If Russell Westbrook or LeBron James are unable to make a late push, the league MVP will once again hail from a summer spent playing for Team USA. Kobe Bryant won his only MVP award in 2008 after winning a gold medal in the FIBA Americas tournament. LeBron James won his first MVP in 2009, the season after winning an Olympic gold medal in Beijing. James won his fourth MVP in 2013 – with a near-unanimous vote – the season after winning his second Olympic gold medal in London. Derrick Rose became the league’s youngest ever MVP in 2011 after starting for the gold medal-winning team at the FIBA world championships in Turkey. “It sounds self-serving and it’s not meant to be, but you’ve heard me say this many times now, regarding USA basketball. I think generally, they’re better people, they’re better players for the experience. They bring it back to their respective teams, that culture and the winning,” USA Basketball chairman and managing director Jerry Colangelo said in a recent telephone interview. “You go right down the list. That’s been true on each roster. It’s been repeat history.”
But since taking over taking over the USA national team program in 2005, Colangelo has taken pleasure in repeatedly watching the new leaders of the league emerge following a summer of training with and competing against the best players in the world. “I get such a joy out of looking at the box scores every day and seeing how our guys have fared and how well they’ve done and what they’re doing. So I’m excited,” Colangelo said. “Having a chance to win a championship does not come along every day for people in the NBA. It’s such a positive experience that many of these players have been able to carry that over. That’s a compliment to USA Basketball, in my opinion, the culture and the coaching staff. You feel like you’re giving back to the game.”
Anthony Davis left the Team USA experience poised for a breakout campaign and hasn’t disappointed. He has posted the second-highest player efficiency rating in NBA history. He is also a dark horse MVP candidate with the New Orleans Pelicans sitting a half-game out of the eighth spot in the Western Conference. “It definitely built my confidence. Playing the way I played, playing a part in helping that win,” said Davis, the leading all-star vote getter among West big men. I feel like I got better, I learned from all of them elite players, great coaches. I built my knowledge of the game of basketball. All the stuff we learned, I took all of that knowledge and tried to do the same thing to lead this team to have a better season.”
After a long pause, Thompson told Duffy, “No, I made a commitment, I’m going to stay.” And that was it. Thompson was staying with Team USA. “That’s how Klay is,” Duffy said. “He is a quiet guy, but he is smart. You present him with the facts and he thinks about it for five or 10 minutes, he absorbs it and makes a decision. And then it’s just, ‘OK, let’s roll with this.’ ”
Thompson was on his rookie contract in Golden State, but up for a sizable extension. A George-like injury would not only throw into peril his upcoming season, but jeopardize his family’s financial security. Thompson called Bill Duffy, his agent. Duffy told him he did not have to keep playing, that director Jerry Colangelo had always allowed Team USA players to ask out a tournament because of contractual concerns. Already, Kevin Love and Kevin Durant had rescinded on promises to play for the World Cup, and Colangelo had given them nothing but blessings.
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But he got to know Kobe Bryant and called him a “great guy” when asked about it Wednesday. “That whole Olympic experience, he kind of took me under his wing and showed me a lot about the game and a lot about hard work,” said Davis, the only college player on a team that beat Spain in the gold-medal game. “He’ll bring the competitive nature out in everybody,” he added. “Any good team that has Kobe on the team is in it to win it. That was my first time [meeting him]. I loved every moment of it.”
Whatever they did worked, as Team USA breezed through the competition, winning all nine games by an average margin of 33 points and earning the gold medal. “I just know he’s a really, really good coach. One of the best I’ve ever been around. I learned a ton from him,” Williams said. “His players love him, they play hard for him. “He and I were both wide awake trying to figure out how to help our team win a gold medal. I learned a ton from him and like I said, he’s one of the best I’ve ever been around.”
You just don’t want to get caught up in the media cycle where it’s, “He thinks he’s better than that guy!” Yeah, yeah. I know, right? That’s the truth. That’s the truth. But playing this summer, I knew I was good enough to be on Team USA and saw a lot of stuff like, “Klay, are you sure you’re going to make it?” I laughed at people like, “100 percent, I’m going to make that team.”
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“Why go somewhere else and start over when you get a huge contract with one of the best teams in the NBA?” Thompson said. “I think only an idiot would turn that down. I love it here. Love my teammates, the organization, especially the fans, and I never really wanted to go anywhere else. Being with Team USA, guys putting their egos aside, showed it’s cool having the gaudy numbers and getting all those accolades, but ask anybody who ever played this game, I’m sure they’d trade half that in for a ring. That’s how I feel. At this point, I just want to win as much as possible.”
The NBA’s global growth is a fascinating thing to learn about. During your travels for Team USA exhibitions, Olympic games, promotional events, etc., which locales outside the U.S. made the biggest impression on you for the fans’ enthusiasm and love for the game? In no particular order … Japan, for sure. 34-35,000 in the Tokyo Dome was a pretty serious statement. And, we had great games there. Mexico – Great, passionate NBA fans. Lithuania – Small country – GREAT players. Medals to prove it. Australia – A country where SPORTS matter. Brazil – They gave us OSCAR! Spain and Italy and France – The cornerstone of the NBA’s international footprint in 1980. Look how it’s grown.
Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and David Stern are all names synonymous with the NBA’s rise in popularity during the 1980s. But there were, of course, key personnel in the league office building the foundation for success in the decades to come. Terry Lyons was one of those individuals. In fact, he filled some of the most important roles behind the scenes. ““Terry Lyons’ enormous contributions to our media relations efforts for almost three decades have been a key driver to our growth, domestically and internationally,” Stern was quoted as saying in a statement posted on Lyons’ website. ” He has grown up with the NBA and the NBA has grown up with him. Terry has traveled the world on behalf of the NBA and Team USA, spreading the basketball gospel. He has worked arduously to enhance international media coverage of our teams and our games and he has made the NBA office a welcoming center for the global basketball community and international media. We will miss him greatly, and wish him continued professional success and much personal happiness.”
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I asked Pelicans coach Monty Williams how he planned to handle the minutes of star Anthony Davis after the forward spent so much time this summer with Team USA for the FIBA World Championships. He had a pretty interesting answer (and even got a bit animated). “We’ve talked to our training staff to make sure we give him the proper rest but at the same time he’s 21 (years old),” Williams said. “He doesn’t get tired until he’s like 28.
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Going even more in depth, when Thompson drives to the left in isolation situations (which he does 80.2 percent of his iso attacks) he is either heavily settling for a pull up jumper (48.2 percent of the time) of the time and shooting a lackluster 27.3 percent off the bounce; 33.8 percent of the time he is attempting to finish at the rim (an area he is increasingly improving at and showed great progress at the World Cup in Spain) but isn’t converting at much greater of a success rate (41.7 percent). What sticks out to me is the lack of in-between game, the floater, in which he only attempts 7.5 percent of the time he puts the ball on the floor.
Aldridge turned down a chance to play with the U.S. national team, and it wasn’t the first time. This time, he said, he wanted to make he didn’t suffer an injury — as happened with Indiana’s Paul George — that might keep him from achieving his goal of helping the Blazers go deep in the playoffs. “It was about my personal preference,” Aldridge said. “Having a big season coming up, I didn’t want to risk anything crazy out there. “I was disappointed to not be in that group. I wanted to be a part of that group for a long time. Things keep coming up. This time, the major part was me and my agent and (officials from) my team sat down, and we felt like we didn’t want to take that risk right now.”
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LeBron James says he has not decided whether he’ll play in the 2016 Olympics. James said Monday following the Cavaliers’ practice that he’s “nowhere near” deciding if he’ll again play for Team USA in two years. Kevin Durant has reportedly said he will play for the American squad in Brazil, but James said following practice that “I haven’t even thought about it too much. I haven’t decided.”
“I love Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) and (program director) Mr. (Jerry) Colangelo, because they understood everything. I didn’t want it to overshadow what they were doing, so that’s why I kind of felt bad about it. But at the same time, I knew I had to do it for myself, and this was one of the first decisions basketball-wise that was like, ‘All right, this is just for me. I’m worried about me right now. I was a little selfish, and sometimes that makes people, it made a lot of people, uncomfortable.” And to those who don’t agree or understand? “Seriously, to be honest, I was like ‘(expletive) ’em.’ You can write that, too. Seriously, though. I’m just going to be me, man, and that’s how I felt. “I was happy I took the hits, like, ‘All right, that’s going to teach me to be strong and not worry about what everybody has got to say.’ I heard it all — ‘you don’t care about your country’ to ‘you’re soft’ to all of that. Well I don’t care. These people don’t know me. They don’t know the work I’ve put in. They don’t know that I’ve done (the FIBA tournament) before, so it made me stronger.”
But Cousins can’t worry about who’s in, who’s out. He merely has to remain, well, the King of Spain. “You can use all the superlatives you want,” Colangelo said Tuesday afternoon, “and apply them to DeMarcus. He made the team, made a major contribution, made tremendous strides. In the locker room after our win over Serbia (earned an automatic berth to the Rio Games), DeMarcus in particular was emotional. He hugged me and thanked me for putting him on the team, and I told him, ‘the past is the past. This is the beginning of your career. Take everything you learned back to Sacramento. You can build on this and have a tremendous career.’ ”