Team USA notebook: LeBron not stressing, Durant impressing
LAS VEGAS -- On Day 3 of Team USA's training camp, 14 players continued their preparation for the Tournament of the Americas, which begins on Wednesday.
As the summer has progressed, one of the main themes of the NBA offseason has been the talent infusion in the East, highlighted by Boston's acquisition of Kevin Garnett.
So to kick off our Vegas notebook, we asked the Eastern Conference reigning monarch, LeBron James, how he sees the new and improved East:
• You might think King James would be a little bit upset that the Eastern Conference has gotten tougher, but that is not the case.
Yes, it might make the road back to the NBA Finals a little tougher for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the arrivals of Garnett and Ray Allen in Boston, Zach Randolph in New York, Jason Richardson in Charlotte and Rashard Lewis in Orlando will increase the competitiveness of the conference -- and to LeBron that's a good thing.
"It's about time we got some pros over in the Eastern Conference," James said Thursday after Team USA held its second practice. "I think it's going to be good. I think the Eastern Conference is definitely going to step up a notch now because Boston wasn't a playoff team, but now they're looking like they're going to be a playoff team. New York is definitely going to have a good shot at it again, and the Eastern Conference is definitely stepping it up. I think it's good for the league."
One team that hasn't been all that busy -- although it did take another stab at acquiring Mike Bibby -- is LeBron's Cavs, whose two restricted free agents, Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic, remain unsigned.
"We need them," James said. "Anderson is a big part of our team, and Sasha came along big last season. I think we need both of them, and I think both want to stay, but we'll have to wait and see what happens."
James said he has been too busy to keep in constant touch with Cavs general manager Danny Ferry.
"We all know we're looking for a point guard and another guy on the interior that can help us," he said. "There's not too many guys out there. There weren't too many guys out there in free agency this summer. So we'll have to see what happens as we go along in August and September before training camp starts.
"We're always looking to improve, but I think we're looking very good with the same team from last year. As a player you always want to get better, you don't ever want to be the same team as last year. But at the same time, you want to get better, but if that can't happen, if you have to go with what you know, then you go out there and play hard."
• Coach Mike Krzyzewski said Friday it's going to a tough decision regarding who makes the cut when the roster is trimmed from 14 to 12 players next Tuesday evening. But he also feels there will not be a repeat of the hard feelings that were felt a year ago when Bruce Bowen and Gilbert Arenas were the final two players taken off the roster prior to the World Championship in Japan.
"It's a big difference, and a lot of it is telling some people that trust and respect are not cards that are given out. You have to get to know one another, earn it, and I really think that we're a group that everyone trusts and respects one another. Liking is fine, but if you don't have those other two ... But we have those, and I feel very good about this group," Krzykewski said.
The most likely player to be cut is Nick Collison, who did not take part in the team's July mini-camp, but the final cut will be much more tricky if all 13 players remain healthy through the early part of next week.
Kevin Durant's lack of experience compared to his teammates could work against him, but his talent level and his need for exposure to the international game work in his favor. Krzyzewski said the Americans expect to see even more zone defenses than they did a year ago, which would seem to enhance the chances that Mike Miller, Michael Redd and Tayshaun Prince will all make the final cut. If that's the case, then it might come down to a question of whether the Americans can afford to keep three points guards -- Jason Kidd, Chauncey Billups and Deron Williams.
Still, there are four more days of practice before any decision needs to be made, so we'll have to wait and see. "I think whoever is not selected, everybody will feel bad for him, because they get along, and I'm surprised at the level of how they get along," Krzyzewski said.
• Last summer when Team USA was preparing for the World Championship in Japan, USA Basketball stuck with its usual practice of bringing in a couple of NBA referees with experience officiating FIBA games to handle the refereeing chores during scrimmages.
This summer, team director Jerry Colangelo decided to bring in an actual current FIBA referee. Nicholas Zavlonas, of Greece, worked the U.S.-Argentina bronze-medal game last summer in Japan. Zavlonas spoke to the team at practice Thursday, going over the finer points of how FIBA referees will call things in the Tournament of the Americas, which begins Wednesday.
Zavlonas told ESPN.com he made a point to the players that he expects hand-checking violations to be in vogue this summer, warning players to use their forearms rather than their hands to defend players on the perimeter.
Zavlonas also mentioned that Greek center Sofoklis Schortsianitis, who gave the Americans fits in Greece's semifinal victory last summer, is being kept off the Greek team for next month's EuroBasket tournament in Spain because he has gained a good deal of weight. He also agreed with my assessment that the Greek players were too satisfied with their victory over Team USA, which is why they got trounced by Spain in the gold-medal game.
• Colangelo told me after practice Thursday that the team's designated shooters, Michael Redd and Mike Miller, had much better days with their jump shots than they did on Wednesday for the first day of practice.
"He's going to be special," Billups said.
• The last player to leave the court after practice Wednesday was Tyson Chandler, who stuck around for a long time to practice free throws, shooting them with a particularly high arc.
Chandler's teammate on the New Orleans Hornets, Chris Paul, stopped by after practice Wednesday and said that by the time training camp begins in October he expects to be fully recovered from having a screw implanted in his left foot.
• A small crowd of kids has been stationed outside the high school gym where Team USA is practicing. When I left practice Wednesday, I asked them if they had gotten Kobe Bryant's autograph. "No," one of them said, pointing to his sneakers, "he wouldn't even sign his own shoes."
Bryant was seen signing some autographs, but he wasn't talking about whether he still wants the Lakers to trade him, and I get the impression from chatting with him that he won't have anything to say on the matter for the rest of the summer. If that holds, we'll have to wait and see whether Bryant shows up at training camp in Hawaii at the beginning of October, or whether he decides to stage a holdout to force Los Angeles to trade him.
My ESPN colleague Ric Bucher disagrees with me on this one, but I still believe the Knicks have a better chance than anybody to get Bryant if he forces the Lakers' hand. The word on the street, however, is that Bryant's first choice remains the Chicago Bulls.
ESPN's Rachel Nichols had an on-camera interview Friday with Bryant in which he gave an interesting quote about "water under the bridge." It's open to interpretation what he meant by that phrase, but Lakers fans will probably take from solace from it.
Here's a transcript of the salient Q&A:
Nichols: You said one day you wanted to be traded, you said you wanted to be a Laker for Life. There were different phone calls back and forth.
Bryant: I think a lot of people misinterpreted it. But that's water under the bridge to me, because going forward, we're handling our situation between ourselves, meaning the Lakers organization and myself. If things, if things were to be different, we both would have handled the situation a little differently.
Nichols: When you look back on that, are you thinking ... Oh God, what was I doing then?
Bryant: Yeah, sure, it was just frustration. Frustration gets the best of everybody.
• Among the NBA folks attending the first two days of practice were Knicks coach Isiah Thomas, Miami coach Pat Riley, Nets coach Lawrence Frank, Sonics general manager Sam Presti, Warriors general manager Chris Mullin and of course, William Wesley.
Also taking in practice Thursday was coach Mike Krzyzewski's wife, Mickie. Coach K introduced me to her Thursday and complimented the international basketball knowledge of yours truly (I have been covering Team USA since 1996). So Coach K gets some brownie points for that, but it won't stop me from repeatedly making the argument that he mismanaged the team in its loss to Greece last summer by trying to go small against a much bigger team and failing to adjust when the game was getting away.
And no, all you Duke folks out there, especially the ones who e-mail me, I am not a closet North Carolina guy. The only basketball team at any level that I ever cheer for is my alma mater, Marquette, which will always be known as the Warriors to me.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
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