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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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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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