rehabbing. For some guys that means one thing. To Emeka, who understands his body as well or better than some trainers that have worked with him, it means something else. He’s healthy. He feels great, but he’s a perfectionist, and he wants everything to be right.”

Okafor, who had back surgery in college, struggled with neck pain, and when doctors discovered he had herniated the C4 cervical disc, the injury forced him to step away from the game. In October 2013, Okafor and his expiring $14.5 million contract were dealt to Phoenix in a five-player swap that netted the Wizards center Marcin Gortat. Okafor never played a game for the Suns.

His best years were with the Charlotte Bobcats, the team that drafted him as the second pick after Dwight Howard in the 2004 draft. Okafor averaged 15.1 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks as a rookie and posted double-double averages in all five of his seasons in Charlotte.

Retired University of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said he spoke with Okafor last week. According to Calhoun, his former player, who helped UConn win a national championship in 2004 (while leading the nation in blocks), is “really excited about getting back.”

“He’s in great shape,” Calhoun said. “He had offers last season from teams for $6-7 million to play just a portion of the season, but you have to know Emeka. He’s only coming back when he feels the time is right.

“He’s not going to make a decision based on money. He doesn’t need it. This is a kid who graduated with a 3.9 GPA. He wants to play a couple more years then go to business school at Harvard. He’s only going to play for a contending team.”

Warriors general manager Bob Myers, whose club lost big men Andrew BogutFestus Ezeli and Marreese Speights in the purge to make room for free agent Kevin Durant, said he had “a conversation” with Okafor a couple of months ago and will monitor the big man’s progress.

In the meantime, the Warriors have signed veterans David West and Zaza Pachulia to fill the void.

“We have 14 players right now, but you learn every year that someone you didn’t expect to be available becomes an option,” Myers said. “Ideally, you try to have the flexibility to keep a spot open in case that happens.”

The biggest hurdle for Okafor will be to prove to teams he’s both healthy and durable. Aside from his back and neck injuries, Okafor missed a chunk of 2005-06 with an ankle injury and part of 2011-12 with a knee injury.

San Antonio lost center Tim Duncan to retirement after 19 seasons and is likely in the market for big man insurance, but general manager R.C. Buford stopped short of expressing interest in Okafor.

“We always pay attention to whatever is out there,” Buford said. “But Emeka is three years removed from a time when his body was letting him down.

“It’s just hard to get enough information to evaluate a player like that, who won’t be in training camp, who hasn’t had game action for a prolonged period of time.”

Calhoun said the long layoff has not only rejuvenated Okafor physically, but also mentally.

“He misses the game,” Calhoun said. “Hey, he’s 6-10 and was a double-double guy in the NBA. He’s also the greatest guy you can find in the locker room. He’ll have plenty of teams lining up to talk to him.”

***

No. 2:

How will Saric’s game translate to NBA? — In NBA lore, the list of players from Croatia who have had success in the league includes former standout players such as Toni Kukoc, Peja Stojakovic, Dino Radja and Hall of Famer Drazen Petrovic. The Philadelphia 76ers are hoping they have one of the next players in line in that lore in rookie forward Dario Saric. Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe is covering the Olympics and reported on how Saric’s abilities might work in the NBA:

As Pau Gasol reared up to launch the hook shot NBA fans have seen many times, it seemed a cinch he would loft it into the basket and force overtime between Spain and Croatia.

Suddenly, under the rim, a tall man launched himself, raising his right hand to meet the ball at the apex and swat it away. Dario Saric’s block of Gasol’s layup in the final second secured a 72-70 upset win for the Croatians and let the rest of the basketball world know what his homefolks already do.

Saric is headed to the Philadelphia 76ers this fall, and for the first 39-plus minutes Sunday at Carioca Arena he looked as if his transition to the highest level would be difficult. Yet, that block secured a momentum-boosting win for Croatia and perhaps answered some questions about the guile of the 22-year-old, 6-foot-9-inch power forward after being a draft-and-stash for the past two years.

Saric spent two years with his Turkish team after he was drafted 12th overall by Orlando and then acquired in a draft-night trade by the 76ers in June 2014. He took that trip to New York for the draft two years ago, participated in all the activities with the fellow lottery picks — including the Celtics’ Marcus Smart — and walked the stage to shake hands with commissioner Adam Silver, knowing full well he was headed back overseas.

The Croatian signed a two-year deal with Anadolu Efes in Turkey, finally agreeing to opt out of his deal and join the 76ers for next season.

And the pressure is coming from all sides. Philadelphia fans, after years of putrid play in former general manager Sam Hinkie’s “Trust the Process” philosophy that resulted in 47 wins in the past three seasons, want Saric to become an impact player. In Croatia, there also is pressure from his countrymen and the media to become the next Drazen Petrovic or Toni Kukoc.

“Maybe you guys are not aware,” Croatian guard Roko Ukic said. “But whoever comes from our country to the NBA is like our next big thing [in Croatia], so much pressure from the media and for us, if we are like sixth in the Olympic Games, it’s not great. It’s pressure for those kinds of kids [like Saric], so this kind of game can give him a push in the back for his career.”

In a key sequence late in the fourth quarter with the Croatians trailing by 1 point, Saric used his ball-handling skills to get to the basket, only to be tied up by Spain’s Felipe Reyes and Croatia lost the possession.

Until the final seconds, Saric appeared to be another European product not quite ready for the rigors of the NBA. And then that final play happened, and his international image soared.

“This last play from Saric, that’s like a picture of our team,” Ukic said. “Everybody thinks he needs to get the medal by himself. It’s not easy to play the first time in Olympic Games and things didn’t go well for him offensively, but the effort he made and saved the day with the last block, that shows character.”

Croatia is seeking to return to respectability. They did not qualify for the 2012 London Games and finished 10th in the FIBA World Cup in 2014. They needed three consecutive wins, including in the FIBA qualifying tournament final against host Italy, to clinch an Olympic berth.

So his comrades are accustomed to such clutch plays from Saric, and that block against a six-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion perhaps catapulted Croatia to the favorite in Group B.

“He has no fear of anything,” Croatian coach Aleksandar Petrovic said. “[Sunday] he just wasn’t able to gain offensive rhythm, but he’s a guy who brings us a lot of different [things] so he maybe misses five shots but he [does] so many little things that makes my team better. I’m not afraid at all [that he won’t play well], not here, not in the future with his NBA team in Philadelphia.”

***

No. 3: True test lies ahead for Team USA on Wednesday — The U.S. men’s national team is 2-0 in their first two games in the Rio Olympics, having won both of those games by a combined 101 points. Those victories combined with how the team looked in its exhibition slate has left many wondering just how good the team is given the gap in talent and ability between it and its opponents. That will change in USA’s next game as it faces a solid Australia team, writes our John Schuhmann who is on hand for the Olympics:

The U.S. plays its final three pool play games against Australia, Serbia and France. And suddenly, Wednesday’s opponent looks like it will be the Americans’ toughest test in pool play … and maybe in the entire tournament.

Before the last few days, you might have overlooked Australia as a medal contender because it only had to outscore New Zealand in a two-game series last summer to qualify for the Olympics. Other teams, especially those in Europe, had a much tougher route. And before action tipped off on Saturday, the next tier of teams behind the United States appeared to be France, Lithuania, Serbia and Spain. In fact, Australia was below those three teams, Argentina and Brazil in the latest FIBA rankings.

But Australia has begun the tournament by beating two of Europe’s top four. It opened with an easy win over France on Saturday and followed that up by outlasting Serbia on Monday afternoon. Australia doesn’t just have six more NBA players than the Americans have faced in their first two games (zero), it’s been playing the best of any team not wearing “USA” on its chests. And there should be no intimidation factor on Wednesday.

“It’s the ultimate test,” Australia’s Andrew Bogut said. “They’re the best team in the world, best players in the world. I think if we go out there with the mindset that we can compete with them, win or lose, we will be happy with that. If we go out there and we’re intimidated by them, try to get our shoes signed before the game, and a signed jersey, we won’t win with that mindset.”

Australia will have two ball-handlers — Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills — who run the pick-and-roll better than anybody the U.S. has faced in its five exhibition games or its two games in Rio. Mills (47 points in two games) has been Australia’s leading scorer, while Dellavedova has tallied 23 assists and just one turnover in the two wins. They’re bench guys in the NBA, but they’ll still test a defense that has only been together for three weeks.

“Delly’s ability to read defensive coverage and systems over the course of games,” Australia coach Andrej Lemanis said, “is really, really impressive.”

“Offensively, we started to understand what was required in order for us to put some heat on the rim and find different ways to exploit their defensive schemes,” Lemanis said. “We got some really smart players and over the course of the game, they figure out what are the best offensive opportunities for us.”

Though he usually focuses on one opponent at a time, USA coach Mike Krzyzewski has clearly been paying attention to what Australia has done so far. In talking about Dellavedova and Bogut, “two of the better passers in the tournament,” Krzyzewski said that they have “maybe 35 assists” and “four or five turnovers.” He almost nailed it, as the pair have combined for 34 assists and only four turnovers. The preparation for this particular opponent started early.

The U.S. beat Australia in the quarterfinals of each of the last two Olympics, winning by 31 points in Beijing and by 33 in London. But this will be the best Australia team the Americans have ever faced.

Australia has already put itself in position to finish second in Group A and be placed on the opposite side of the Americans in the elimination-round bracket. After Wednesday’s game against the U.S., it will complete pool play with games against China and Venezuela.

It’s playing its best basketball at the right time, both to compete for an Olympic medal, but also to give the Americans a much tougher challenge than they’ve faced thus far.

“They can beat us,” Krzyzewski said. “We know that, and we’ll prepare accordingly.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Rudy Gay is reportedly interested in being traded to the Miami Heat … Philadelphia 76ers rookie Ben Simmons could end up taking on some point guard duties next season … LeBron James has his own locker in Ohio State’s locker room … Former Sacramento Kings forward Kenny Thomas is opening a new restaurant near the Kings’ new Golden 1 Center … Former Utah Jazz big man Kyrylo Fesenko may be nearing a deal with an Italian league team … The Oklahoma City Thunder may have Ronnie Price on their radar

Morning shootaround — Aug. 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Mitchell unsure about KG’s future | Irving ready to seek gold with Krzyzewski | World Peace: ‘I can still play’

No. 1: Mitchell thinks Garnett is still weighing his future — As a player for the Minnesota Timberwolves from 1995-2002, Sam Mitchell was the veteran voice who often guided a young Kevin Garnett during his formative NBA years. When Garnett returned to the Wolves in the 2014-15 season via a trade deadline-day deal, Mitchell was an assistant coach on the team and, following coach Flip Saunders‘ passing before the 2015-16 season, Mitchell was the team’s interm coach. But Mitchell is no longer with the Wolves, having been fired at season’s end as Minnesota hired Tom Thibodeau. In an interview with Sirius XM NBA Radio (transcribed by CBSSports.com), Mitchell opened up about his former teammate/player:

Kevin Garnett has been in the NBA for 21 seasons. If he decides to come back for the final year of his contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2016-17, K.G. will have played more seasons than anybody in NBA history. That decision hasn’t been made yet, at least as far as anybody outside of Garnett knows. Sam Mitchell, Garnett’s former teammate and coach believes the way the 2015-16 season ended could possibly lead to Garnett’s retirement, rather than coming back for another season at the age of 40.

Mitchell is referring to the way he was fired as Minnesota’s interim coach and how general manager Milt Newton was pushed aside for the full-time position. They took over their respective interim positions after the passing of Flip Saunders right before the season ended. At the end of a strong finish to the season, Mitchell was informed a couple hours before the last game that he would not be coming back as coach in 2016-17. The Wolves would eventually hire Tom Thibodeau to be the president and coach of the team with Scott Layden helping him in the front office.

“Last time I talked to him, he hadn’t made up his mind. I just think the way last year ended with the owner at the very last minute — and people don’t understand, we all felt pretty good about us. Myself, Milt Newton, and the coaching staff, we all felt pretty good about us coming back. We felt like we did a good enough job to at least earn us a couple of years, a year or two, to keep that thing rolling. And I just think KG was just so hurt by the way things happened.

“For people to send you messages as if you were going to be back and your staff was going to be back and we had everything going in the right direction, and to get a phone call [from owner Glen Taylor] two hours before your last game basically saying, ‘I’ve changed my mind and I’m going in a different direction,’ it just kind of knocked us all for a loop. We’ve all recovered from it and moved on but if you know Kevin, Kevin is very sensitive and he’s very loyal. And there was a lot of people in that organization that was let go, and the way it was done just left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouth.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know how he’s going to deal with that. Kevin takes that stuff personally and it’s going to be interesting to see ultimately what he decides to do. It’s a shame that if he doesn’t come back and play, that his last year in Minnesota ended the way it did.”

***

No. 2: Irving looking forward to run for gold with Krzyzewski — Five seasons into his NBA career, Cleveland Cavaliers guard and former Duke standout Kyrie Irving has amassed three All-Star appearance, a Rookie of the Year trophy, an All-Star Game MVP and, roughly two months ago, hit one of the biggest Finals shots ever to give Cleveland its first NBA title. Yet there remains a longing to accomplish a feat he missed out in college — winning a championship with coach Mike Krzyzewski. Kurt Helin of NBCSports.com has more on how a quest for gold is driving Irving as the U.S. team heads to Rio:

Kyrie Irving has gone all the way to Rio this summer seeking the culmination of a conversation that started in Irving’s parent’s New Jersey home back in 2009.

That’s when he and Mike Krzyzewski first talked of winning a title together.

“I did win a World Championship with him (in 2014), and this will cement our relationship of finally getting to play for a championship that we envisioned when I was 17 years old and he was recruiting me,” Kyrie Irving said. “I’m glad I have this opportunity with him.”

Seven years ago when that conversation began, Krzyzewski and Irving pictured that title as one in Durham — but the basketball gods were not going to let that happen. Irving played just 11 games at Duke due to a toe injury his freshman year. Rather than return to the Blue Devils, he went on to the NBA where he was the No. 1 pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011 (the season after LeBron James left them to take his talents to South Beach).

Now, the culmination of that title conversation could come with a gold medal at the Rio Olympics — in Coach K’s final run as the coach of USA Basketball.

“It’s definitely emotional — and I don’t shy away from that at all,” Irving told NBC Sports during a break in the shooting of a Kids Foot Locker commercial in Las Vegas, after a Team USA practice. “The 2014 World Championships was great, but being this is his last hurrah, thinking about the storyline of him and Jerry Colangelo taking over USA Basketball and what they did just to shape American basketball in general, and the honor of playing for USA Basketball.

“We were all reminded when they took over. It was a prestige honor before, but once they came in and built up a culture, it totally changed into a different dynamic. Every generation that is coming up has to come through USA Basketball if you’re, quote/unquote, a top player in the country. I enjoy that it’s now a generational shift. Constantly, constantly, we’re getting kids coming in and playing a part of USA Basketball. I myself played when I was 17 years old going into Duke. I end up going (to college) for one year, then I end up playing on the select team that I’m playing against today (the NBA rookies and young stars that the USA scrimmages against). I get a chance to, every summer, get better with USA basketball.

“That it’s being his last year is definitely an emotional one, but I’m glad I could be part of it.”

Sure, it Coach K’s last run and they feel the pressure to win for him. However, just putting that USA on your chest brings pressure, Irving said — adding that he welcomes it.

“There’s pressure every single year,” Irving said. “I mean American basketball is at the top of everything, we’ve proven that through the World Championships as well as the Olympics, and as well as the NBA — everyone wants to be part of this. So for us it’s not any added pressure — because I don’t know what pressure is — all I know is going out there, going all out, leaving it all on the floor and living with the results after that.”

While the title didn’t change his summer plans for Rio, Irving admitted this summer has been different — being a champion raised his profile.

“Not any other summer in my life have I won an NBA championship, which has been great,” Irving said. “It’s just been awesome because of partnerships I’ve had throughout the years in my career, and now we get to put a lot of great ideas out there, and I get to be part of a lot of great things. I’m just thankful and I’m just trying to take advantage of it, but also do it in a creative space I’m comfortable with.”

***

No. 3: World Peace: ‘I can still play’ — Los Angeles Lakers forward Metta World Peace is long since removed from his glory days as a top-flight scorer for the Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings. His highly regarded defense remains there in flashes, but more or less, World Peace served as a veteran voice and mentor for the young Lakers last season. But even after 16 seasons of the NBA grind, he tells ESPN.com’s Ian Bagley that he can still play at a high level and even average double-figure scoring if given the chance:

Metta World Peace has been in New York City for the past few days playing in summer hoops tournaments, visiting with family, supporting his father’s Artest Foundation and spreading the word about his new clothing line, The Panda’s Friend. We caught up with World Peace and asked about his plans for next season:

Q: What are your plans for next season? Are you headed back to training camp with the Lakers? You’ve talked about a potential future in coaching. Is that on your radar?

A: Right now, I’m life coaching a lot of people that are in the NBA. I can’t say [who]. But I coach a couple players. But it’s not a thing where I’m going to hide and be that perfect mentor. I just give them the best advice I can and live my life accordingly. I’m doing that now and one day I would love to coach. The Lakers are tattooed in my heart. They gave me a second chance when everyone was down on me, they gave me a chance to win a ring. The city of Los Angeles, they put up with me. Because in our world, the world of corporate basketball, you should act accordingly, you know? And I don’t like to act accordingly (smiles). I’m just trying to be authentic. I’m trying, as much as possible, to keep that if I coach one day.

Q: So is the NBA on the back burner right now?

A: No, the NBA’s always on the front burner.

Q: Are you still planning to play next season?

A: Absolutely. The NBA is always on the front burner.

Q: Are you talking with teams right now?

A. I’m waiting for teams. I can still play. I can play, it’s not even a question man. But, you know, sometimes you don’t get in the game, man. What are you going to do? I’m not going to be upset, I’m going to support. So if I don’t play, like this year on the Lakers I could have averaged 15 or 20 on the Lakers if I played, easily. But you know, I’ll be supportive [if I don’t play]. But the only thing that gets me frustrated with the whole basketball is people think I can’t play anymore. So as a man, I take that personally. But at the same time I’m able to still focus on making sure Julius Randle is doing his thing, and he’s focused, making sure I can give back. But when the season’s over, then I like to explain that I can play, and I can bust people’s ass. But the fans have to understand, it’s not up to me. It’s so frustrating to keep hearing it from the fans. ‘Come back to New York, come to Chicago. Why didn’t you play.’ It’s so frustrating at times.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Former New York Knicks star Latrell Sprewell says the thing he disliked the most about former Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller was that ‘he was a flopper’ … Back in the day, Michael Jordan was very, very unhappy when he wasn’t offered a front-office job with the Washington Wizards after he played for them …  Minnesota Timberwolves youngster Andrew Wiggins tried to throw down a 540-degree dunk

USA lineup numbers and notes

HANG TIME, N.J. — The United States Men’s National Team wasn’t tested on either end of the floor in its exhibition schedule leading into the Olympics. Four of the team’s five games were against the three worst teams going to Rio: China (twice), Venezuela and Nigeria. And both Venezuela and Nigeria were missing their only players that played in the NBA last season.

So there’s not much to be gleaned from the data coming out of those five games. The U.S. outscored its opponents by 43.0 points per game and 53.2 points per 100 possessions. The offense scored 127.5 points per 100 possessions (15.1 more than the Golden State Warriors scored last season) and the defense allowed just 74.4 (22.2 fewer than the San Antonio Spurs allowed last season).

The U.S. outscored its opponents by at least 41 points per 100 possessions with every player on the floor.

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Mixing and matching

With coach Mike Krzyzewski starting players in their NBA or home city, the U.S. used five different starting lineups in the five games, and all 12 players started at least once. In total, Krzyzewski used 83 different lineups on the exhibition tour. Only six of those lineups played in more than one game, and none played in more than two. No five-man unit got extended run together.

The USA’s three most used lineups all included Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins. Still, what could be the starting lineup when pool play opens against China on Saturday — those three plus Klay Thompson and Carmelo Anthony — has only played 9:03 together so far.

The good news is that it outscored its opponents (Argentina and China), 25-5, in those nine minutes.

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Small-ball for defense

If you look at the cumulative offensive statistics (pdf), Draymond Green was the United States’ worst player in the exhibitions. He shot 4-for-18 and led the team with 11 turnovers, even though only three players got fewer minutes than he did. Some of his shots and turnovers were downright ugly.

The U.S. centers, meanwhile, looked dominant against smaller frontlines. Cousins bullied opponents in the low post and DeAndre Jordan just jumped over them.

Yet, the U.S. was at its best with both Cousins and Jordan on the bench and with Green playing center. They outscored their opponents, 71-37, in just over 27 minutes with Green at the five.

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Less than 28 minutes against bad teams isn’t much to go on, but the positive impact that Green made on the U.S. defense was as clear as how out of synch he was offensively. How the U.S. plays with its different centers will be something to keep an eye on going forward.

One point guard at a time

This is the first time since 2006 that the U.S. is taking only two point guards on its roster. While we’ve seen a lot of two-point-guard lineups in past years, Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry played just 1:36 together in the five exhibition games.

The U.S. played more than 28 minutes with neither on the floor, using Paul George as its third point guard until he injured his calf in the third game. With both George and Lowry out against Nigeria on Monday, Jimmy Butler and DeMar DeRozan (and even Green) played the point in the 13 minutes that Lowry rested.

It’s doubtful that we’ll see many no-point-guard minutes against good teams in Rio. Irving was the MVP of the 2014 World Cup (scoring 26 points in the gold medal game) and hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history just six weeks ago. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been at its best defensively with Lowry on the floor.

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That may be because Lowry is defending the opponents’ reserves. But it’s also fair to wonder if Lowry better complements the other likely starting perimeter players (Thompson, Durant and Anthony), who are all as flammable as Irving.

Two-man data

With Irving and Lowry getting those 96 seconds together, the only two players who didn’t share the floor in the exhibitions were Cousins and Jordan. And it’s safe to guess that Krzyzewski won’t be playing any twin-tower lineups in Rio.

Other than Irving-Lowry, the only two-man unit that had a negative plus-minus was the combination of Thompson and Harrison Barnes, who were a minus-4 in 14.5 minutes together. With Barnes looking like the team’s 12th man, that combination probably won’t see any meaningful minutes together going forward.

Among the 30 two-man combinations that played at least 30 minutes together, the U.S. was at its best offensively (143.0 points scored per 100 possessions in 52.8 minutes) with Thompson and Durant on the floor. It was at its best defensively (54.2 points allowed per 100 possessions in 46.6 minutes) with Lowry and Green on the floor together.

More blowouts coming

Again, we’re looking at small sample sizes against mostly bad teams. But that’s all you get with the Olympics. And then suddenly, you’re playing a 40-minute elimination game against other NBA talent, and you have to know what’s going to work best.

It’ll be another week before the U.S. faces any more NBA players, because it will play its first two pool-play games against China and Venezuela. The competition will get stronger each game after that, as pool play wraps up with games against Australia, Serbia and France.


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