Less than a year from the opening of the 2016 Rio Olympics, USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo is comfortable with the process of selecting the 12-man team that will be shooting for a third consecutive gold medal.
The competition for roster spots is staunch. Colangelo wanted it that way when he took over USA Basketball following the team’s embarrassing bronze-medal performance in 2004. Colangelo wanted seasoned, established veterans vying for spots. He wanted rising players competing for spots, and he wanted promising youngsters willing to participate in the program with hopes of cracking future rosters.
All of that has occurred. The quandary Team USA faces is making the transition from the veteran players — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul — to recently established stars such as Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Paul George, James Harden, and Kevin Durant. Then trying to fit the right talent into 12 slots.
There are also intriguing players to consider such as Kawhi Leonard, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, and DeAndre Jordan.
Instead of the sense of entitlement that started with the creation and subsequent invincibility of the Dream Team, Colangelo wanted players to consider playing for Team USA an honor and career achievement. And inviting more and more players to camps and workouts has helped create that mentality.
“We accomplished a great deal at this recent camp,” Colangelo said. “It was more about mental preparation and just getting the real lay of the land with all the guys and the fact that we had such incredible attendance. It’s pretty indicative of where we are right now in terms of our program. The guys truly all want to be part of it.”
Colangelo said he received e-mails and text messages from Team USA players thanking him for the August camp in Las Vegas.
“What we’re experiencing is something very, very special,” Colangelo said. “It’s a good position to be in, but there’s a responsibility to maintain and keep it going in the right direction. For now, things couldn’t be better. We’re in a countdown and the variable for us will be before the selection process — we hope and pray there aren’t injuries to take people out of it automatically.
“These guys all want to be a part of it and they understand there’s going to be a certain amount of turnover each competition. It’s a very elite group who eventually gets selected.”
There has been disenchantment, especially with the guards. Damian Lillard turned down a chance to join the workouts, while Wizards speedster John Wall said publicly that the chances of him making the squad for Rio were slim. Colangelo has the difficult task of choosing the best team but keeping those on the periphery motivated enough to keep trying.
“You’re not going to bat 1.000 in this type of situation,” said Colangelo. “There’s always going to be a few who feel they got the short end of the stick. We’re very transparent. There are no preconceived notions ever regarding who’s going to be on this team, period. We want to pick the best team to represent the United States to give us the best chance to win. It’s not the best 12 players. We said that from the beginning.”
James has been noncommittal about playing for Team USA for a fourth consecutive Olympic Games. He surprisingly appeared at the workouts but has yet to make a final decision. That is fine with Colangelo.
“For LeBron, whenever he’s ready to give us his decision, it’s good enough for me,” Colangelo said. “The word is ‘equity.’ Those who have built up equity with USA Basketball, those who have been with us for a long time, have equity. They deserve that one last bite of the apple, if they are capable. That’s the variable. Not everyone is going to be ready to go next July. We’ve got a few vets and they deserve to make the decision on their own.”
There won’t be a camp next summer to determine the roster spots. According to Colangelo, he and coach Mike Krzyzewski will determine the final 12 slots in June, during the NBA playoffs. That means decisions will be made without further audition.
“The one thing that has been a real factor here in where we are is that when I was originally asked to take over USA Basketball, I had a couple of conditions and one was full autonomy,” Colangelo said. “No more committees. No more votes. I’ll pick the coaches and the players. So that makes it pretty clear. That also means that we can adjust anything we wish.
“We are going to select our 12 members of the squad probably in June, before we even go to camp. We don’t want players to feel embarrassed that they were cut or weren’t one of the final selections.
“Some guys have said to me, ‘What do I have to do to make this team?’ I said, ‘All you’ve got to do is have the best year you’ve ever had with your team. That’s what you need to do.’ So it’s incentive for all the players on our national team roster to have great years. That’s good for the [NBA].”
BLAZING A NEW TRAIL
Harkless given home in Portland
Not every one-and-done player is destined for stardom. Some are overlooked and overshadowed in the quest by teams to pad rosters with other young hopefuls. Such was the case for Maurice Harkless, an athletically gifted swingman out of St. John’s who was part of the Dwight Howard four-team trade just six weeks after he was drafted by the 76ers in June 2012.
Harkless made a splash by averaging 8.2 points per game as a rookie with the Magic, but coaching changes, constant personnel adjustments, and his own inconsistency made his final two years in Orlando rather forgettable. He played in just 45 games last season and was traded to the Trail Blazers for a 2020 second-round pick that is protected from 31 to 55, meaning the pick won’t be conveyed unless it’s in the final five picks of that draft.
So essentially, the Magic gave Harkless to the Blazers for nothing. The former 15th overall pick is looking to atone for a pair of disappointing seasons as he joins a team that’s rebuilding with youth after the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge.
“Mo was very high on our board a few years ago in the draft,” Portland general manager Neil Olshey said. “We were excited about him. He has a lot of potential. He fits our model right now; he’s an emerging young player. He’s got a lot of talent.
“We have a lot of faith in our player development staff and our coaches that guys hit their ceilings, and we know Mo’s not even close to his ceiling at this point. He’s going to get a great opportunity with us to be the player we loved coming out of the draft.”
The Blazers responded to losing Aldridge in free agency to the Spurs by adding a slew of younger players, including Haverhill’s Noah Vonleh, former Kansas star Cliff Alexander, ex-Net Mason Plumlee, ex-Laker Ed Davis, and ex-Maverick Al-Farouq Aminu. Portland is an interesting team as it begins a new phase with Damian Lillard as the centerpiece.
“I definitely see myself fitting in pretty well,” Harkless said. “It’s a nice mix of young guys and veterans on this team. It’s a team that’s going to play a fast-paced game. Everybody’s going to get involved and it’s the kind of game I want to play. I’m extremely excited just to have a fresh start. New opportunity to work my way in and earn my minutes.”
It’s ironic that Olshey fired assistant coach Kim Hughes for intimating in an interview before free agency began that Aldridge was leaving Portland, when it appeared the Trail Blazers were preparing for that possibility all along. As last season progressed, it became apparent Aldridge was leaving after nine years with the team.
“We had a lot of veteran free agents, [but our offseason plan] was all based on LaMarcus’s decision,” Olshey said. “We had brought some guys in prior to July 3 when LaMarcus informed us he wasn’t coming back, that we felt could play either way — they could be really good additions to our current group or they could be guys we could move in another direction. We were preparing for this opportunity. We were kind of trying to play both ends against the middle and then LaMarcus informed us he wasn’t coming back, so we went full bore with guys in the same career arc as Damian Lillard.
“Damian’s our best player right now. He’s a two-time All-Star. We’re going to bring in players that complement Damian, his skill set, how we want to play, and who can grow with him as he continues to improve.”
Harkless, 22, still has to establish an NBA identity. He has displayed flashes of potential, but the Trail Blazers aren’t quite sure what type of player they’re receiving. Like many younger players in this league, Harkless desperately needs playing time, with the luxury to make mistakes with a longer leash.
“Mo is an elite defender, he can defend multiple positions, he can create energy, he’s got versatility on both ends,” Olshey said. “The first text I got was from [Lillard] saying, ‘Great move, love Mo.’ Any time you have your best player embracing additions to your roster, you’re headed in the right direction.”
Olshey made the decision to rebuild the organization with a five-year, $120 million contract extension to Lillard. The rebuild begins with him.
“Dame wants to play with guys that want to play in Portland, I think we saw that when he signed a contract with no options,” Olshey said. “Right now, the glamour thing is to try to get out [of your contract] as quick as possible and have flexibility. Dame committed as long as he possibly could.
“Absent LaMarcus Aldridge, [the group coming back] was not going to be good enough. If we can’t compete at the highest levels then we need to go in another direction, and that’s what you see us doing.”
Winslow is ready to turn up Heat
Initially projected to be selected fifth overall by the Magic, Justise Winslow slipped in June’s NBA Draft. As Winslow was slipping, the Celtics made a major push for him. They offered four first-round picks to Charlotte for the ninth selection. The Hornets rejected the offer and ultimately selected Frank Kaminsky.
There wasn’t much negotiation between the Celtics and Heat for Winslow with the 10th pick. And the Heat jumped on the former Duke standout, placing him into perhaps the most positive situation of any lottery pick. The Heat could be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference behind the Cavaliers.
They will have a healthy Chris Bosh, a re-signed Dwyane Wade, a full season of Hassan Whiteside, a re-signed Goran Dragic, Amar’e Stoudemire, ex-Celtic Gerald Green, and a healthy Josh McRoberts. There may not be much playing time for Winslow, but the 19-year-old believes he will flourish in the environment.
“I’m looking forward to going out there and winning championships,” he said. “That’s what this organization is about. We’ve got the tools, the talent to do it. Getting it all together with the core they have, finding ways to complement that and really impact the game. The Heat expect to win every year. That’s the kind of culture that coach [team president Pat] Riley has built and I’m happy to be there.”
The Celtics coveted Winslow because of his defensive potential at small forward and his offensive upside. Winslow, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley would have served as an impenetrable defensive trio, motivating team president Danny Ainge to make a run at him. In Miami, Winslow is likely to have a small role because of the team’s depth. Winslow plans to become a rotation player.
“I just feel like I can impact the game in so many ways,” he said. “I’ll be there out on the court; I don’t know how many minutes. I don’t know if I’m starting or coming off the bench. Regardless, when I’m out there I’ll affect the game. Regardless of what team I was going to be on, I was going to be aggressive, play my game, and try to win. It definitely helps that the team I’m on is not in a rebuilding stage.”
Winslow has had conversations with Wade but less about the construction of the team and more on the transition from college to the pros.
“I want to learn everything [from Wade],” Winslow said. “He’s seen it all. Done it all. There’s really nothing he hasn’t experienced. Three-time world champion, Olympic gold medal, everything, so I’ll try to learn as much as I can from him and all my teammates.”
The Hornets made a historic move last week by naming sideline reporter and pregame show host Stephanie Ready the first full-time female game analyst, joining veteran Eric Collins and former sharpshooter Dell Curry on the telecast team. This is not the first time Ready has broken barriers. She was the first female assistant coach of a professional men’s team when she worked with the Greensville Groove of the NBADL in 2001. Ready’s latest promotion came during the same week that former softball All-American Jessica Mendoza became the first woman to serve as an analyst of a major league baseball game when she worked the booth for the Cardinals-Diamondbacks matchup . . . Still available on the free agent market is Glen “Big Baby” Davis, who played a useful role with the Clippers last season but has become more of an energy player in recent years than a scorer. Four months shy of his 30th birthday, Davis still appears to have some years left in his game. But the question for prospective teams is whether he can regain the skills that made him a dependable scorer with the Celtics and Magic. Increasingly over the past few years teams have waited before filling their final roster spots until just before training camp, which for the Celtics begins Sept. 25. Also on the market is journeyman Chuck Hayes, who had agreed to a deal with Houston. But the Rockets changed their minds and wanted to free up a roster spot, leaving Hayes to fish for another club . . . The Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk suffered a minor knee injury in Team Canada’s exhibition game against Argentina last week but he is expected to remain with the club and be ready for Celtics training camp. Team Canada is trying to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics and has a loaded roster in preparation for the FIBA qualifiers that begin Monday . . . The Clippers are dangling former Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford but want the right return. Crawford’s shooting dropped off last season and he missed a significant amount of time with a calf injury. But at age 35, Crawford could still help a contending team. He is still among the league’s more prolific scorers.
Mouse in the house
The Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas is Boston’s most dynamic offensive player. He also shares with Nate Robinson the distinction of being the shortest player in the league at 5 feet 9 inches. Here’s a look at some players that height or smaller who played bigger:
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.