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Down and out Down Under, US seem vulnerable for World Cup

Sat Aug 24 9:37am ET
By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Basketball Writer

Players: Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills, Harrison Barnes

The U.S. men's basketball team had never lost to Australia. It had gone nearly 13 years without losing a game with an NBA-stocked roster. It was in the midst of the longest winning streak in team history.

Until Saturday.

The Americans went Down Under, and went down.

Australia beat the U.S. 98-94 before a crowd of more than 52,000 in Melbourne, an outcome that ended the Americans' 78-game winning streak and cast major doubt on the team's ability to capture a third consecutive World Cup in China.

''Nobody wins forever,'' USA Basketball coach Gregg Popovich said.

The last time the Americans - counting major international tournaments and exhibitions with NBA players on the floor - lost a game was the semifinals of the 2006 world championships. The program has won gold in every competition since, including three straight in the Olympics and two consecutive World Cup titles.

But now, the gold standard of international basketball looks unusually vulnerable.

''It's a friendly so we want to keep it in context,'' Australia center Andrew Bogut said. ''But we did make history tonight, the first senior men's Australian team to beat an American team.''

Popovich said all the right things after the game. He lauded the Australian players and those tasked with putting their team together. He raved about Patty Mills, who scored 30 points to lead the Boomers to their biggest win. He good-naturedly vowed that when he and Mills get back to San Antonio, where they've been together as coach and guard for the last eight years, he will find a way to exact revenge.

More seriously, though, he sounded an alarm for the Americans.

''The loss means that we need to play better,'' Popovich said. ''It's a measure of who you are.''

And who they are is still to be determined.

The U.S. has played three exhibitions on their pre-World Cup tour, and Popovich has used three different starting lineups. The rotation is not clear, not even to the coaches. Players - most never having been teammates until this month - are figuring out their individual roles and the broader scheme.

''I think when you look at international play, every team, they kind of have their calling card of what they fall back into, their system, their sets,'' U.S. forward Harrison Barnes of the Sacramento Kings said. ''For us, we're still getting to that point.''

There's time for that. A little time, anyway.

The final exhibition for the Americans is Monday against Canada in Sydney. Once the U.S. gets to Shanghai, its first three World Cup games shouldn't be overly taxing - the Americans are ranked No. 1 in the world while group opponents Turkey, the Czech Republic and Japan are ranked 17th, 24th and 48th, respectively.

From there, the tests figure to ramp up quickly. Serbia, France, Greece, Spain and now the Australians all arrive in China as legitimate title hopefuls. With most of the top U.S. stars from the NBA like LeBron James, James Harden, Paul George and Stephen Curry sitting out this summer, the rest of the world clearly isn't stuck playing for second place.

''You can learn as much or more from losing as winning,'' Popovich said. ''We're all used to winning and losing. The USA has been a little bit different over the last 12 years - they're only used to winning. So hopefully we can get back on that track.''

Since training camp started three weeks ago in Las Vegas, Popovich has expressed concern about the task of molding individuals into not just a cohesive unit but one good enough to win the World Cup.

He warned it wouldn't be easy.

Saturday's outcome proved him right.

''This is a group of guys that's worked very hard to get to know each other and get to know a system,'' Popovich said. ''And whatever comes, we can handle. Our job is to try to get better every day and we learned some things tonight. We're actually a better team now than at the start of the game because of the knowledge that we gained. So you move on.''

Player Notes
DeMarcus Cousins Aug 15 1:00pm ET

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.

Trey Burke Jul 25 10:30pm ET

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.

Dragan Bender Jul 25 11:50am ET

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.

Pau Gasol Jul 24 8:00pm ET

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.

Furkan Korkmaz Jul 24 1:40pm ET

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.

John Wall Jul 22 6:00pm ET

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.

Kostas Antetokounmpo Jul 21 7:30pm ET

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.

Justin Holiday Jul 19 6:10pm ET

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.

Dragan Bender Jul 17 5:20pm ET

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.

Blake Griffin Jul 16 1:10pm ET

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.

Brandon Clarke Jul 16 12:00am ET

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.

Henry Ellenson Jul 16 12:00am ET

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.

J.R. Smith Jul 15 11:30pm ET

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.

Tyson Chandler Jul 12 3:20pm ET

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.

Chris Paul Jul 11 10:10pm ET

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.

Russell Westbrook Jul 11 10:00pm ET

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.

Coby White Jul 11 11:00am ET

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.

Kelly Oubre Jr. Jul 11 11:00am ET

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.

Avery Bradley Jul 8 3:30pm ET

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.

DeMarcus Cousins Jul 7 1:00am ET

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.