Biggest Takeaways from Day 1 of FIBA World Cup of Basketball

All 24 teams were in action on Saturday as the 2014 World Cup kicked off in Spain. 

No longer do exhibition games take up attention, with each squad exerting various levels of focus and energy. Every contest matters at this point, as many teams are fighting for their lives in the group stage, hoping to pull off an upset—or avoid one—in the quest for a medal. Some are just hoping to advance to the knockout rounds.

The United States dominated Finland, while Spain took care of Iran rather easily. Slovenia won a tough game over Australia, one that puts them in great early position for the elimination stages. Argentina rolled over its opponent, while another traditional power was unable to overcome injuries. 

Even though each team only has one game under its belt, there was a lot to be learned from the opening day of this tournament.

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What Kobe Bryant Can Learn from Paul Pierce’s Ageless Game

He may be 36 years old and coming off a season fraught with injury, but Kobe Bryant‘s superhuman credentials remain as credible as ever.

Even as his Los Angeles Lakers look to rebound from a 27-55 record, Bryant is attempting a comeback of his own after playing just six games last season.

Chances are the results will be impressive. They usually are when Bryant’s involved. 

But the anticipatory chatter is already cementing a reputation that probably didn’t need any help.

Sports Illustrated‘s Chris Ballard recently spoke with “longtime physical therapist for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers” Judy Seto, and the fallout only serves to further enhance an iconic legacy that—in the eyes of many—ranks as the true heir to Michael Jordan.

Regarding Bryant’s threshold for pain, Seto contended that, “It’s the highest that I’ve ever seen.  He channels his focus so well in terms of just the task at hand. But also when he’s had pain, he can block that out. I mean, I think a good example is when he tore his Achilles, he made those free throws. He blocked it out and focused.”

Those free throws were a reminder that for all of Bryant’s talent and titles, it may be his fortitude that truly sets him apart.

“He’s remarkable,” then-Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said at the time, per ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin. “For him to hit the fouls shots is remarkable. It just didn’t end. You have a greater appreciation to what he wills himself to do.”

It was a historic moment, but there’s little doubt Bryant hopes to avoid repeating it. Going forward, he’s focusing on staying healthy and making the most of his career’s few remaining years.

So it should come as no surprise that the 16-time All-Star is doing his homework.

Ballard separately reports that, “In preparing for this season, Bryant told friends that the player he is analyzing, as an example of adjusting your game as you get older, is fellow 36-year-old Paul PierceThis is part of his goal to become ‘more efficient’ on the court.”

The notion that Bryant has anything to learn from Pierce may sound self-evidently absurd.

Don’t get me wrong—Pierce, now a member of the Washington Wizards after just one season with the Brooklyn Nets, has left an indelible mark on the NBA.

But he’s no Kobe.

And after averaging a career-low 13.5 points last season, Pierce hardly seems like an appropriate role model for Bryant, who—during the 2012-13 campaign—tallied 27.3 points per contest. Pierce has never averaged more than 26.8 points in a season, and that was all the way back in 2005-06.

Still, one would assume Bryant knows best. He’s an unrivaled student of the game, so if he believes Pierce can teach him something, perhaps there’s something to it.

To his credit, Pierce has missed just 19 games combined over the course of the last four season. That’s a strong track record that indicates he’s taken good care of his body and subjected himself to minimal wear and tear late into his career.

It helps that he’s averaged fewer than 35 minutes per game in each of those seasons and as few as just 28 minutes per contest a season ago.

By comparison, Bryant averaged at least 38.5 minutes in both 2011-12 and 2012-13.

Though he almost certainly has the motor to sustain that kind of pace, there’s something to be said for more modest playing time—perhaps even sitting some games out. Selling Bryant on such a proposal may not be easy, but it’s probably the first thing he should take away from Pierce’s enduring health.

The Kansas product has also remained effective largely on account of methodical footwork, up-and-under moves and fall-away jumpers—the kind of savviness that obviates a need for elite athleticism and otherwise reduces the risk of collision or dangerous landings.

As NBCSports.com’s Kurt Helin recently put it, “Pierce‘s gets to the elbows and once there unleashes an old-man-at-the-YMCA game on his opponents, getting off an array of crafty shots that seem to always find the bottom of the net. He’s evolved that part of his game over the years.”

CBSSports.com’s James Herbert used similar language, writing, “The crafty Pierce has adapted about as well as anyone. He has an arsenal of little head-fakes and ball-fakes, and he knows how to get his shot off, even if he can’t create as much space as he used to.”

The common theme?

Pierce is ridiculously “crafty.”

And for that matter, so is Bryant. Even when his athleticism was still without peer, he conjured MJ with dizzying moves on the wing, from the elbow and in the post. Always a deep threat and lethal slasher, it’s been Bryant’s smooth in-between game that makes him virtually impossible to stop.

To that end, it’s probably fair to assume watching video of Pierce won’t translate into some kind of dramatic renaissance in Bryant’s game.

It’s the little things that will make the difference, nuanced tendencies that may add a few options to Bryant’s already robust bag of tricks.

Pierce’s game could be especially instructive in light of the fact that he was never quite as athletic as Bryant. In turn, his techniques reason to be of value for a one-time acrobat suddenly faced with the increasing demands of gravity.

“There are certain things that my body can’t do that I used to be able to do,” Bryant told Ballard. “And you have to be able to deal with those. First you have to be able to figure out what those are. Last year when I came back, I was trying to figure out what changed. And that’s a very hard conversation to have.”

Bryant added, “I’ll be sharper. Much sharper. Much more efficient in areas. I’ll be limited in terms of what you see me do, versus a couple years ago. But very, very methodical, very, very purposeful.”

Maybe he’ll get there with a little help from Paul Pierce.

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UNC Basketball: Biggest Takeaways from Tar Heels’ Bahamas Trip

UNC basketball got all the competition it wanted—and then some—during its August exhibition trip to the Bahamas. The Tar Heels split a pair of games at the Summer of Thunder tournament, falling to the Providence (Bahamas) Storm on a late three-pointer before pummeling a team of Bahamian All-Stars by a 109-52 margin.

Exhibition games rarely, if ever, provide a clear picture of the season ahead, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some useful information for Carolina fans to gain from the Caribbean tour. Among the most important lessons:

 

Isaiah Hicks won’t be an afterthought this season

As a freshman, the 6’8” Hicks rarely left the bench, but he was all over the floor in the Bahamas. With Brice Johnson missing large chunks of each game with an ankle sprain, the younger forward led North Carolina in scoring in both contests.

Although it’s unlikely that Roy Williams will substitute as freely in the regular season as he did in these exhibitions, he certainly has the depth to do so, and the success of reserves such as Hicks can only encourage him. The sophomore may also earn playing time in smaller lineups if classmate Kennedy Meeks (who came off the bench in the second game) fails to impress.

 

The shooting guard competition is wide open

Veterans Marcus Paige and J.P. Tokoto are entrenched as starters on the perimeter, but the other backcourt spot is going to be a question mark up to (and likely beyond) the season opener. Freshmen Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson could each step into a 2-guard role, or rising sophomore Nate Britt could run the point with Paige sliding over to SG.

That last option, which Williams used to open the first exhibition, has the disadvantage of moving UNC’s best player off the ball. Of the freshman alternatives, Pinson is the better defender and athlete, but Jackson (who scored a combined 26 points off the bench to lead all Tar Heels guards on this trip) is a decidedly better shooter.

 

Free throws are still cause for serious concern

You really would’ve thought that finishing 344th nationally in foul shooting would have convinced North Carolina’s many returnees to get in some practice over the summer. If it did, the results were not apparent in the Bahamas, where the Heels combined to shoot a grotesque 14-of-32 from the stripe.

That tally included a pair of clutch misses by Pinson that could have prevented UNC’s opening-game defeat. It’s hard to find a clearer way to demonstrate that North Carolina can’t consider itself a serious title contender until it figures out how to stop leaving easy points on the table.

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How Much Do Chicago Bulls Need from Pau Gasol Next Season?

Between both frontcourt positions, the Chicago Bulls have 96 minutes per game to distribute between Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and Pau Gasol in their 2014-15 campaign.

How many of those minutes will go to Gasol?

The 34-year-old Spaniard, and two-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers, is undoubtedly one of the top post presences of his generation. But whether he should clock major minutes in his twilight stint with Chicago is a dubious question. More likely, he’ll become an invaluable role player, redefining himself in a fashion reminiscent of Ray Allen with the Miami Heat.

Like Allen, Gasol left his storied NBA franchise on questionable terms. Under-appreciated as part of the reign of Kobe Bryant, and misused through multiple coaching changes, Gasol’s got something to prove with the Bulls. “Instinct told me to pick Chicago,” he told the press at his introductory conference. He’s got more basketball life to live.

But his new mission shouldn’t involve the workload of a cornerstone. Gasol’s new job, if optimized, will make him into a kind of perfect basketball poison. Because he’s troubled by injuries—he missed 55 games combined over the past two years—and also plays with two elite defenders in Gibson and Noah, Gasol should be employed strategically. 

Twenty to 25 minutes per game should be enough time for Gasol to make his imprint, giving the Bulls another look with his dexterity in the lane and passing vision from the high post. Gasol can duplicate a lot of what Noah did as “point center” last year. Gasol and Noah, Bulls fans hope, can also converge as twin passing threats and find each other and cutting teammates at the rim.

They’ll have the chance to develop such chemistry, as Gasol is likely to start. Head coach Tom Thibodeau tends to give starting jobs on a basis of seniority whenever there’s a gray area. Gibson is arguably a better player at this point of his and Gasol’s respective careers. Gibson clocked a staggering 26.5 player efficiency rating in an increased role against the Washington Wizards in the postseason. He’s a remarkable player and is squarely in his prime.

But Thibodeau showed he’s respectful to tenure by starting Carlos Boozer over Gibson throughout 2013-14, during which Gibson was a vastly superior player. And Thibodeau may also be wise to mix and match his bigs so as to have one defensive-minded big next to a score-first man for most of the game.

In other words: Expect to see Gasol, a questionable defender as he ages, next to Gibson or Noah, while rarely sharing the floor with Mirotic. Thibodeau’s obsessive zeal for protecting the rim makes the Gasol-Mirotic combination a dim possibility. 

The Bulls need the extra punch Gasol brings on offense, but they’ll also be expecting a lot from him off the court. His experience and renowned, team-first attitude were big parts of Gasol’s appeal to Chicago. He enters a long-running cultural effort by the team—the Bulls are only interested in players eager to accept Thibodeau’s intense principles and tireless eye for X’s and O’s detail.

By bringing Gasol on board, the Bulls gain a personality who knows how to weather the harshest challenges of the NBA calendar and someone who’s happy to share his know-how with the rest of the roster. Mirotic learning under Gasol also bodes well for the Bulls’ future.

A fellow Spanish speaker, Mirotic will face rough lessons and a steep learning curve in his first year playing in the United States. A mobile, skilled power forward, Mirotic also falls in a similar category of player as Gasol. He stands to learn a lot as his understudy.

The Bulls got themselves a winner in Pau Gasol. He isn’t the same all-world player he was in his prime, but he’s still a singular character in the league. If Chicago manages his role just right, he could turn out to be their best acquisition in years. 

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Kobe: ‘I would go 0-30 before I would go 0-9′ from the floor

The Kobe documentary is shaping up to be must-see TV, especially if we are going to get more quotes like this. Gotham Chopra, the director of “Kobe Bryant’s Muse”, an upcoming documentary on Bryant, told a story about being with Kobe and watching the Nets and the Heat play. Recounts Chopra, “Deron Williams went like 0-9. I was like, ‘Can you believe Deron Williams went 0-9?’ Kobe was like, ‘I would go 0-30 before I would go 0-9. 0-9 means you beat yourself, you psyched yourself out of the game, because Deron Williams can get more shots in the game. The only reason is because you’ve just now lost confidence in yourself.’” Did you expect Kobe to say anything differently? Even if you disagree with the point, you can understand the thinking.  Kobe has always been a going doing swinging type of player (except when he gets pissed and stops shooting to prove a point in playoff games).  Even if he goes 0-30, he thinks shot 31 going to be nothing be net. Off topic, remember when there was a debat

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Predicting the Biggest Changes We’ll See from the Warriors Next Season

The Golden State Warriors entered the offseason looking to make a big splash, and while they didn’t necessarily make the biggest one, they made enough waves to stay in contention in the brutal Western Conference.

Change is on the horizon, however, and as the last two seasons have proved, changes are necessary. Fans will no longer be content with 50-win seasons and merely making the playoffs after such a long stretch of drudgery.

A new bar has been set, and it will be up to new head coach Steve Kerr to help them get there.

The Warriors have championship aspirations, and with the roster currently assembled, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they achieve their ultimate goal.

A new approach must be taken, though—an approach that goes away from much of what has gotten them to where they currently are. Stars like Andre Iguodala must be allowed the freedom to live up to their names. The ball must flow freely, even if it means taking the ball out of Stephen Curry’s hands every once in a while.

Most importantly, however, they must get the most out of the entire offense, spreading the playing time among the role players and granting the starters the rest they so desperately need during the games.

These were not points of concern under the tutelage of Mark Jackson and, not surprisingly, the Warriors faltered down the stretch. Under Kerr, the full potential will be unleashed.

 

Andre Iguodala will play a bigger role in the offense

Iguodala was one of the most polarizing players in the league last season, as his peripheral numbers didn’t set the world on fire. In fact, at 9.3 points per game, 4.2 assists and 4.7 rebounds, you would have to go back to his rookie year to find a season so statistically weak.

Despite all that, what became clear as the season progressed was that regardless of whether or not Iguodala was filling up the box score, the Warriors were better with him on the court. In fact, he made them 6.63 points better, according to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus stat. Only LeBron James and Chris Paul added more value to their teams.

What, then, can we expect from Iguodala going into next season? Well, if Kerr is to be believed, even more.

Kerr realizes what he has in Iguodala, and it is so much more than just the spot-up shooter he became under Mark Jackson. Iguodala is a devastating player moving without the ball, and he has the ability to finish at the rim in traffic. He has always been an excellent cutter and with the exceptional passing in the starting lineup, he will be found.

A player as talented as Iguodala cannot be wasted like he was last season. Getting the most out of your players is a key component to coaching, and this is an area where Kerr will shine.

 

Move away from isolation

Ask most random fans on the street about the elite offenses in the NBA, and the Warriors probably pop up more often than not. For so long they were all offense and no defense. Last year, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Warriors were a defensive juggernaut, ranking in the top 10 in numerous stats including field goal percentage, points and rebounding. The offense, on the other hand, just barely squeezed into the top 10. For a team boasting the likes of Curry, Klay Thompson and David Lee, that is inexcusable.

The Warriors were one of the most isolation-reliant teams in the league last season, running it over 10 percent of the time, and the results were not pretty. They shot just 38 percent from the field.

Jackson far too often fell in love with exploiting mismatches at the expense of ball movement. For a lineup filled with elite passers like Iguodala, Curry and Lee, it was the most counterproductive offense the Warriors could run.

Fear not, however, Warriors fans, because it appears that Kerr will be taking the opposite approach. In his introductory press conference, Kerr told reporters that ball movement would be at a premium in his offense, via Bruce Jenkins of SF Gate:

I think the team can get better offensively. There’s a lot of skill out there, with (Andrew) Bogut and Lee being such excellent passers. I think you’ll see a lot of ball movement, with the bigs being utilized as passers from the elbows and the block. We’ll have some elements of the triangle offense, but we’re not going to look like the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. In today’s NBA, you have to run, play fast, score early. The rules dictate that. I want to encourage even more running than the Warriors did last year. But I want to have it flow into an offense that utilizes our skill level and take some of the pressure off Curry.

With Kerr at the helm, a free-flowing offense will be the result. Look for the Warriors to regain their offensive aura.

 

Fewer minutes for the starters

We all love to see the stars on the court as often as possible, but in order to see them perform at their highest levels, they need an appropriate amount of rest during games. Far too often the Warriors lost games in the fourth quarter because of sloppy play and turnovers.

While it’s easy to blame the players for this, execution gets harder and harder when exhaustion sets in.

That’s on the coach.

Mark Jackson did a lot of good things for the team, but where he failed miserably was with his substitutions. He did not fully understand how to mix his lineups and as a result, the offense stalled when the bench came in. The starters would be rushed back in without the proper amount of rest.

That’s going to change this year.

The additions of Shaun Livingston and Brandon Rush shored up the biggest hole on the roster last season: guard depth. Along with Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli, the Warriors now boast one of the deepest benches in the league. Kerr will utilize that bench and ensure that his stars have fresh legs when it matters most.  

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Bucks acquire Jared Dudley from Clippers (Yahoo Sports)

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Small forward Jared Dudley is going to the Milwaukee Bucks.

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Call from LeBron helped influence Love’s decision

When James agreed to come back to Cleveland, he called Love trying to bring him aboard

      
 

 

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Michigan Basketball: Biggest Takeaways from Wolverines’ Preseason Trip to Italy

The Michigan basketball program recently used a nine-day getaway in Italy to build team chemistry and work on some new things, and the results were, suffice to say, encouraging. Michigan finished with a 4-0 record while averaging 101 points per game and shooting 55.4 percent from the field against a collection Italian all-star clubs.

For a team that lost five major players in Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary (albeit lost early in the 2013-14 season), Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford, Michigan needs some time to come together and gel, as it is introducing six true freshmen and one redshirt freshman.

So the trip to Italy was just what the doctor ordered for head coach John Beilein and company, as it got the team to iron out some concerns and issues before the games count for real in November. It was not only a good trip to bond over, but Beilein got a head start in regard to what lineups he may implement in the winter.

Here, then, are the biggest takeaways from the Wolverines’ trip to Italy.

All stats courtesy of MGoBlue.com.

 

Caris LeVert appears to be fine after foot surgery

After averaging 14.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.0 steals on the trip, it’s safe to say LeVert is over his foot injury

As the de facto leader of the team, it was nice to see LeVert play at a high level and give Wolverines fans assurance that he’ll be fine heading into the 2014-15 season. It was also nice to see LeVert expand his game; he rebounded and passed the ball well, playing a well-rounded game in Italy.

Michigan should be in good hands with LeVert being the alpha dog of the group this year, and the ankle injury must now be considered a thing of the past.

 

Zak Irvin appears ready to break out

After some concerns that Irvin would only be a shooter in Michigan’s offense, he erased some doubt that he is not a complete player by having a fantastic Italian excursion. No MVP was given out for trip, but if there was one, he would have received it.

Irvin averaged 20.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game on the trip while shooting a blistering 68.8 percent from the floor. Don’t worry, Irvin can still shoot from deep, as he shot 66.7 from long range (nailing 12 of his 18 three-pointers). Talk about efficiency!

It seems Irvin took to task the object of making himself a complete player and gave us a glimpse of how special he can be in his sophomore year.

 

Ricky Doyle could be the rebounder Michigan needs

If there is one thing the Wolverines need, it is a rebounder. With McGary, Morgan and Horford departing, Michigan needs a couple of its big men to step up, and Ricky Doyle definitively answered the bell in Italy.

In four games, Doyle averaged a very respectable eight rebounds a game. Not only that, but Doyle also chipped in 11.8 points per game on the trip.

Granted, the competition in Italy is not what he will face in the Big Ten, but Doyle gave Michigan fans hope that the team will have some good depth down low.

 

Mark Donnal appears ready to contribute

Doyle wasn’t the only big man to impress during the Italy trip, as redshirt freshman Mark Donnal also showed his worth.

In the four games, Donnal averaged 10.2 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting a sizzling 69.5 percent from the field. Donnal showed he can play a nice role in Michigan’s offense, and he, along with Doyle, can perhaps get the job done down low.

While there may be some bumps along the way, Donnal looks like he’s ready to step into the starting lineup and be a factor.

 

Great to see Austin Hatch playing

While not expected to be much of a contributor this year, that is not the story here when it comes to Austin Hatch.

For a guy who has lost his mother, father, stepmother and two siblings in two separate plane crashes and was in a medically induced coma as a result of one of them, Hatch is the perfect picture of courage and perseverance. For him to come back from not only the grief that has stricken him, but the life-threatening injuries as well, is nothing short of miraculous and inspiring.

Good stories go beyond the bounds of basketball, and this story demonstrates how we should all appreciate how precious life is.

Follow me on Twitter @Stacdemon

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What to Expect from Every Miami Heat Player in 2014-15

Although the Miami Heat lost four-time MVP LeBron James to the Cleveland Cavaliers this summer, the 2014-15 Heat are poised to remain one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.

Miami brought back franchise cornerstones such as Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, while also signing nine newcomers this offseason, such as Luol Deng.

But when evaluating how skilled this roster is, it’s important to look at every part of it—from Wade, Bosh and Deng to rookies Shabazz Napier and James Ennisso we’re going to do just that. 

We’ll be taking a look at and making statistical predictions for every player in our projected 15-man final roster

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