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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: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity

The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?

Buddy Grizzard

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The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.

“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.

“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”

Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.

“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”

Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.

“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”

Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.

“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”

The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler

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Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

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Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision.

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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