This first appeared in the July 30 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, the Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
LAS VEGAS — It’s easy to forget now that the United States men’s basketball team has reclaimed its place as one of the most dominant squads in all of sports. But it wasn’t so long ago that Team USA had become a second-class citizen in the basketball world.
Jerry Colangelo, however, remembers all too well. It was 13 years ago this summer that Colangelo, one of the most influential people in basketball over the past 50 years, was made director of USA Basketball. After a sixth-place finish in the 2002 World Championships and a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympic Games, it was Colangelo who was tasked with leading Team USA back to the top.
So as Colangelo stood on the court at UNLV’s practice facility last week following one of Team USA’s two practices this summer, both of which included more than 20 of the NBA’s biggest American stars participating in voluntary workouts, he couldn’t help but get nostalgic about the program’s journey.
“I was just talking about that a little bit ago with Coach K,” Colangelo told The Washington Post, referring to Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski. “When I met with him in 2005, we talked about changing the culture … we talked about putting an infrastructure in place that would last a long time after we were gone. So we changed the culture, the infrastructure is in place and it is kind of a machine. And so, mission accomplished, in that sense.”
Mission accomplished indeed. Since that summer, things have changed in a big way for Team USA. The program is 88-1 since then, the only loss coming to Greece in the semifinals of the 2006 World Championships in Japan.
Since then, Team USA has won its past five tournaments — the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games, and the 2010 and 2014 World Championships — an unrivaled run of success in the program’s history. That, coupled with the expectation and excitement level among the top American players to be part of the program, has it precisely where Colangelo envisioned.
“As far as the results, it’s been great,” he said. “I can’t forget the loss. It will always be there. But having said that, that’s yesterday’s news. We have a new coach to move it forward, and last night we talked about where we were, what we accomplished and now, let’s bury that, and let’s move on. We’ve got work to do. Everybody out there wants to knock us off. That’s enough of an incentive, in my opinion, to say, ‘We have a lot of work to do.’
“The good news is we are going to have a lot of guys to pick from.”
It will be Colangelo and Gregg Popovich, who officially took over for Krzyzewski after the 2016 Rio Olympics, to choose those guys. Colangelo said there was initially an expectation on his part to step away from the program in 2016 along with Krzyzewski. But after Popovich said he would be willing to coach the team on one condition — that Colangelo stay at the helm — those plans changed.
“So, in my mind, that gets me through 2020,” Colangelo said. “And then, we’ll see.”
It would be fitting, assuming Team USA maintains its level of success, for Colangelo’s final act to entail leading a team into Japan, where it suffered the only loss of his tenure, and emerge with yet another gold medal. No matter what happens, though, he’s nearing the end of a remarkable basketball life.
Since beginning his career working for the Chicago Bulls in 1966, Colangelo served as general manager, and later owner, of the Phoenix Suns, helming the franchise for the better part of four decades. He has also served as chairman of the Basketball Hall of Fame in addition to his role for the past 13 years with Team USA.
Yet the past few months, Colangelo has been stuck in a precarious personal position. He has had to watch his son, Bryan, endure an embarrassing situation in which he resigned as president of basketball operations with the Philadelphia 76ers following revelations that Bryan Colangelo’s wife, Barbara, had been operating fake Twitter accounts on his behalf.
“I haven’t made any public comments about what transpired,” Jerry Colangelo said. “I don’t think it would be appropriate. It’s a very difficult summer for him, and his family.”
In discussing the situation, Colangelo termed his own tenure in Philadelphia — with which he served as a special adviser — as over, before clarifying that it is “over at the end of the year.”
A league source confirmed that account. While Colangelo is under contract through the end of this calendar year, and the 76ers will be honoring that contract, it won’t be renewed. It is an awkward ending to what was one of the stranger stories in recent NBA memory.
In the meantime, Colangelo can throw himself into his work with Team USA and attempt to keep the run of success he’s had over the past decade alive.
If history is any indication, things will work out just fine.
Thomas working hard to get back
More than three hours after the first day of practice wrapped up last Thursday, Isaiah Thomas was still working out on the court inside UNLV’s practice facility with Phil Handy, one of the NBA’s top player development coaches, who was recently hired by the Toronto Raptors.
Despite still recovering from hip surgery earlier this year, Thomas was in Vegas and participating as much as he could, wanting to show how much it meant to him to be part of the program. It also served as yet another reminder of how much has changed for him since he exited the 2017 playoffs with a hip injury that sent his career careening in a very different direction from where it was not long ago.
“I’m just focused on getting healthy, and doing whatever I can to be as healthy as possible and going out there and competing,” Thomas told The Post.
Along those lines, Thomas — who signed a contract for the veteran’s minimum with the Denver Nuggets this month — said he has about a month left before he’s fully cleared to play, and says that he would “for sure” be ready to go when camp stars in Denver in late September.
It appeared Thomas might not have an opportunity to showcase himself in the NBA next season, particularly once the Orlando Magic traded for Jerian Grant and the Charlotte Hornets signed Tony Parker. That changed once the Nuggets — whose coach, Mike Malone, also coached Thomas in Sacramento — came calling in search of a veteran backup point guard to play behind rising star Jamal Murray.
For Thomas, it was a chance to play for a coach he’s comfortable with, and to give the world a chance to see if he can return to the same form he showed before the hip issues surfaced during his time in Boston.
“Be a playoff team,” he said, when asked what his expectations were for his upcoming season in Denver. “That’s the goal. They were one game from the playoffs [last year]. I’m just there to help, in any way I can possibly help. I know Mike Malone trusts who I am, as a player and a person, and he’s going to give me the opportunity, and I’m going to take advantage of it.”
This is far from the first time Thomas, who was taken with the final pick in the 2011 draft, has been doubted. But despite everything that has transpired over the past 12 months, he says his mind-set hasn’t changed and he has nothing more to prove.
“Nah,” he said. “I don’t got nothing to prove. I just got to get healthy. I get healthy, the world knows what I bring to the table. When I averaged 30, they doubted it then. So it doesn’t matter. No matter how high or how low it gets, they’re always going to doubt.”
Drummond gets healthy
Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond is noticeably slimmer this summer. When asked about it, Drummond said he dropped about 20 pounds — lowering his weight to 285 — and credited it to him changing his lifestyle.
“I think for me it’s just finding something that works for me,” he said. “In the previous years, it was kind of feeling it out to get my body in tiptop shape. Last year was the first year I really found what it took to get my body to where it needed to, and that’s a plan I’ve stuck with.”
The Pistons will be hoping those changes translate to Drummond’s play on the court after a tumultuous offseason in Detroit. Stan Van Gundy and most of the team’s front office were fired after four seasons and were replaced by Dwane Casey on the sidelines and Ed Stefanski upstairs.
While the Pistons only made the playoffs once in Van Gundy’s four years in charge, Drummond is excited about a full season playing alongside Blake Griffin, as well as the possibility of finally getting Reggie Jackson healthy after the point guard played a combined 97 games the past two seasons.
“I think our direction is great, Drummond said. “Adding Dwane Casey as coach, having Blake and Reggie Jackson come back healthy, myself coming back healthy and in shape, just overall really, really excited for the upcoming season and just the new start and the new team.”
Just the idea of building around Drummond and Griffin places the Pistons in a very different place than the vast majority of NBA teams, which are hyper-focused on playing smaller and faster and shooting more threes. Drummond, though, is hoping that will give Detroit an advantage, and he said he and Griffin — who also was participating this week — have been spending as much time together this offseason as they can.
“Blake and I have done a great job of being in constant communication and getting a chance to be on the court together as much as possible to figure out what each other likes. So whenever we are with each other, it’s really just trying to figure each other out.”
Lowry not saying much — yet
It was perfectly within Kyle Lowry’s rights to say as little as possible about the trade in which his best friend, DeMar DeRozan, was sent to the San Antonio Spurs as part of a package for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
Judging by his terse session with reporters Friday, Lowry will have plenty to say about the deal, and some of Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri’s comments, sometime closer to the start of training camp.
“When it’s time to be [in Toronto], I’ll be ready to go to work, and make my time to say everything, and things like that,” Lowry said. “But right now, this is about USA Basketball, and it’s been fantastic and refreshing and a fun week.”
The state of the Raptors’ relationship with the media post-Derozan will be worth watching. No matter how ugly things got for Toronto on the court, DeRozan was always willing to face the media afterward. So was Casey before he was fired.
Lowry has always been wary of the media, while Leonard just never speaks, period. The two of them — plus a rookie coach in Nick Nurse — as the faces of a franchise in one of the biggest media markets in North America will make for a fascinating story.
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