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Only 10 away from the beginning of the new season, let’s look at some of the most discussed topics and questions among the NBA fans communities.

What about LeBron and Steph Curry? Do they have a few more MVP-like seasons left in the tank?

Bron’s superteams in Miami and second-time Cleveland have historically started a bit slow. This year’s Lakers don’t qualify as a super-team on paper, at least not yet, in the same degree as the top Heat team. Still, Lakers look way, way, better now than in his first season. They are going to put together some decent lineups, especially when Anthony Davis plays center and Frank Vogel doesn’t put a traditional point guard on the floor. Nobody on this roster can play point-guard minutes better than LeBron anyway. Is this a nice preposition for another MVP-like season for The King? A Magic-like type of season, with packed figures in all the stats tabs? The Lakers really need this level of performance from their leader. They can’t afford themselves to be mediocre in the quality-stacked Western Conference. A fast start to the season will undoubtedly put the things going and set the right mindset in Lakers’ youngsters.

It’s a bit more straight-forward for Curry and Warriors. KD is gone so nobody will take away touches and shots from Steph anymore, even if Klay returns healthy before the play-offs. An MVP-level Steph could quite realistically guarantee a nice deep play-off run for the franchise. Why not even another West Finals appearance? Curry and Draymond are still a lethal combination. If Klay returns in good health in time for the post-season, Warriors will have 3 NBA stars on the roster once again. And this is even before putting the question-mark which is DeAngelo Russell and his role with the team. It’s way more than most of the other NBA teams can boast with.  Things could of course get ugly fast though. Making the postseason could prove a mirage for them, in case Curry or Green miss significant time with an injury.

 

 

Will Giannis Antetokounmpo get better in carrying the load alone for Milwaukee?

Bucks surely still scratch their heads at the remembrance about the last year’s play-offs exit. They were up 2–0 against the Raptors with home-court advantage in the East Finals, before losing 4 straight games to the eventual champions. In the later games of this series, Giannis found himself running into the brick wall of Kawhi Leonard again and again. That was the beginning of the end for them, quite naturally. Giannis seems like the type of player who deeply suffers his mistakes internally and tries to learn from them for the best. Let’s see how this process transpires to the new season and the business side of it, come play-off time.

2020 will be a pivotal year for the Bucks. Milwaukee made a controversial decision in keeping Eric Bledsoe over key backup guard Malcolm Brogdon. Their core doesn’t have the glamour of the superstar duos elsewhere in the league. Consequently, Giannis probably has the biggest burden of any leader on a championship contender. The main foe into the regular season and East play-offs is Philly. The Sixers are clearly building a team based almost entirely on stopping Giannis. Their roster is packed with smart, lengthy defenders on all positions. The season is essential in terms of the future too. After all, the Greek Freak will have to decide on a supermax extension next summer.

 

What are the Rockets going to look like?

Will Westbrook’s experiment work better than Chris Paul’s one? While James Harden and Paul were both terribly ball dominant, they could still work well together because of Paul’s shooting ability. That was before the problems in the locker-room started to pile up, but still. The fit between Harden and Westbrook is more questionable. Russell is even more ball dominant than Paul was, and he’s coming from a franchise in which he was the unquestioned Nr. 1 option, leader and floor general. There’s the thing of their friendship. Maybe Russell will really sacrifice his touches and shots, at this stage of his career? Hardly, if we look at last year’s Thunder when Paul George wasn’t on the floor. And Rockets don’t have the luxury of having such a composed and professional-minded player like George on their roster. Anyway Russell’s trade was ultimately a high-risk act, and done on a moment when the franchise was still successful and not having their backs to the wall. Harden is absolutely in his prime though and a deep play-off run, with or without chemistry working between him and Russell, won’t be too big a surprise. Quite aside from the basketball, if NBA decides to get rid of Houston’s owner because of his controversy with China, etc., who knows how well the new owner will like Harden as a franchise cornerstone?

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The big talk around ex-champions Golden State this summer was KD leaving for Brooklyn. With all the buzz around the heavy free-agents signings, like Finals MVP Kahwi coasting to LA Clippers, and Russell Westbrook reuniting with his old teammate James Harden in Houston, De’Angelo Russell’s arrival in Bay didn’t get so much hype around it. The young blood has some big shoes to fill in for sure, yet we still don’t know how high his ceiling is.

No denying about the good work of Golden State’s management in dealing with Durant’s situation. They received a talented asset in Russell’s face in the sign-and-trade with Brooklyn. The player averaged 21.1 points per game as a 22-year-old last season, and he also averaged career highs in nearly every statistical category on top of that. De’Angelo couldn’t handle running the show with Los Angeles in 2016-17. He was too young and handled badly some locker-room situations with his then-teammates. He started afresh with Nets though and slowly but steadily rebuilt his self-confidence and reputation as a young prospect around the league. The Nets weren’t world beaters by any means, which was totally expected with the young roster they had. They were 19th in offensive rating, with a 42–40 record. Russell deserves a big share of credit for their 14-win improvement though. So he’s an unquestioned asset for the reigning Western Conference champs. But can he keep the Warriors in the Finals conversation as the third-best player on the roster behind Curry and Draymond (before Klay’s return in action)?

It’s very interesting to see how Steve Kerr will implement Russell in his preferred schemes of screens and fast ball movement. At first De’Angelo appears to be a natural fit. Brooklyn finished 11th in pace last year and Golden State were ranked 10th. The Warriors were 3rd in threes made while the Nets were 5th, and both teams finished in the top eight in three-point attempted frequency. Russell will be free to run and gun with the Warriors, as much as he wants. Of course, Klay Thompson is in another class from the 3, but the lad will do much to help the Warriors to continue bury teams via long-range shooting.

 

 

When it comes to ball-handling, Russell carried a hefty share of Brooklyn’s offense last season with a 31.9 % usage rate, 6th highest in the league. LeBron James’ usage rate fall a tick below at 31.6%. Steph Curry posted a 30.4% usage rate alongside Kevin Durant last season and he can well boost this percentage this season. It remains to be seen how well both players will live together on the court, but Russell can’t realistically expect to be Kerr’s go-to balling guy before Steph, except in certain type of scenarios. De’Angelo was also among the highest volume pick-and-roll creators in basketball last season. Only Kemba Walker logged more possessions in this category, and only Walker and Damian Lillard scored more points in pick-and-roll’s. Russell ran pick-and-roll on 49.9% of his possessions last season but will surely need to cut down this percentage a lot this season, as it’s just not in Golden State’s philosophy.

One very probable possibility is Kerr to use Russell mainly as a scoring and floor leader for the second unit, at least in the beginning of the season. He could save the undermanned second unit, left a tad bare without the long-standing veterans Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.  He pulled the Nets to the playoffs without players like Curry or Green last season. Trusting him to lead Warriors’ second unit is an easy decision and more than many other NBA teams can offer. Curry and Green should be enough to earn a playoff spot alone, why not fighting even for the 4th or 5th place in the West. Adding Russell and the possible return of Klay in March and the things get way rosier for the Warriors nation.  On the other hand, a healthy Klay on roster will most certainly mean reduced minutes for Russell. This won’t be the end of the world for him though. Russell is at his best as an eruption scorer. Just like his former Lakers teammate Lou Williams, a 5 or 10-minute stretch of scoring from Russell can swing any given game.

De’Angelo Russell has a fair 117 million USD deal and a legitimate chance at a deep play-off run. Perhaps he won’t be in Golden State through his full contract. It’s too early to think of that right now though. For the time being one can’t look at NBA Outright market and help thinking that these odds in the region of 12s and 13s for Golden State to pull a surprise and overturn the expected LA dominance in the league, are a shade on the bigger side. Of course, another course of action would be to take some position on the back side, and trade out of it for a profit just before the play-offs (in case of a regular season for GSW) or after the first round.

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Team USA failed miserably in FIBA World Cup in China. The second-tier of NBA stars played Poland yesterday for the chance to finish in 7th place in the tournament. This low placing, regardless of the outcome against the Poles, comes after a disastrous 48-hour stretch. The Americans suffered back-to-back losses to both France in the quarterfinals and then Serbia in the consolation bracket for the 5th place. Anyway, Team USA has achieved their worst finish in a major international competition since 1992, when NBA players began participating.

The major loss was against France and it seemed quite shocking indeed. Even more so after the Americans led by some 7-8 points during the end of the 3rd quarter. Then Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier energized and just cruised by their more renowned and prized NBA counterparts. The next day Serbia were clearly the only motivated team on the floor and swept USA easily, led by Jokic and Bogdanovic.

Well, the experts and analysts in the States are not fast to overreact on this dismal performance. The team should be much better by next year's Olympics, in terms of roster at least. That’s why the majority of the basketball nation doesn’t see a reason to worry about the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. At least a few of the A-list superstars will surely change their minds and sign for the team, tempted by the perspective to avenge this year’s failure and to show themselves on the huge Asian market in the most prestigious multi-sport event in the world. Here are the major players who stayed home this year: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, C.J. McCollum and Paul George. So the roster sent to China instead looked like a bit skinny: Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Marcus Smart, Joe Harris, Myles Turner, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Mason Plumlee and Harrison Barnes.

If even 3 or 4 players from the first group would have joined the roster, Team USA should have been the gold medal winners in 2020. Players like Leonard, George, Lillard, McCollum, and Beal will probably want to go to Japan. Maybe LeBron joins them as his national team swansong. Maybe a healthy KD will see the Olympics as a good stage to reintroduce himself to the basketball world. There are also younger options who will deserve consideration by the team’s recruiting management group (Jaren Jackson Jr., Trae Young, DeAaron Fox, Zion Williamson, Devin Booker).

 

NBA superstars had their valid excuse this summer in terms of the schedule, no word about that.  FIBA used to host these World Championships two years before the Olympics. They delayed this year’s tournament though, so it meant that any NBA player, committed to his national team, was essentially agreeing to play basketball for something like 18 months in a row. Former NBA commissioner David Stern cited this FIBA decision as the key factor when asked to explain the skinny roster this summer.

Yet there is still this uncertainty around Team USA. Is it possible their total domination on the world’s international stage is over? It’s definitely not the bleak early 2000s situation, when a loss from Argentina in 2002 foreshadowed both a 2004 Olympic upset and an incredibly bleak, defense-first oriented half-decade across the NBA. Not terrible, but most definitely not great either. USA basketball has never sent all its best players to FIBA events in the past and still has managed to dominate. LeBron, Wade and Carmelo weren't in Turkey in 2010 and in Spain in 2014 either. Instead it was Durant, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala who led the team in 2010. Then it was again Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, and DeMarcus Cousins who carried the USA in 2014.

At the same time, the rest of the world continues to improve and the field gets deeper, so the States won’t be able to win consistently against the world’s best teams without their best players on the board. Just look at all the NBA superstars to play in Tokyo for their respective teams: Giannis, Jokic and Bogdanovic, Gobert, Ben Simmons (who wasn’t in Australia’s squad in China and the Aussies still got through the semis), Doncic (whose Slovenia didn’t qualify to the World Cup due to a strangely set qualifying scheme by FIBA). This at least guarantees that NBA’s own future is immensely bright, regardless of Team USA’ one.

Yet there were still some positives about the USA team in China. They have a few young, superstars in waiting wings with huge potential in the faces of Celtic’s pair of Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Jayson Tatum looked fine in the games he played before his ankle injury. Brown got few minutes and wasn’t bad either, though he needed to boost his confidence level to the next level. Beyond these: Donovan Mitchell was spectacular against France, but pretty inconsistent in the other games. Some of the other major young hopefuls like Devin Booker, De’Angello Russell, Trae Young, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Aaron Fox stayed at home. Karl-Anthony Towns played for the Dominican Republic as a teenager and is thus ineligible for Team USA. One thing is guaranteed – we will watch extremely interesting and thrilling basketball competition in next year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

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We are still a month away from the beginning of the new NBA season. Nothing happens around the association for the moment. A good opportunity to take a quick look back to some of the most memorable Finals in the last decade of NBA basketball.

 

Heat over Spurs (2013)

This series offered drama in its purest form in its final games. The series kicked off in style too. Tony Parker pulled a magic trick, scoring on a one-legged shot in the final seconds to upset the Heat in Miami in Game 1. Spurs seemed on the verge of the triumph, leading 3-2 before Game 6. The contest was perhaps the greatest match of the decade. A bunch of highly uncharacteristic errors from San Antonio decided the regular time outcome. Ginobili missed a free throw, Popovich benched Tim Duncan in a few last minutes’ possessions and alos ran out of time-outs way too early. All these factors kept Miami in the game late and a miracle 3-point from Ray Allen discouraged Spurs. The Heat clung to a 103-100 win in overtime, setting up the scene for Game 7. Ray Allen’s heroics are usually the more remembered moment of the series, although the intensity of Game 7 was highly enjoyable back then.  San Antonio was in position to still grab the championship in the fourth quarter of Game 7. James and Dwyane Wade took the trophy to Florida with the game’s final 6 points. Bron’s elbow jumper over Kahwi Leonard is likely the most underrated shot of his storied career. Most NBA fans and watchers can tell you where they were exactly when they saw Ray Allen’s shot in Game 6. Paired with the drama of Games 1 and 7, 2013 Finals series is one of best Finals of the decade, if not one of the best all-time.

 

 

Cavaliers over Warriors (2016)

Cavs’ 2016 title remains the most impressive accomplishment of the decade. Warriors were heavy favourites to add another title in everyone’s eyes, including the bookmakers. James and Kyrie Irving put enormous performances each to close the series. This success marked a kept promise for James to finally bring a championship to his home franchise and a leap into superstardom for Kyrie. He logged 40-point efforts in Games 5 and 7, with his last points of the series winning the championship for Cleveland. James took the scene in Games 5 and 6, scoring 40 + points in each. He posted a triple-double in Game 7, adding the best block in recent memory on Andre Iguodala. The 2016 Finals was a defining moment for NBA. James’ fans used the series as a legit point for involving him into the GOAT argument, and the next season Kevin Durant arrived in the Bay Area ready to win his first title.

 

Mavericks over Heat (2011)

This series didn’t even go to full 7 games and still ranks easily among the best ones of the past decade. Miami appeared to be cruising to a 2-0 lead in the 2011 Finals with a 9-point lead in the final 4 minutes of Game 2. But James and Miami’s offense suddenly stopped, fully exhausted, while the legendary German Dirk Nowitzki torched them with 7 points in the final minute, evening the series before it moved to Dallas. James scored just 8 points on 3-11 shooting in Game 4, and it was all over in Game 6. Mavericks pulled 3 straight wins to claim the title, entering in the Finals as huge underdogs. The Heat sulked into their home locker room after a 105-95 loss in Game 6, Dirk erupted in tears upon entering the locker room. One more example that nothing is for granted in NBA, which is a repeating point in this year’s Finals too…

 

Raptors over Warriors (2019)

This series was only a few months ago and we all remember what happened. The series was dramatic, thrilling and enjoyable to watch, yet it brought even more impact through the league afterwards. A giant wave of player movement in July turned NBA on its head, and plenty of the Finals heroes are now in new locations. Kawhi, who brought Raptors to the Finals through the East almost single-handedly, is a now Clipper and KD is with the Nets, albeit missing the first year of his new contract. Danny Green and DeMarcus Cousins are now Lakers, though Boogie is also out for the season with a torn ACL. Klay Thompson will also miss the bigger part of the regular season, at least, and Warriors look a bit skinny this time round. The Durant era in Golden State ended miserably and Toronto won its first title. It’s not probable the Canadians will add another one anytime soon, but yet, the fact remains that another franchise added championship banner in its arena.

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The first group stage of the World Cup is over and the tournament slowly starts to get more interesting. It’s really awkward to see any US team to struggle so much in an international competition, but here we are. And this goes without underestimating Team USA full record so far with their 3 wins from 3 games played. We can safely dismiss the last group game against lowly Japan. The first game against Czech Republic, what to say about it…The final result is a bit misleading, the Americans only pulled away at one point in the third quarter and the performance was shaky overall. The real struggle came in their second game against Turkey though. I still can’t believe US didn’t lose that game. Ersan Ilyasova-led Turkey was in almost full control in the deciding 4-5 minutes of the last quarter. Only Kemba Walker put some real fight and kept the game close. Turkey led by 2 points with a few seconds left on the clock and their bench already started to rise their hands in euphoria when a defender made a stupid foul on a desperate 3-pointer by Tatum. Jayson missed the second free throw, but still notched the other two to send the game in overtime. He actually rolled his ankle in the extra period and left the game. Then the whole drama just repeated itself. Turkey seemed to be in control of the game until they missed 4 of 5 foul shots in the final minute. USA won by a point, 93-92, in the end. Turkey made a mockery of the oddsmakers though, who gave 26 points spread in their favour before the game. And guess what? Turkey is only the 4th best team in the tournament (without US), behind Spain, Lithuania and of course, Serbia.

It’s exactly Serbia that plays the most exciting basketball in the tournament and it’s no coincidence the best player in China plays for them. He’s no other than Nikola Jokic himself, The Joker. So, Serbia is maybe the biggest threat to American dominance in the World Cups. The best part of the show is that these two teams can’t meet one another before late in the tournament. But what exactly does Serbia have in store in China?

 

It’s not a big surprise that a team behind Nikola Jokic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and a bunch of role players including Nemanja Bjelica and Boban Marjanovic, dominates a mediocre-level international tournament. Serbia blew out Angola and the Phillippines, no shocks there, and pulled away from Italy in a compelling matchup on Wednesday. So they also head into the second round of groups undefeated, averaging a tournament-high 107.7 points per game, and shooting an astonishing 53% from three-point range. Things get a bit more complicated from this point onwards, of course. Serbia is in a second group with Spain, Italy again and Puerto Rico, and it’ll be highly interesting to see whether they can maintain their current level of play, especially against Spain.

A little bit of history. Serbia fell handily to the USA in the Final game in 2014, but that team didn’t have Jokic as its focal point and was down a few key pieces due to injury (and the States had way stronger roster back then). Although the competition will stiffen for Serbia, they have been clinically efficient, and there is no such thing as overhype when it comes to Nikola Jokic. The big fella has evolved into more than just a dark horse MVP candidate in Denver. He’s become a dominant NBA player in his own, very specific way, and is essentially an unstoppable force against most FIBA opponents. When other teams can’t effectively throw athletic bodies at him and make him work, Jokic is going to get what he wants most of the time, be it an easy lay-up or a simple assist. He’s averaging 22.2 points, 10 rebounds and 9.4 assists per 36 minutes right now in the tournament. Just like Denver Nuggets, the whole Serbian national team has adjusted to Jokic’s style, then vice versa.

It’s worth noting this is the first major international tournament in recent memory where the best player in the field isn’t an American. Of course Giannis is also in China with Greece, but the Greeks don’t have a strong team behind The Beast right now. Serbia plays with pace, moves the ball efficiently, and is unafraid to let everything run through Jokic, who is making fun of defenders in various ways until this point. They’re able to get good shots whenever they want, they’re willing to take them early in the clock (a bit Golden State-like approach), and it’s the most beautiful style of basketball in the whole tournament.

Admittedly, all this could amount to very little if Serbians fail against not to be underestimated Spain, and finally, USA. The Americans are still the deepest, most athletic team in the field, even if their roster is not used to play together and lacks chemistry. On a good day, they can make it look easy, and there’s not much most FIBA opponents can do about that. But it’s evident that the gap in class is narrower this year, and a real question whether the Americans can get to that level when it matters much (as they all in all failed against the Turkish team). The point here is that Serbia is playing the best basketball in the world right now, and that alone deserves applause, regardless of how it all ends up.

We still have a few days before the tournament enters its elimination phase. Let’s see how the second group stage unfolds. For my money’s worth though, I know I will be highly tempted to lay Team USA against any of the best 3 European teams, Serbia, Lithuania and Spain, when such an encounter happens. The best thing is these will be cheap bets, as US will be set as favourites by the oddsmakers, that’s the nature of the game…

 
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