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A look at players from Team USA
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By Sam Smith | 1.05.2015 | 9:12 a.m. CT
The Houston Rockets with league leading scorer James Harden are in the United Center Monday to play the Bulls. So perhaps it’s a good time not only to have some more MVP talk—Harden is probably the midseason leader—but a look back at summer basketball. In recent years, there’s been some quiet grumbling from teams about their players participating with USA Basketball, especially after Paul George’s season ending injury in a pre-tournament scrimmage last July. But a look at the USA team that won the gold medal at the FIBA Basketball World Cup shows a strong roster of players, basically all of whom are improved or having career years:
James Harden: The Rockets shooting guard continues to make the trade from Oklahoma City one of the worst ever as he’s been the most impressive individual player all season and kept Houston winning when Dwight Howard missed 11 games and frankly hasn’t looked as explosive as he once was. With Kevin Durant returning from injury strong and LeBron James likely to have a big second half, they’ll be back in MVP consideration with several others. But at the mid point it should be Harden.
Stephen Curry: The best player on the winningest team is another MVP candidate, sixth in the league in scoring with the quickest and most remarkable shot in the game.
Anthony Davis: The third legitimate league MVP candidate from that USA team. Davis is putting up historic statistics on a team that excludes him on virtually every play. Maybe the classic of all time was in an overtime loss to the Spurs last week in which Davis almost won the game with an amazing baseline dunk move over Tim Duncan and offensive rebound at the end of regulation (still had to retrieve someone else’s shot). And then in overtime he didn’t even get to touch the ball once in the first four minutes; then they throw it to him and he gets a basket right away and then not again as their guards go one-on-one even with Danny Green switching onto Davis. It’s been likely the most egregious misuse of a star ever.
Kyrie Irving: The tournament MVP and USA player of the year is averaging comparable numbers at more than 20 per game. It’s a bit of a mess of a Cavs team, except it is the first winning Cavs team for Irving.
Klay Thompson: With Curry, has established the league’s best and most potent backcourt as the top shooting guard after Harden given he is averaging a career best 21 points per game and more than 43 percent on threes in only about 33 minutes per game.
Kenneth Faried: He put himself on the NBA map and got himself a big contract with his play for USA Basketball when he hustled his way onto the team. He started the season slowly in curiously not playing regularly. But he is now and in the last six games is averaging 16.3 points and 15.7 rebounds in only about 30 minutes per game.
Rudy Gay: He was a late addition to the team after George was injured to add someone who’d been with USA Basketball previously. He’s actually averaging a career high 20.8 for a Kings team that started well but has fallen off since the coaching change.
DeMar DeRozan: He led the team to a 13-3 start when he suffered a groin injury unrelated to any summer activities. He’s due back this week for the Raptors, who have fallen off lately without him.
Mason Plumlee: Having his best season as a sophomore as his elevation to the starting lineup for the Nets has helped turn around their season. He’s averaging 16.1 points and 9.2 rebounds the last 13 games in keeping Brook Lopez on the bench.
DeMarcus Cousins: By all accounts certainly his calmest season as he’s down in technical fouls and also averaging career highs in points and rebounds. He was up around 25 per game before missing 10 games with a virus.
Andre Drummond: His overall double/double statistics are similar to last season, but since the release of Josh Smith and the ball returning to others, Drummond is averaging 15 points and 15.8 rebounds in those five games.
Derrick Rose: His career scoring average is down, though still good at 17 points for 28 minutes. His three-point shooting is at the level of his first two NBA seasons. But Rose has been healthy and fast after missing two years with major knee injuries. Playing for USA Basketball was a first step back and that Rose’s game is again being scrutinized instead of his health is a major advance for he and the Bulls.
NBA news and notes
Mile high shootaround?
Good for the Denver Nuggets. And who says that often? The Nuggets have started to experiment with eliminating the morning shootaround, perhaps the stupidest idea ever invented in sports. Where else in any workplace anywhere in the world or with any sport—and in a business in which most of the workers are single young men—do they wake you up early to come to the office/arena to go over plays and practice a few shots and then send you home and hope you take a nap so you’ll be rested when things really count in about 10 hours? This supposedly was started by Bill Sharman, an NBA Hall of Famer and wonderful man, a league pioneer who I feel made just one major mistake in his career. It happened after the Lakers won the title and 33 straight games. So, of course, everyone decided it had to be the shootaround and not Wilt or Jerry West. After all, their owners might ask why they weren’t doing that if the title team could. And so it never stopped. Ask yourself: How does waking up extra early in the morning when you have to do your best work at 10 p.m. (the winning shot?) make sense? The Nuggets instead are having players come in a bit earlier before the game to prepare, which most teams do, anyway, on the second of back to backs. Said coach Brian Shaw to the Denver Post: "I'm going to experiment with it, I think, for the rest of the season and see how it works. And whatever it is they did the night before, maybe they have more time to recover as well. When we do stuff in the morning sometimes it's in one ear and out by the time we come back that night. So the closer we can do everything going into the game, hopefully it will be better for us." Now that does make sense. By the way, Sharman’s idea really didn’t work because Wilt famously supposedly told Sharman he showed up once a day at the arena and Sharman could choose time.
Kobe and AAU
I’m with Kobe Bryant, who told reporters European players (especially at a young age) are much more skilled than players from U.S. colleges, though more because of the AAU mess and corruption of prep basketball. "They are just taught the game the right way at an early age,” Bryant said of Europeans. “They're more skillful. It's something we really have to fix. We have to teach our kids to play the right way. AAU basketball. Horrible, terrible, AAU basketball. It's stupid. It doesn't teach our kids how to play the game at all so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don't know how to post. They don't know the fundamentals of the game.” It’s true, but just half the story, and Bryant could not get into the other part because he was a prodigy. He’d be fundamentally sound if he grew up with AAU instead of in Europe, where his father, now coaching in Japan, played after his NBA career. The other blame is the NBA players’ association, which continues to do a major disservice to the league and its members, like Bryant, by fighting for players to be allowed to come into the NBA after high school or with no college restrictions. Yes, Kobe and LeBron and Garnett and a few others became stars. But the huge majority are the kids Bryant hates seeing who don’t know how to play. the Tyson Chandlers of the world who drift through five high schools, like Chandler did, and multiple teams until team after team has to spend time teaching him to play. The talent usually comes out, but often six or seven years in, like with Chandler. How is that good for anyone? Or kids like Marquis Teague, who don’t get the chance to show how good they can become. The NBA, especially now, has no time for development. Coaches don’t get to keep their jobs that long.
Mavs Ellis All-Star bound?
Is he giving them juice drinks and Rice Krispie treats now after games? 76ers coach Brett Brown after the 76ers’ 36-point loss to the Clippers Saturday said, "I was proud of our guys. But the floodgates open. It ends up being a long game." No word yet if Brown is ordering post season participation trophies for the 4-28 76ers ... Anyone in the Euroleague looking for a seven footer? It’s likely Andrea Bargnani’s NBA career is done as after sitting out all season with hamstring issues he returned, played one game and two minutes in another and then went out indefinitely again with a calf problem ... Looks like Derek Fisher is taking the bait of being provoked by the New York media as last week he answered a question saying, "The only reason we come out to talk is it’s mandatory." ... The Mavs’ Monta Ellis is the highest scoring player who’s never made an All-Star team, but he should this season even in the guard-heavy West. He hasn’t missed a game in three years, then suffered a bad sprained ankle Dec. 28 against the Thunder and has played every game since scoring at least 20 in each one. He even shut down Bradley Beal defensively in the first game after the sprain. Said coach Rick Carlisle: "Most guys in this league wouldn't even think about playing two nights later." ... Tyrone Corbin is looking like a bad hire for the Bulls. The former Jazz coach now coaching the Kings is 3-7 since replacing Mike Malone with a sinking Kings team giving up more than 110 per game under Corbin. The Bulls own the Kings draft pick from the Luol Deng trade through Cleveland if it’s 11-30. The Kings now have fallen to tied for the 11th poorest record.
Central Division guards impressing
He hasn’t made anywhere near the sort of jump that Jimmy Butler has, but Milwaukee’s Brandon Knight’s consistent play averaging almost 19 per game and 40 percent on threes has been one of the big reasons for the terrific Bucks start that has Jason Kidd a top coach of the year candidate. Knight last week had 26 in a win over the Cavs and Kyrie Irving, taken first in the 2011 draft while fellow point guard Knight went No. 8. In a dozen games against the Cavs and Irving, Knight is averaging 20.1 ... Much of the NBA reads the Hoopshype web site for daily updates, though it has become more transaction oriented. For more depth, basketballintelligence.net is proving popular ... Releasing Josh Smith got the attention of Brandon Jennings, who in the Pistons 5-0 post-Smith with an averaging winning margin of about 18 per game, is averaging 21.6 points and 5.6 assists, shooting 56 percent (39 career average) and 49 percent on threes. And no one has written Josh’s name on their sneakers ... After an opening win when Smith rebounded and played defense, the Rockets lost three straight with him starting and benched him for previous starter Donatas Montiejunas. Those who know Smith say the issue with Smith is he has trouble accepting outside opinion that he’s not one of the top 10 players in the NBA. No, really.
East playoff push
Nice to see Jimmer Fredette getting some time and doing well with the Pelicans. He had a total of 30 points combined in the first 30 games. In 2-1 against the Rockets, Suns and Spurs, he scored a total of 33 points and shot 12-23, though Eric Gordon is due back soon ... Though the Pelicans’ defense according to the statistics is better when Omer Asik plays, in a familiar refrain he’s become something of a fan un favorite given his lack of, let’s say, uncertainty catching the ball. He’s a free agent and the Pelicans gave up a No. 1 pick for him. And there are a lot of teams looking for centers ... The hard charging Pistons after their 5-23 start are just three in the loss column out of the last playoff spot in the East. Oh, what a battle with Miami eighth at 15-20 and hanging on just ahead of Indiana and Boston. What a final month it should be in the East.
NBA news and notes
Cavs general manager David Griffin Sunday labeled "ridiculous" talk that the Cavs would dismiss rookie coach David Blatt, blaming, of course, media when he told reporters: "I've been disappointed that the slant has been an attempt to be so negative all the time. It is a non-story. It's a non-narrative. Coach Blatt is our coach. He's going to remain our coach. Do not write that as a vote of confidence. He never needed one. It was never a question. So don't write it that way." Griffin didn’t ask to edit any of the stories, though. Obviously, this all depends on what LeBron James wants no matter what anyone else says. The only curiosity to me is all that summer talk that Blatt was some sort of offensive guru and all I’ve seen is routine, unimaginative pick and roll and post up offense without any discernable system, which actually makes Blatt a good candidate to be rehired somewhere if necessary ... Now this is impressive: The East leading Atlanta Hawks have won six straight on the road over Western Conference opponents with a combined record of 117-86 after Saturday’s win in Portland, where the Bulls have not won in eight years. Plus, the Hawks were in the second of a back to back while Portland had been off three days. The Hawks don’t have a top 30 scorer, which is why they didn’t have a player in the top ten in All-Star fan voting. But Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague should be selected by the coaches. The coaching staff comes from the team with the best record, which could go a long way to being decided when the Bulls host the Hawks Jan. 17 ... As for ABC Christmas Day picking up James and Dwyane Wade talking about being back together, I had that analyzed and it turns out they were debating the meaning of "toe jam football" and "walrus gumboot" in the Beatles’ Come Together. LeBron was saying it was his favorite Beatles song not soloed by Ringo.