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Curved Grades: On Complacency Hurting Team USA

Team USA has dominated for the last decade, but the program should still address some concerns moving forward.

Ben Dowsett

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Remember high school teachers or university professors who graded on a generous curve? Not the sticklers in competitive courses who used the curve to weed out the less worthy. We’re talking about the converted gym teacher who lumped anyone with 75 percent or better into the “A” category and went out of their way not to fail anyone. To some among us these teachers were a godsend, an easy GPA booster, a convenient chance for a nap.

To the more motivated – and likely to many parents – they were a dumbed-down waste of time. It was too easy to succeed. If there’s no difference in the bottom line for a student in the 75th percentile versus one in the 95th, what’s the motivation to do anything but the bare minimum?

If curves like these became too common, many could find it bleeding into our other classes. Laziness and settling can easily become habits for even the most diligent.

Since 1992, the United States men’s basketball team has operated within a constantly curved grading system – one where only they get the gym teacher and every other country gets the stickler. And while they’ll likely get another “A” in the form of a gold medal Sunday, the path here has perhaps exposed the level to which their comfortable pattern has led to coasting and complacency throughout the process.

It’s not tough to see how things got to this point. The program hasn’t lost a game in a decade after overhauling things following its mid-2000s embarrassments, and now sits a win over Serbia away from sweeping three consecutive Olympics. The victories have typically been sleepy affairs, with most exceptions caused by laziness and rectified through a flip of the on-switch. Guys only used to playing with each other in meaningless All-Star games naturally have a hard time adjusting, even if that reality almost never shows through with such an overwhelming talent advantage.

The gap was narrower than usual this time around, and it showed.

The team’s first halftime deficit in the better part of a generation against Australia sticks out, as does a narrow three-point win over Serbia two days later. Both these games were in legitimate doubt, and it wasn’t because of some unreal shooting barrage from the opposition.

USA’s defense has looked lost for long stretches against teams with real NBA talent. The group has appeared disjointed ever since that Australia game, even at times during a couple more comfortable medal round wins. After facing little adversity or scrutiny since helping right the ship 10 years ago, coach Mike Krzyzewski has shown a few chinks in the armor.

Part of it wasn’t really anyone’s fault, to be fair. Other countries dealt with a number of notable absences from Rio, but none had to stomach losing arguably six or seven of their eight best players, including several mainstays from previous triumphs. The U.S. has commonly been at a continuity disadvantage against teams like Spain or Argentina with cores who literally grew up playing together, and they may have felt that even more this year.

The talent has always been enough to override that, though. It should have been this year, too, at least to a larger degree than we’ve seen.

Part of the issue is team construction, especially in a year when so many of the top guys stayed home. Those are the guys capable of overwhelming anyone regardless of fit, matchups, shooting slumps, whatever. So many of them were gone, yet the approach remained the same, and that’s the problem.

Take DeMar DeRozan, for instance – a great player, an All-Star in his prime. This isn’t an All-Star team, though. On a roster already loaded with scoring and ball dominance, what’s the need for depth pieces with overlapping skill sets and few complementary talents at this level? DeRozan doesn’t shoot threes, isn’t a great defender at his position and has only played previously on the international stage with three of his eleven teammates.

Instead of the next big name down the list when the superstars bow out, why isn’t fit being considered more for these depth roles? Could someone like Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, a great defender and spot-up shooter who doesn’t need the ball to make his team better, not have been a more effective choice? What about Jae Crowder, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, or even Team USA regular Andre Iguodala?

Maybe these names were considered, maybe they weren’t. In the role asked of a guy like DeRozan or Harrison Barnes, though, there’s a real argument they’d have been much more effective despite lower Q-scores. The theme is a microcosm for the program at large: Modern basketball is a team game, and a collection of talent isn’t necessarily a team equal to the sum of its parts.

We might not even be talking about any of this if Coach K was a bit quicker with the trigger in those tests against Australia and Serbia. Always known as a communicator and leader rather than a master tactician, Krzyzewski deserves praise for what should end up as a perfect 10-year run with the national team. Likewise, he deserves bits of criticism for some of the finer points along the way, this tournament in particular.

Krzyzewski has flip-flopped his starting lineup multiple times in a short tournament – in the case of Klay Thompson, unquestionably one of the five best pure shooters on earth, a demotion appeared to be the result of nothing more than a couple off-nights from the field. The move broke up a bench unit that was rolling together, though it was an error Krzyzewski rectified in short order, to his credit.

His rotations have been strange at times; bench units have frequently featured each of DeRozan, Jimmy Butler and DeAndre Jordan, all non-threats to space the floor, with simple alternatives available. This particular group clearly hasn’t bought whatever he’s selling on the defensive end, and their best overall defender in Draymond Green has mostly stayed rooted to the bench (in fairness, his play hasn’t warranted huge minutes).

Concerns like these are a safe bet to fade with Gregg Popovich on tap as Krzyzewski’s replacement, but he and his staff will be wise to remain mindful of broader themes. Priority one will be removing complacency, a department in which Pop is no slouch.

Golden Age teams from Spain and Argentina might be moving on, but in their place come youthful squads stacked with NBA talent and, in many cases, years in the pipeline together. The Aussies made noise in this tournament without any real star power, but hey’ll add prodigy Ben Simmons, plus high-ceiling youngsters Thon Maker and Dante Exum before long. Canada probably shouldn’t have missed out on Rio, and boasts a compelling core of Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Trey Lyles and Kelly Olynyk. The French have some of the strongest non-NBA players in the world alongside association stars Nicolas Batum and Rudy Gobert, and Nikola Jokic seems determined to keep Serbia relevant on his own if he has to.

Look for crispness on the court to improve, but look for a few tweaks in the lead-up process as well. A program that lapped the world several times since the mid-2000s could afford to reward coach’s favorites like Mason Plumlee with World Championship roster slots, make curious roster omissions and coast through any preliminary tournament. Maybe that margin for error is shrinking, especially if some top U.S. stars keep trending toward body preservation and other priorities over Olympic play as they age.

Perhaps this is overly harsh. The United States’ dominance in international basketball isn’t truly at risk with the right tweaks, but the grading curve might be evening out. A higher standard was necessary after much larger issues a decade ago; it would be prudent to nip any similar concerns in the bud.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.

By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.

Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.

Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?

That may be pricisely the case here.

Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.

We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.

For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.

In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.

Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.

That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.

* * * * * *

With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.

The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.

At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.

In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.

Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.

Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.

Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.

And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.

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NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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