The NBA has always been a playground for budding trendsetters — or, in other words, whichever teams can adapt best from year-to-year, embracing their strengths and addressing their weaknesses emerge on the other side even better. While the powerhouse franchises like the Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets haven’t seen too much variation in recent campaigns — particularly so when comparing some base-level statistics between 2017-19 — there are plenty of other up-and-coming squads that have come out firing so far this season.
A little over halfway through the season, the Milwaukee Bucks and Sacramento Kings –along with a few honorable mentions — have easily been the league’s grandest surprises, both statistically and within the win column. Whether under the rim or behind the arc, there are fascinating narratives that now definitely extend past small sample size territory. With this in mind, here are the 2018-19 trendsetter award winners just ahead of the All-Star break.
Points Per Game
2017-18: 15th, 106.5
2018-19: 2nd, 117.0
Rebounds Per Game
2017-18: 30th, 39.8
2018-19: 1st, 48.8
2017-18: 18th, 109.1
2018-19: 1st, 103.6
Milwaukee, seemingly overnight, transformed into a league-wide darling this season, even though their roster looks pretty similar at the top to last year’s iteration. It decidedly helps to have an MVP candidate anchoring your side — Giannis Antetokounmpo is actually averaging 0.4 points less in 2018-19 thus far — but health has been key too. Malcolm Brogdon, the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year, is injury-free, putting up 2.7 more points per game and shooting excellently from three-point range (41.8 percent) again.
It’s been exactly a year to the day since Brogdon’s partially torn quadricep sidelined him for two entire months, so the Bucks will be excited to have the blossoming guard for a full 82 game-clip. Additionally, both Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton have upped their per game scoring tallies significantly — but it’s the Bucks’ single offseason splash that’s been the biggest difference-maker so far: Brook Lopez.
Lopez, a reborn seven-foot behemoth who fires away from downtown with reckless abandon, has been an absolute revelation for the Bucks. As Milwaukee cycled through largely uninspiring options at center last season — John Henson, Thon Maker and Tyler Zeller — Lopez was busy playing a career-low in minutes out in Los Angeles. Together, they formed a match made in basketball heaven. Lopez plied his trade as a potential three-point threat during his final season with the Brooklyn Nets in 2016-17 but he’s been given the greenest of green lights in Milwaukee, hitting on 2.6 three-pointers per game at a 38.4 percent rate.
On the rebounding front — from worst to first this time — there’s another striking improvement for the Eastern Conference-leading Bucks. Antetokounmpo, a player that will run out of printable adjectives by season’s end, has boosted his per game number from eight rebounds to a remarkable 12.6. The select few currently ahead of Antetokounmpo: Rudy Gobert (12.8), Joel Embiid (13.4), Anthony Davis (13.3), DeAndre Jordan (13.7) and Andre Drummond (14.9) — so pretty stellar company, all things considered. Last season, Antetokounmpo pulled down 24 games of 12 or more rebounds but he’s already beaten that mark in 2018-19 (26) with 32 contests to go.
The aforementioned Henson is still around to grab his niche-role boards, but the brightest newcomer to the conversation is D.J. Wilson. The 6-foot-10 forward notched just 3.2 minutes per game during his rookie season, but now risen to a healthy 17.7 average, Wilson has contributed 4.6 rebounds to the league-pacing treasure trove.
And yet, the accolades don’t stop there — those pesky Bucks! Not only is Milwaukee scoring at a more unstoppable pace, but they’re now also the best defensive team in the entire league as well. Turns out, rocking Antetokounmpo — OK, fine, every single moment — is like using a cheat code and the rest of the stretchy team follows suit. Undoubtedly, the Bucks have soared under new head coach Mike Budenholzer. The former 2014-15 Coach of the Year winner has transformed a once-lackluster unit into a nightmare-inducing mismatch. The Bucks typically have a couple defensive standouts strewn about the floor at any given moment — the usual suspects, of course: Antetokounmpo, Brogdon, Bledsoe, Middleton — and their ball-hawking tendencies are only matched by their length.
Milwaukee has separately tallied six or more blocks and steals in 26 of their 50 contests — topping out with single-game bests of 11 and 13, respectively. The Warriors, Celtics and Spurs will churn out yearly defensive stonewalls — but the Bucks’ newfound liftoff is just another reason why they’ve been so impossibly difficult to handle under Budenholzer. Once you tack on Lopez’s unreal three-point shooting and the boost in rebounding numbers, it’s easy to see why the Bucks are Eastern Conference royalty at long last.
Three-Pointers Per Game
2017-18: 26th, 9.0
2018-19: 12th, 11.5
2017-18: 30th, 95.59
2018-19: 2nd, 104.18
How does a team go from the conference cellar to postseason contenders in the West without blinking? In the Kings’ case, and credit to head coach Dave Joerger, all they had to do was nearly change everything about them. Last season, Sacramento knocked down seven or fewer three-pointers in 26 different contests and their record in such games was a poor 10-16 — thus making them massive suffers at the hand of the modern NBA. In 2017-18, the league average for three-point percentage was 36.2 and the Kings surpassed that mark in just 44 games and it’s tough to stay afloat, especially in the harder-to-navigate conference, without consistent shooting from long-range.
This time around, it’s been an entirely different story, full of positive boosts across the board. Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Aaron Fox and Justin Jackson have all upped their averages from 2017-18 — but three major leaps stand out. Buddy Hield has been one of basketball’s undisputed best shooters over the first half of the season, putting down 3.4 three-pointers per game (fourth-highest) at an elite 45.8 percent rate (fourth-highest, again). As a well-deserved selection for February’s three-point contest in Charlotte, Hield will get to do what he does best on the national stage and the sharpshooter shows no signs of slowing down.
But the Kings’ rise to behind-the-arc competency also falls squarely on the shoulders of Nemanja Bjelica and Iman Shumpert. The newly-signed stretch forward has rained 1.5 three-pointers per game on 42.7 percent from the floor, while Shumpert is in business after a down season in Cleveland. As a pair, they’ve turned the Kings into frighteningly competent three-point shooters — but it’s not the only thing that Sacramento has forcefully shoved back into 2019.
Their pace is currently ranked among the league’s quickest — that, obviously, is in large part due to Fox. Electric in nature, the greased lightning-like point guard is a one-man fast-breaking machine. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder record more field goal attempts than Sacramento (92.7) does, but the Kings still lead all teams with 21.4 fast break points per game. Bobbing and weaving through traffic — and perhaps, more importantly, a full season removed from the George Hill positional stranglehold — Fox has been an absolute menace. Without question, it helps to kick the ball outside to that previously cast of talented three-point assassins, but the Kings, who remain just 1.5 games out of the postseason, owe much of this surprise success to Fox.
San Antonio Spurs
2017-18: 26th, 35.2
2018-19: 1st, 40.9
In news that will shock exactly zero people: The Spurs are back. One season after backing into the playoffs by the tiniest of hairs on their chins — all without Kawhi Leonard, mind you — it was likely fair to wonder if it was the beginning of the end in San Antonio. Fair, but stupid, as always, of course. The Spurs aren’t even a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of three-point makes (21st, 10.2) but what they do hoist up has an excellent chance of converting. Leave it to a Gregg Popovich-led roster to not waste a single possession, naturally.
Discounting the deceiving numbers of Pau Gasol (50 percent, 0.5 attempts/game) and Dante Cunningham (49.1 percent, 1.1 attempts/game), there are exactly five three-point shooters making a difference so far for San Antonio: Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli.
This is about par for the course in the cases of Belinelli — who the Spurs just gave $12 million over two years for this exact reason, two three-pointers per game on 39.5 percent — and Mills. It is, however, a much-needed effort for Gay, who hasn’t shot over 40 percent from deep for the entire season a single time in his 13-year career. The truest gems here are clearly Forbes and Bertans, two under-the-radar standouts in Popovich’s demanding system. Bertans has been solid since he joined the Spurs at long last in 2016 — he was drafted No. 42 overall back in 2011 — but this is something else entirely.
Over his first two seasons, Bertans averaged 1.1 three-pointers on 38.6 percent shooting. But in 2018-19, Bertans is up to 2.1 makes on a blistering 47.8 conversation rate — the second-best rate in the NBA.
To his credit, Forbes has responded well to join the Spurs’ starting lineup as well, turning into a quintessential Spurs contributor in the process. Over 53 starts, Forbes is averaging 2.2 three-pointers on 42.5 percent shooting, the 13th-highest mark out there. And although Forbes didn’t get an invite to the three-point shootout like his teammate, this has been a terrifying duo for San Antonio on the perimeter. Last year, the Spurs had zero players finish over 40 percent from three-point range; today, they’ve got four — five if you count Mills’ close-but-no-cigar 39.8 percent clip. Given these breakouts (plus having a superstar for a full season, thanks, DeMar DeRozan) the Spurs are right where they belong: Surging for homecourt advantage in the first round.
2017-18: 12th, 1.3
2018-19: 7th, 4.1
Admittedly, this is not the most eye-popping rise in this category — that, of course, belongs to the Bucks again, who have stunningly grown from a net rating of minus-0.3 to plus-9.5. But since Milwaukee has earned plenty of love already, it’s time to praise the Pacers. For a roster that was slept on last season but earned league-wide respect, Indiana just continues to get better with age.
The Pacers, mostly, are the same team it was in 2017-18, just with the additions of Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, plus an offseason of development for Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. Notable statistical improvements from the latter two — particularly in the rebounding department — have been important, but Turner’s charge into a fearsome rim protector might be the biggest achievement to date.
Turner went from a respectable 1.8 blocks per game — a rate that left him third in NBA last season — to a monstrous 2.7 clip. That’s ahead of Anthony Davis, Hassan Whiteside and Rudy Gobert, good for the best average in the entire league. Furthermore, Turner’s current defensive rating of 100.9 is sixth-highest, a stark difference to his 106.2 mark that was tied for 47th-best in 2017-18. Sadly, this upstart team — well on pace to smash their 48-win total from the previous campaign — will likely sink following the loss of All-Star Victor Oladipo.
But the Pacers are built to weather the regular season storm, a well-constructed rotation with plenty of able veterans that can step in to help replace Oladipo. Thanks to the internal growth of their young forwards and the microwavable shooting from the steady Bojan Bogdanovic, the Pacers aren’t in real danger of missing the postseason just yet. Unfortunately, Indiana holds a 0-4 record since Oladipo’s devastating injury, so this promising net rating hop is bound to drop sooner rather than later. Even then, it hardly makes the Pacers’ year-to-year growth any less noteworthy.
While many onlookers get deservedly swept up in annual consistencies, some of the NBA’s best stories come from the bottom up instead. For the Bucks and Kings, their swift reversal has been a treat to watch unfold. One has become a sporting juggernaut in nearly every area, while the other is in contention to break a playoff drought that dates back to 2006. Elsewhere, the Spurs will never die and the Pacers, despite a brutal injury, remained impressive in their quest for respect. All-Star Weekend is right around the corner, but this list of trendsetting turnarounds should serve as some fun trivia fodder as Bertans, Fox and Antetokounmpo inevitably prove their worth on the national stage.
How D’Angelo Russell Fits Within The Golden State System
After acquiring D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade, Steve Kerr and the Golden State staff will look to maximize his talents in their offensive system. The final product may take some time, but there is a reason to believe that he could thrive in the new role, writes Quinn Davis.
For the first time in four years, the Golden State Warriors will enter the campaign as underdogs to win the championship. After losing the 2019 NBA Finals to Toronto, Kevin Durant joined Brooklyn and will spend a season rehabbing his Achilles before chasing a championship with new teammate Kyrie Irving. During Game 6 against the Raptors, Klay Thompson landed awkwardly on a fastbreak layup attempt, tearing his ACL and leaving his status uncertain for the entire upcoming season.
The Warriors were able to marginally re-tool by turning Durant’s departure into a sign-and-trade with the Nets, receiving 2019 All-Star D’Angelo Russell, along with Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham. Golden State also sent a protected 2020 first-round pick to Brooklyn as part of the deal, while Napier and Graham were flipped to Minnesota for cap purposes.
Of course, Russell is coming off his best season as a professional, having just led a feisty Brooklyn squad to the postseason with a barrage of pull-up three-pointers and nifty passing. He spent the season as the lead ball-handler for the Nets and was often asked to create shots for himself and others during his time on the court.
Now the young showstopper will need to coexist with Stephen Curry, a future Hall of Famer that happens to be a decent lead ball-handler in his own right. How head coach Steve Kerr fosters this relationship — and how Russell performs in the role — will be a major factor in the Warriors’ positioning come playoff time in the Western Conference. While it could take some patience, there is some reason for optimism in the Bay Area.
Since Kerr took over coaching duties in the 2014-15 season, the Warriors have been a bastion of ball movement. They led the NBA last season in both assists per game and assist percentage. Brooklyn, meanwhile, finished 21st and 18th in those respective categories.
When looking at just Russell, he was assisted on only 29 percent of his total shots, and just 53 percent of his three-pointers, putting him in the 91st and 96th percentile of those categories, per cleaningtheglass.com. Russell was liable to pull up from deep at any moment last season, one of the best among non-James Harden players at canning triples off the bounce.
Needless to say, Russell will not carry the same creative burden in Golden State. The gravity Curry creates, combined with the team affinity for passing, will lead to a plethora of catch-and-shoot opportunities — a skill in which the Ohio State product has shown proficiency on.
Per NBA.com, Russell hit a touch over 39 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-point attempts last season. For comparison, Klay Thompson shot just over 40 percent on these attempts.
This is not to say Russell can stand in as a Thompson replica — that’s an impossible task. Thompson had almost double the volume on those attempts, while his lightning-quick release allows him to shoot in tight spaces and when coming off screens. The majority of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers came from a standstill position as teammates found him with the extra pass. What Russell can do is provide the spacing necessary for Curry to operate, plus drill open looks when given the opportunity.
While Russell cannot perfectly emulate one of the best shooters ever, the Warriors could utilize him in ways they weren’t able to with Thompson.
Russell’s largely-successful stint as the creative orchestrator in Brooklyn will afford him plenty of chances to run the show this season as well. Even better, Russell may find it easier to create with a two-time MVP attracting multiple sets of eyes out at the three-point arc. Unsurprisingly, Curry shot a blistering 44.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, so Russell should see a less-crowded paint when he penetrates toward another patented floater.
Additionally, there’s the interesting wrinkle of using Curry as a screener with Russell running the pick and roll. Curry is a great screener for a guard and the Warriors have thrived with him off-ball, a decision that often leads to — you guessed it — freer looks around the three-point line. In the past, Golden State opted for Curry setting on-ball screens, mostly with Durant as the ball-handler. Those scenarios watch Curry slip the screens and dart to the three-point line, always leaving defenses in scramble mode.
Russell could slot into this role now, offering the ball-handling ability and pull up threat that Durant possessed. Last season, the Warriors scored 1.40 points per possession when Curry was the screener in a pick and roll, per NBA.com. They only had 0.6 of these possessions per game, but that is an elite number, and something they could look to for a basket in a close game. Kenny Atkinson, the Nets’ head coach, typically paired Russell with Spencer Dinwiddie and the fluid, intentionally confusing movement helped Brooklyn surprise the league over and over again.
It’s easy to picture Curry playing the role of Dinwiddie here, setting a screen for Russell to start the action, then relocating to the three-point line as Russell goes into a 1-5 pick and roll.
The Warriors are not only getting someone who could complement their stars, but also a player that could lead the offense when Curry is resting. This is where Russell’s experience from this last season in Brooklyn will be most useful.
In 2018-19, the Warriors had a paltry 100.6 offensive rating with both Curry and Durant off the court, per cleaningtheglass.com. The backup point guard position was usually manned by Quinn Cook or Shaun Livingston. Both were serviceable, but not without their limitations. Cook operated as more of a floor spacer and was not asked to create for teammates, while the savvy Livingston moved the ball but mostly looked to score in the post. Russell will provide the combination of shooting and point guard skills to control the floor and bend defenses.
Per NBA.com, the Warriors ran the fewest pick and rolls in the league last season. With Russell now in the fold, they could add some of that to their playbook for a little more offensive diversity. Russell showed a keen ability to manipulate a pick and roll last season and these clips show the type of playmaking he could bring to his new team.
Presumably, Kerr will want one of Curry or Russell on the court at all times, especially until Thompson returns. It’s also possible that Curry is asked to spend some time with the bench, with Russell and the remaining starters playing while the superstar rests. Either way, the staggering of their minutes will be an important puzzle for Kerr to solve this offseason.
There are still areas of concern for the Russell addition. While all signs point to easy offensive assimilation, it is not a foregone conclusion that Russell can slide into the role of secondary playmaker and floor spacer after a full, All-Star-worthy year as the lead dog. That said, Kerr has dealt with multiple stars every year and always passed with flying colors — on top of that, Curry is as selfless as they come. What might become a major concern for other teams may not even register as a speed bump for this Warriors franchise.
Still, there is also the other half of the game and Russell will not be able to replace what Thompson brought defensively. Although Draymond Green is a master at covering for teammates mistakes, a Curry-Russell backcourt could be problematic on that end. Even the impenetrable Green will struggle to plug every gap for this year’s iteration of the Warriors.
Notably, Russell did do a good job last season of not fouling, finishing in the 91st percentile in this category per cleaningtheglass.com. A 6-foot-10 wingspan allows him to contest well and swipe the ball from unsuspecting opponents.
If he can improve his off-ball instincts under the tutelage of the Golden State’ staff, and exert a little more energy on that end, he could mitigate some of those defensive concerns.
All in all, the positives easily outweigh any concerns here. Russell will bring extra playmaking to the Warriors that was sorely needed with the Durant departure, and he can also slide in next to Curry rather seamlessly.
There will be work to do for Kerr and his coaching tree, but his track record signifies that this could be a mutually beneficial relationship. If Russell keeps evolving at his newest hurdle — and the Warriors have a healthy Klay Thompson come playoff time — the fight for supremacy in the conference could be hotter than ever.
NBA Daily: Bobby Portis Ready For Anything After Hectic Offseason
Bobby Portis rightfully earned his first-ever NBA payday this summer, but he’s ready to settle in with the New York Knicks and play his role — whatever it may be — writes David Yapkowitz.
NBA free agency can be a stressful time for players, that often goes without saying. It can be a waiting game as teams put their time and resources into the big-name guys, while the rest of the league is left to twiddle their thumbs until the dominoes begin to fall.
This offseason was no different as Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving, among others, hit the open market. For players like Bobby Portis, who was experiencing free agency for the first time in his career, the initial process can seem like a whirlwind.
At the start of the 2018-19 season, Portis was entering the final year of his rookie contract with the Chicago Bulls. As a player who has improved every year since he started playing regular minutes, Portis was in line for a solid payday this summer.
Before the start of the season, Portis and the Bulls were unable to agree on a contract extension, so Chicago moved him to the Washington Wizards at the trade deadline. Several teams were interested in Portis once free agency hit, but the young big man came to a quick agreement with the New York Knicks.
Although he made his decision in the early days of free agency, the entire process was still a little hectic for Portis.
“It was crazy, every day hearing the different teams that were interested in me, really not knowing what’s going to happen,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “Luckily, on the first day of free agency, I was able to pick where I wanted to go and it was a blessing. It was just kind of crazy leading up to it though, hearing from different teams and just not knowing. But I’m blessed.”
For the past several years, the Knicks have been on the lower end of the NBA’s totem pole and they last made the playoffs back during the 2012-13 season. Since then, it’s been lottery season after lottery season with seemingly nothing to show for it.
Things look like they might changing a bit, however. This past season’s lottery finish yielded a highly-touted prospect in R.J. Barrett. Last summer’s draft brought them Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson. While Knox remains raw, Robinson emerged as a legitimate building block for the future.
They also struck gold with Allonzo Trier, who went undrafted last summer. And David Fizdale, who will be entering his second year as head coach, has brought with him the same no-nonsense attitude and solid culture that he had in Memphis. In fact, it was conversations with Fizdale that really helped sway Portis to the Knicks.
“Just the feel, they have a great coach in David Fizdale, they got a lot of young pieces out there I think I can come in and fit with,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “I love that they signed Julius [Randle], that’s another guy that can bang and really play at a high level. I love everything David was talking about with me in the meeting that I had with him.”
Portis wasn’t the only big free-agent addition that the Knicks added to their roster, actually making a flurry of signings once the period got underway. They addressed some of their playmaking and shooting woes with the additions of veterans like Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton. They also bolstered their frontcourt with Julius Randle, Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson.
To some pundits out there, the Knicks’ free-agent moves came across as a head-scratcher, especially their frontcourt signings. While Gibson will undoubtedly come off the bench, Portis, Randle and Morris each have strong cases to be the starting power forward.
All three have very similar skillsets in terms of versatile big men that can do a little bit of everything on the court. Portis admits that it’ll be a challenge at first when it comes to establishing roles and figuring out minutes in the rotation but, ultimately, he’s confident it will all figure itself out.
“It’s going to be competitive every day, it’s going to be a grind, it’s going to be difficult at first, but I think as things slowly progress, it’s going to go really, really well for us. I think we’re going to be really good,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “We got a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things with the basketball.
“In today’s NBA game, you need a lot of guys who can stretch the floor, shoot the ball, put the ball on the floor and make plays for others. I think we have a lot of versatile guys on our team and I think that’s where our team is at right now.”
When it comes to his own role in the team, Portis is confident about what he brings to the table. As the offseason winds to a close, and training camp right around the corner, he’ll be entering his fifth year in the NBA. He’s still only 24 years old with his best basketball ahead of him.
With massive steps forward every campaign, Portis has officially established himself as a legitimate stretch big man who can thrive in the modern landscape. This past season, he put up career-highs of 14.2 points per game, 8.1 rebounds and 39.3 percent shooting from three-point range.
With other versatile big men on the roster, Portis is willing to adapt to whatever role the Knicks ask him to play.
“I bring energy, I love to score the basketball, I can score from all three levels. Driving the basketball, shooting the three, posting up, finding the mismatch, just being who I am,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “I think I’ve done a good job since I’ve been in the league of being who I am, knowing my role on the team and playing it to a tee. I think I can hone in on any role that Coach Fizdale wants me to play.”
NBA Daily: Team USA Facing More Adversity Than Just On-Court Competition
Lots of current and future NBA stars pulled their names from consideration for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, but the bigger challenge comes from the game’s ever-increasing global presence. Drew Maresca examines how Team USA might be facing a perfect storm of adversity.
The 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup is upon us. The World Cup takes place every four years with — usually — two years between it and the Olympics. But FIBA made some changes to the tournament last year, moves that included delaying the World Cup one year and announcing that it would become a broader qualifying event for the Olympics. In years’ past, only the winner of the tournament automatically qualified. The United States is looking to defend the gold after having won the past two tournaments in 2010 and 2014.
Basketball Insiders’ Douglas Farmer recently covered the potential free agency implications of players participating in Team USA. And while a select few NBA clubs will probably benefit from the synergy and friendships generated while playing with the roster, the team itself might struggle to maintain the gold standard – no pun intended – set by previous iterations.
Team USA has lost a good deal of the talent that it might have assumed to have on its roster as of a few months ago: Marvin Bagley Jr., Bradley Beal, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, De’Aaron Fox, Eric Gordon, James Harden, Montrezl Harrell, Tobias Harris, Damian Lillard, Kevin Love, Kyle Lowry, CJ McCollum, Paul Milsap, JJ Redick, Julius Randle , P.J. Tucker and Trae Young. Of course, this doesn’t take into consideration those who pulled their names from consideration prior to this summer.
The above-mentioned players opted out of Team USA for a variety of reasons, from load management to injuries and so on. But the overarching takeaway is that personal success and professional priorities take precedence over international basketball.
And that’s understandable. Many of the players who opted out have either experienced previous achievements with Team USA or are young enough to look ahead to future opportunities to do so.
But where does that leave Team USA this summer? Who is left to build around? Well, there’s Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton and Donovan Mitchell. Those five are probably the most talented players left on the USA’s roster. On paper, that group represents a dynamic and talented core that can compete with virtually anyone.
But that doesn’t guarantee success. First of all, there is a significant drop off in talent from previous years. During the most recent Olympics, Team USA had nine reigning All-Stars, but this current collection only has two – the lowest total since 1998, a lockout year for the NBA in which the professionals mostly opted out.
And the competition in the 2019 FIBA World Cup isn’t just anyone.
Sure, there is still talent on Team USA – albeit less than there was on past teams – but the real challenge for this team is the ever-increasing talent and competition overseas.
The competition being produced by Europe, Africa, Australia and Canada is far better than it’s ever been before. For reference, there were only 70 foreign-born players in the NBA at the start of the 2008-09 season, according to Basketball-Reference, the season that immediately followed the Redeem Team’s first-place finish in the 2008 Summer Olympics. That number jumped to 108 during 2018-19, representing an increase of more than 50 percent in only 10 years. In fact, 108 isn’t even the record for most foreign-born players on NBA rosters on opening night as that accomplishment belongs to the 113 in 2016-17.
Not only is there more foreign-born talent, that new competition is only getting stronger. There were only 17 foreign-born All-Stars in the 64 seasons prior to 2010; there have been 13 in the nine years since 2010 and three in 2018-19 alone.
But truly elite talent and volume are different. The NBA has crowned three different foreign-born MVPs over the past 14 seasons — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash — and only one during its first 48 years of existence (Hakeem Olajuwon).
And while there is more high-level international talent in the NBA than the league has ever seen, it’s undeniable that some countries produce significantly more of it. For example, there are far more NBA players from France, Canada and Australia than from China or Mexico – meaning that international talent is centralized in a select few countries.
Notably, as of 2018-19, there were 42 Canadian-born NBA players, 30 Serbians, 30 French, 25 Australians, 22 Croatians, 18 Germans, 17 Brazilians, 17 Nigerians and 12 Argentinians, among others.
So, obviously, Team USA has its fair share of competition. America still currently produces more top-tier talent than any other country — but without its best players available, the US could be in big trouble.
But this is a natural progression for a game that has become increasingly more global. According to the NBA, 127 current and former players and coaches visited 40 different countries this offseason to continue growing the game. And what’s more, 2018-19 NBA broadcasts reached one billion unique viewers. 35 percent of NBA.com visitors hail from outside of North America and NBA League Pass is available in 200 countries around the globe.
To call the NBA’s international footprint vast would somehow still undersell the sport’s rapid growth around the planet.
So it is logical to assume — while the United States will continue to produce elite players — that the rest of the world is on a more aggressive trajectory in creating their own other-worldly competitors. And it probably won’t be long before Team USA’s advantage on the hardwood becomes a thing of the past and other nations enter international tournaments as the favorite – regardless of whether the best in this country are participating or not.