USA Basketball ends; 2015-16 speculation begins

Next stop training camp.

And so ends the NBA’s version of sleep away camp as USA Basketball Thursday concluded its brief invitational camp for the 2016 Olympics with an All-Star game like dunk fest exhibition won by the “white” team coached by a sedentary Tom Thibodeau, 134-128.

The exceptionally relaxed camp was more like a pre-school playground attendance drill with players shooting around for two days and then most heading home. So few of the 2016 hopefuls, including the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler, stayed around that USA Basketball had to invite several NBA players from the area and not involved in USA Basketball, like Arron Afflalo and Amir Johnson, to have enough for a game, such as it was.

But it does mark the end of the NBA’s long summer of free agency, summer leagues, the release of the 2015-16 schedule and the first auditions for USA Basketball, how limited that will be. Many of the top players now take off for shoe sponsor trips overseas as there are basically no more NBA activities until the start of training camps in late September and early October.

The season then opens Oct. 27 with the Bulls featured hosting the Eastern Conference favorite Cleveland Cavaliers.

As wagering is legal here in Las Vegas—other than on FanDuel–where USA Basketball was training at UNLV, the sports books have the Cavs not only favorites to win the Eastern Conference but the NBA title.

The Golden State who?

The Cavs were listed at the Venetian/Palazzo at 11/5 to win the title followed by the defending champion Warriors at 5/1, the Spurs at 16/5 and then the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder at 8/1. The Bulls were sixth at 13/1.

In the Eastern Conference, the Cavs were 2/5 favorites followed by the Bulls at 7/1, the Miami Heat at 10/1 and the Atlanta Hawks at 12/1.

Not so fast, said Michael Carter-Williams, who had 13 points in the USA game and engaged in a fan pleasing back and forth with Orlando’s Victor Oladipo. The Bucks were a surprisingly tough first round playoff opponent for the Bulls last April, and Milwaukee effectively is adding two starters in injured Jabari Parker and Detroit Pistons’ big man Greg Monroe to make them a threat in the conference.

“We’re young, but we had some great playoff experience against the Bulls and learned a lot,” said Carter-Williams late Thursday after the USA game. “We’ve got new guys coming, Jabari coming back. We do have a good core and we can’t wait to get out there and compete. Everything is starting to come together for Milwaukee, the team, the coach and now the arena; things are going pretty well.”

And former Bulls coach Thibodeau agrees.

Before coaching his team with fellow USA assistant Monty Williams coaching the opponent, Thibodeau said wins are going to be much more difficult to come by in the Eastern Conference. While the consensus backed up by the Las Vegas odds has Miami and Atlanta top four contenders, Thibodeau said to watch out for the Indiana Pacers. Thibodeau, who was untypically relaxed and almost vegetating on the bench in Thursday’s game, said a perimeter with Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey and George Hill will be formidable, especially with Paul George returning and playing more power forward.

George was seriously injured in this scrimmage last year. So he was told to skip the game by chairman Jerry Colangelo. As a result, the game was played without defense until the last few minutes and the basket stanchions, where George was caught last year, were moved back.

Thibodeau also said to watch out for the Detroit Pistons. Their center, Andre Drummond, led both teams Thursday with 27 points and 16 rebounds and Thibodeau said Drummond was impressive even in the light workouts Tuesday and Wednesday. Plus, Orlando’s Oladipo was in many respects the perimeter star of Thursday’s game with 25 points, a game high four three pointers and a spectacular running one handed dunk over Carter-Williams. With Scott Skiles as new coach, Thibodeau says Orlando will be a different team.

There aren’t going to be sub-.500 playoff teams from the Eastern Conference this season. Teams like the Bulls, Heat and Hawks, Thibodeau warned, better watch the rear while they are looking up at the Cavs. To paraphrase Satchel Paige, perhaps you better look back because they are gaining on you.

It’s going to make for an intriguing Eastern Conference race, though the race to the roster for USA Basketball in Rio de Janeiro next summer may not be as complicated.

Chairman Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski in what the Duke coach said will be his last tournament coaching USA Basketball, have talked about the depth of talent on the roster of 34 at this week’s camp and how difficult the selection process will be. There isn’t going to be another such camp. The executive staff and coaches led by Colangelo will pick the 12 players.

And while Colangelo and Krzyzewski gave lip service to the importance of role players with past teams, like Andre Iguodala and Tayshaun Prince, this is looking more like an effort to produce a Dream Team II.

After Thursday’s game, Colangelo predicted, “We are going to have a very special team (in 2016). The talent pool is as good as ever.” Colangelo also cracked the door back open for Derrick Rose if Rose wants to play, which remains uncertain. Colangelo said earlier this week anyone not attending the camp this week would not be considered for next summer’s team. But Colangelo subsequently said he’s talked to Kobe Bryant and said it would be a fitting conclusion to Bryant’s NBA career to win a gold medal in 2016. Bryant was not at the camp, like Rose.

Colangelo said he was disappointed Rose did not attend, though there is an easy explanation, if needed, given Rose’s previous injuries and need to keep working out harder than they were doing in Las Vegas. Colangelo said after the game when asked about Bryant and Rose that he doesn’t believe in ever closing the door completely on anyone or anything.

These things have a way of changing because if you follow the ball and concentrate on basketball you often are missing the point with USA Basketball. It’s a business commitment as much as a sports competition, including with the players’ endorsers. Michael Jordan was absolutely adamant in numerous statements in 1991 after the Bulls first title and controversies about his gambling arose about not playing for the 1992 team that became known as the Dream Team. It’s clear Nike interceded and there obviously was no Dream Team without Michael Jordan.

It seems clear that this coming team is being loaded up with as much star power as possible, and Colangelo implied that in his post game remarks Thursday. With Krzyzewski’s farewell, this is looking more like an effort to make this the biggest star based team since 1992.

It’s why Colangelo basically has had an open door to LeBron James to play in 2016 whether he attended here or not.

If Rose, say, were to return to MVP form and be one of the top five in the voting and given his long term commitment with Adidas, it would be difficult to keep him off the team. So more than any tryout camp, this coming season and who stars will more likely determine USA’s 2016 team.

USA Basketball is on a 63-game winning streak in world competition and 75-1 overall since Colangelo and Krzyzewski partnered to run the program.

Colangelo has noted how James and Carmelo Anthony could set a record by playing in a fourth Olympics (two golds and a bronze in 2004). Figure both will be on the team. Though USA Basketball likes to establish something of a feeder system with some young players on the team, it seems apparent this coming team will primarily be a veteran group.

Here’s one guess about the roster:

LeBron James

Carmelo Anthony

Chris Paul

Kevin Durant

James Harden

Russell Westbrook or Kyrie Irving

Stephen Curry

Anthony Davis

Blake Griffin

Kobe Bryant

They are currently the most marketable stars in the NBA.

If Paul George is healthy and back to form, perhaps add him. Which makes 11.

Would LeBron urge Colangelo to add Dwyane Wade to complete the offseason banana boat buddies of he, Paul, Anthony and Wade? What LeBron wants, LeBron gets as the league’s biggest star. After all, part of Jordan’s deal with the Dream Team was to exclude Isiah Thomas from the team despite Thomas then being one of the league’s elite players and better than half the players on the team. And time for golf every day.

Is that 12?

They’ll need someone to do some dirty work rebounding, so perhaps Dwight Howard for center since Davis can also play center, especially in international play. That’s already one over at 13. There always is an injury or two. But if Rose explodes again there’d likely be an outcry for him. After all, even with all his injuries, Rose’s jersey has remained among the top selling.

This past season after barely playing for three years, Rose’s jersey sales still ranked fifth among all NBA players behind James, Curry, Bryant and Durant. Plus, Bulls team merchandise ranked No. 1 in the league with the Cavs second and Warriors third. The Lakers were fourth and Thunder fifth. Having no Bulls player on the team might not be good for business. Of course, Butler could emerge and be that player with another starring season.

USA Basketball is as much a worldwide business enterprise as much as an impressive basketball organization. Rose is leaving next week for a shoe company trip to China, where he is one of the most popular players from the NBA and draws among the biggest crowds along with James and Bryant. The NBA remains ever anxious to be impressive in the Asian markets.

This camp was a nice respite for a few days. But the real competition for team spots will occur during the season and then in the playoffs. It’s never easy and will be less so this season in both the Eastern and Western Conferences, and there’s plenty to play for. Everyone report back in six weeks. It starts again.