Sun Aug 25 11:10am ET
By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Basketball Writer
The reigning NBA MVP is headed to the basketball World Cup. So are three other members of this past season's All-NBA squad, and so is the starting center from the team that won the NBA championship a couple months ago.
Most of those guys won't be playing for the United States.
The majority of America's best players are sitting out the World Cup, while many of the best international players are not. NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece, fellow All-NBA players Nikola Jokic of Serbia and Rudy Gobert of France, and Marc Gasol of Spain - a significant part of Toronto's run to the NBA title - are among the headliners who won't be in U.S. colors when the tournament starts Saturday in China.
''We're going to China with the goal of a medal,'' Jokic said.
The Denver star isn't just looking for any medal. He's seeking gold.
And the Serbians would seem to have as good a chance as anyone in a tournament that suddenly looks wide open.
France and Australia - which is coming off a 98-94 victory over the United States on Saturday that ended the Americans' 78-game winning streak in international play - are expected to have five NBA players on their rosters for the World Cup, and Serbia is likely to bring four. In all, more than 60 players with NBA experience are likely to participate in the tournament and only 12 of them are playing for the U.S.
''A lot of teams can be in the medal spots and it's going to be intense, very hard for every team to be in those spots,'' said France's Nicolas Batum - the only player from the last World Cup All-Tournament team in 2014 who is expected to compete in this year's event. ''But every team, including ours, is going to fight for it, to play at its best level to try to come back home with a medal.''
The only U.S. World Cup player who was an All-NBA pick this past season is Kemba Walker, then of the Charlotte Hornets and now of the Boston Celtics. Look at the NBA stats from last season for World Cup-bound players and the leading scorer, the top three in assists per game and the top seven rebounders all are on international rosters.
The world is getting better.
That means the U.S. is no lock in this tournament.
''There are a lot of contenders out there,'' U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said.
The Americans are the only team with a roster composed entirely of NBA players, but that isn't stopping some from scoffing at the notion that the U.S. is vulnerable heading into this tournament because its World Cup roster doesn't have anything close to a Dream Team-esque level of star-studded names.
Spain coach Sergio Scariolo bluntly dismisses that notion.
Scariolo, a Toronto assistant coach when he's not leading Spain, is quick to point out that a glance at the NBA salaries of the U.S. players dwarfs the combined salaries of every other World Cup roster. When the Americans played Spain in an exhibition earlier this month, the U.S. sent out a starting five that will make roughly $105 million this season.
So yes, in terms of earning power, no other team in the world comes close to the roster that the Americans are bringing to China this week.
But as evidenced by how Australia battled the U.S. twice in a pair of exhibitions in Melbourne, and beat the Americans there on Saturday, at least some of the world's best teams aren't exactly fearful of the two-time defending World Cup champions.
''Let's let them play their basketball and we will play ours,'' Serbia coach Sasha Djordjevic now-famously said earlier this month. ''And if we meet, may God help them.''
Clearly, the tournament means quite a bit to Serbia. It means plenty to other nations as well.
Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee star who won NBA MVP this past season, even said earlier this month that he would give back the award if it could be exchanged for a World Cup gold medal for Greece.
''I believe him,'' U.S. center and Antetokounmpo's Bucks teammate Brook Lopez said. ''That's how much he wants this.''
Los Angeles Lakers center DeMarcus Cousins has torn his ACL during workouts. With this injury happening in mid-August, Cousins' recovery window means we likely won't see him on an NBA floor this upcoming season. It's a huge blow for a player who was still working to get back to full strength after an Achilles rupture two seasons ago. With Cousins out, expect JaVale McGee to start at center. We could also see more lineups with Anthony Davis playing the five and Kyle Kuzma working as a stretch four.
Point guard Trey Burke has signed a one-year deal with the Philadelphia 76ers. Because the Sixers lack depth at point guard behind Ben Simmons, Burke has a chance to play a decent role on this team if he's able to beat out Shake Milton for minutes. Burke should be able to do that. Still, he doesn't have much fantasy value outside of deeper leagues, because the Sixers are going to rely heavily on their starting five and give Josh Richardson some time at the point.
Despite reports that he already signed a deal to play in Russia next season, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski is reporting that former Suns power forward Dragan Bender has agreed to a two-year deal with the Milwaukee Bucks. It's hard to see a role for Bender in Milwaukee, as he's basically been a very, very inefficient stretch big for Phoenix. There's a reason it took this long for an NBA team to sign him, so don't expect much production from Bender this season.
Free agent center/power forward Pau Gasol has signed a one-year deal with the Portland Trail Blazers, where he'll likely back up starting center Hassan Whiteside. Gasol's reached a point in his career where his presence on the floor isn't really that useful for anyone, and it's hard to see him having much fantasy value this upcoming season, especially with Jusuf Nurkic (leg) likely to return in the second half of the season, which would make Gasol the third center at best. He's best avoided in fantasy league.
The Philadelphia 76ers have re-signed forward Furkan Korkmaz to a two-year deal. Korkmaz appeared in 48 games for the Sixers last year and started in seven of those. He shot just 32.6 percent from three, averaging 5.8 points and 2.2 rebounds per game. Philadelphia is deeper this year, which makes it hard to see how Korkmaz fits into the team's plans, but with the first year of his contract fully guaranteed, he'll very likely be on the final roster as the 11th or 12th man. Korkmaz should not be drafted in fantasy.
Washington Wizards guard John Wall tore his Achilles in February and is expected to miss the entire 2019-2020 season. While the timetable for Achilles rehab could theoretically put Wall on track to return near the end of next season, the Wizards plan to be cautious with their point guard. Wall should be off the fantasy re-draft radar at this point. Expect to see Bradley Beal and Ish Smith play most of Washington's guard minutes, with Smith in particular in line for an increase in production as the team's starting point guard.
The Los Angeles Lakers have claimed forward Kostas Antetokounmpo off waivers from the Mavericks. Antetokounmpo is on a two-way contract, which will restrict how long he's able to be on the Lakers main roster this season, and it's highly unlikely that the team will give him minutes even when he's available, because the Lakers are in win-now mode with LeBron James and Anthony Davis and don't have time to develop Antetokounmpo. Many seem to think the claiming was done to show Antetokounmpo's brother, reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, that he should come to Los Angeles when he hits free agency in a couple of years. This move doesn't move the fantasy needle for the 2019-2020 season, though it definitely could have some long term implications.
Free agent guard Justin Holiday has signed a one-year deal with the Indiana Pacers, where he joins his brother Aaron. Last year, Holiday split time between Chicago and Memphis, playing in 82 games with 77 starts and putting up averages of 10.5 points and 3.9 rebounds on 38.6 percent shooting. Indiana's a better team and because of that won't afford Holiday with the same amount of minutes, but he gives the Pacers a bench option who can hit a ton of threes. There's late round fantasy value here, but not as much as there was for Holiday last season.
Another NBA player appears to be returning to international play, as power forward Dragan Bender has reportedly agreed to a multi-year deal with CSKA Moscow. Bender, whose team option was declined by the Suns and was a free agent, found the NBA free agency landscape to be a tough place for him and despite interest from the Cleveland Cavaliers, it appears Bender's NBA days are over for now. He averaged just five points and four rebounds in 46 games for the Suns last year, including 27 starts. There's enough promise to hold onto him in deeper dynasty leagues, but he's now a non-factor in redraft.
Last season, Detroit Pistons power forward Blake Griffin dealt with a knee injury that limited his availability at the end of the season and the beginning of the playoffs, which led Griffin to have knee surgery in the offseason. The surgery wasn't expected to keep Griffin out of any offseason activities, and Tuesday's announcement that he's resumed light basketball activities keeps Griffin on track to be a full go for the 2019-2020 season. Knee injuries are definitely something to be concerned over, but as long as Griffin is able to take the court when the season opens, his usage on this Pistons team will make him a strong fantasy basketball option next season. There's injury risk, but Griffin's upside is undeniable.
Memphis Grizzlies rookie forward Brandon Clarke was named the MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League. In six games, Clarke averaged 14.7 points and 9.8 rebounds per contest, showing that he can be a valuable piece of the Grizzlies' rotation this upcoming season. The Grizzlies are a young and rebuilding team, and Clarke is bound to get plenty of minutes in the team's front court this season. He's going to be a valuable fantasy contributor thanks to his ability to score efficiently and rebound well.
The Brooklyn Nets have signed power forward Henry Ellenson to a two-way contract. Ellenson's first three NBA seasons -- split between the Pistons and Knicks -- have largely been disappointments, and he finished last season with an average of six points and 3.5 rebounds per game in just 19 appearances. A two-way deal will limit how much time Ellenson is able to spend on an NBA roster, which means most of his season will be spent with Brooklyn's G-League affiliate in Long Island. Any value Ellenson may have had if he'd signed an actual NBA contract has evaporated with this move.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have waived veteran guard J.R. Smith, clearing the way for Smith to join a contending team. Smith averaged 6.7 points and shot just 30.8 percent from the field last season, but played in just 11 games for Cleveland. A healthy Smith could be a decent bench piece for a playoff team, but he's unlikely to find a role where he'll be more than a team's fourth or fifth guard. That means Smith's fantasy stock is likely to vary wildly on a game-to-game basis, making him someone not worth rostering in most league formats. The only exception would be if Smith doesn't sign with a contender and prioritizes signing somewhere where he'll receive minutes, though it's unclear if a team like that exists.
The Houston Rockets have signed veteran center Tyson Chandler, who played 55 games last season for the Suns and Lakers. Chandler averaged just 3.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, and he'll likely be mired in the back of the Houston rotation this year, seeing 10-15 minutes per game on what could be an irregular basis. This signing doesn't matter for fantasy purposes unless Houston's starting center Clint Capela misses time, in which case Chandler may have a little value in deep leagues.
The Houston Rockets have traded point guard Chris Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Russell Westbrook. It's hard to know what to make of the deal for Paul, because so much remains up in the air. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the Thunder are still looking to move Paul after the deal, so there's a very good chance he never plays a game in a Thunder uniform. If he does, he'll likely see a larger usage rate than he has in previous seasons and receive a boost in his statistical output, but the looming threat of another trade leads us to grade this move as an incomplete.
The Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets have completed a deal that sends point guard Russell Westbrook to Houston, pairing him once again with former teammate James Harden. With Paul George no longer in Oklahoma City, Westbrook was set to have a huge season statistically, but he'll go back to playing a role similar to the one he played last year, when he saw a drop in shot attempts and averaged 22.9 points per game, down almost 10 points from his pre-George numbers. Westbrook will also see a reduction in assists playing beside another ball-dominant player, and it would be a surprise to see him lead the league in that category for the third straight year. Overall, Westbrook's value takes a slight hit, though he'll still probably go at the end of the first in fantasy drafts.
Chicago Bulls rookie point guard Coby White is expected to take a backseat to some of the team's other options this upcoming season. Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said that White's got a lot of learning to do and that the speed of the game could be an issue for White, while head coach Jim Boylen has already said Kris Dunn is the team's starting point guard. With Tomas Satoransky in the picture too, it doesn't look like White's going to be fantasy relevant in the early stages of his rookie campaign.
Restricted free agent forward Kelly Oubre Jr. has signed a two-year deal to remain with the Phoenix Suns. Oubre is a solid player who's likely to end up starting at the three for the Suns, and he has solid fantasy upside as a guy who can give Phoenix something close to 15 points and five rebounds per game. Last season was also Oubre's most efficient year as an NBA shooter, and he can be a good fantasy pick in the later rounds of fantasy drafts because of his ability to do a lot of things on the basketball court, even if he isn't going to excel at any one thing.
Shooting guard Avery Bradley is expected to sign a two-year, $9.7 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers upon his clearing of waivers, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. The Grizzlies waived Bradley earlier in the summer, paving the way for the former NBA All-Defensive First Team selection to join a revamped Lakers roster. The second year of Bradley's contract is reported to have a player option, as he'll join Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the wing in 2019-20. After showcasing his offensive game (16.1 points per contest) over 14 games with Memphis to conclude last season, he may revert to his traditional role of defensive stopper with Los Angeles, which could stunt his upward fantasy trajectory.
The Lakers have signed free agent center DeMarcus Cousins to a one-year, $3.5 million deal. The 28-year-old, who played just 30 regular season games with the Warriors in 2019 after recovering from an Achilles injury the year prior, averaged only 16.3 points and 8.2 boards per contest while playing a career-low 25.7 minutes. He will be reunited with former Pelicans teammates Anthony Davis and Rajon Rondo in his new home in Los Angeles and will look to remain healthy in hopes of getting paid next Summer.