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Olympic basketball: Key questions for the Tokyo Games in 2021

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With the Tokyo Olympics postponed to 2021, OlympicTalk is taking a sport-by-sport look at where things stood before sports were halted and how global circumstances could alter the Olympic picture …

How was Olympic men’s basketball shaping up, six months before the Games?

Eight of the 12 Olympic berths were filled: U.S., Spain, France, Argentina, Australia, Iran, Nigeria and host Japan. The last four were to be decided at four June qualifying tournaments, which have now been postponed to 2021.

USA Basketball, after a flooring seventh-place finish at the 2019 FIBA World Cup (without NBA superstars), named 44 finalists for its 12-man roster in February. Every NBA superstar was included, but it did not necessarily mean every player was making himself available for selection. LeBron James and Anthony Davis were two of the biggest names who, after the finalists announcement, were not yet ready to commit. James will be 36 come the Tokyo Games in 2021, older than any previous U.S. Olympic men’s basketball player.

With the Olympic postponement, USA Basketball could alter that finalist list over the next year. It already had the option to do so. For example, in the last Olympic cycle, Damian Lillard was added to the pool after many withdrew from consideration, but he ultimately also withdrew.

The biggest roster concern for the U.S. and coach Gregg Popovich had to be at center. Neither of the 2016 Olympic centers was named a Tokyo finalist (injured DeMarcus Cousins and healthy DeAndre Jordan). Outside of Davis, none of the NBA’s All-Star centers this season were Americans: Joel Embiid (Cameroon), Rudy Gobert (France), Nikola Jokic (Serbia) and Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania).

How could the Olympic postponement change things?

The biggest variable will be the end date of the 2020-21 NBA season. While the Olympics in 2021 are the same weeks as they were in 2020, it’s unknown what a 2020-21 NBA schedule could look like in these unprecedented times. If the NBA season goes longer, and brushes closer to the Olympic dates, players will obviously have less time to rest. This is key, because the primary reason when healthy players bow out of Olympic consideration is citing a need for rest between NBA seasons.

That said, more key players could be available to the U.S. Kevin Durant, though named as a finalist, was set to miss the rest of the 2019-20 NBA season with a ruptured Achilles, putting his Olympic status in question. Other players who weren’t named finalists were, at the time, recovering from major injuries: Cousins, Blake Griffin and John Wall.

Younger players not named as finalists who could get a longer look include Zion Williamson, the 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick who missed the first three months of last season with a torn meniscus.

2021 Olympic Capsules: Track and Field | Swimming | Gymnastics | Beach Volleyball | Diving

How was Olympic women’s basketball shaping up, six months before the Games?

The entire Olympic field was already set — U.S., Australia, Spain, France, Belgium, Canada, Puerto Rico, Nigeria, Serbia, China, South Korea and host Japan. Nine of the world’s top 10 nations qualified, the lone exception being No. 6 Turkey, which has no Olympic medal history.

The U.S. seeks a seventh straight Olympic title to match the basketball record held by U.S. men’s teams from the first seven Olympic tournaments from 1936-68. The U.S. women have won 46 straight games between the Olympics and FIBA World Cup dating to 2006, though it did lose an exhibition to the University of Oregon in November.

U.S. roster decisions again figured to be difficult. Stalwarts Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are in for, potentially, their fifth Olympics. Maya Moore (focusing on criminal justice reform) and Candace Parker announced they were out (More on Parker’s situation here). The biggest question, if any, remained who could succeed Bird as a reliable point guard.

How could the Olympic postponement change things?

Sabrina Ionescu. The Oregon superstar and WNBA No. 1 draft pick missed key U.S. women’s national team activities in the fall and winter as they happened during the college season. However, she was as of January the U.S.’ top player in international rankings for 3×3, a new Olympic event. Ionescu said at the 2019 Pan American Games that, if forced to choose between 5×5 and 3×3 at the Olympics, she preferred 3×3, according to the Olympic Channel.

The extra year until the Olympics means that Ionescu could be available for more national team activities next fall and winter, making her more appealing for the traditional Olympic tournament rather than 3×3.

What about the Olympic debut of 3×3 basketball?

Both the U.S. men and women still need to qualify for the Tokyo Games. They were in line to compete at a global qualifier in India in March, but that was postponed.

A potential U.S. Olympic men’s team is extremely unlikely to include an active NBA player. Its roster for the qualifying tournament — a peek into the thinking of a U.S. Olympic selection committee — included three of the four players from the 2019 FIBA World Cup — Robbie Hummel, Canyon Barry and Kareem Maddox, plus Dominique Jones. Hummel, Maddox and Jones are retired from traditional 5×5 basketball, while Barry plays in the NBA’s G League.

A U.S. women’s team could very include WNBA players, given its qualifying roster was made up of WNBA All-Stars Napheesa Collier and Stefanie Dolson and league standouts Allisha Gray and Kelsey Plum.

MORE: NBCSN Olympic Games Week TV, live stream schedule

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U.S. Olympic basketball career points leaders

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The top 10 career point scorers in U.S. Olympic men’s and women’s basketball history …

Men
Carmelo Anthony — 336 (10.4 per game) in 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016
Kevin Durant — 311 (19.4) in 2012, 2016
LeBron James — 273 (11.4) in 2004, 2008, 2012
David Robinson — 270 (11.3) in 1988, 1992, 1996
Michael Jordan — 256 (16.0) in 1984, 1992
Charles Barkley — 231 (15.4) in 1992, 1996
Kobe Bryant — 217 (13.6) in 2008, 2012
Chris Mullin — 196 (12.3) in 1984, 1992
Dwyane Wade — 186 (11.6) in 2004, 2008
Karl Malone — 171 (10.7) in 1992, 1996

Women
Lisa Leslie — 488 (15.3 per game) in 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008
Diana Taurasi — 379 (11.8) in 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016
Sheryl Swoopes — 274 (11.8) in 1996, 2000, 2004
Teresa Edwards — 265 (8.3) in 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000
Katrina McClain — 258 (14.3) in 1988, 1992, 1996
Tina Thompson — 215 (13.4) in 2004, 2008
Sylvia Fowles — 210 (10) in 2008, 2012, 2016
Tamika Catchings — 184 (5.8) in 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016
Seimone Augustus — 179 (7.5) in 2008, 2012, 2016
Maya Moore — 168 (10.5) in 2012, 2016

MORE: Kobe Bryant embraced the Olympics, on and off the court

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Will LeBron James play at the Olympics? He doesn’t know

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LeBron James was named one of 44 finalists for the U.S. Olympic basketball team on Monday, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will accept a roster spot come June.

“My name is in the hat, and It’s always predicated on, one, my body, how my body’s feeling at the end of the season. I hope to make it a long playoff run,” James said after the Los Angeles Lakers’ 125-100 win over the Phoenix Suns on Monday night. “Then where my mind is, and then where my family’s head is. So there’s a lot of factors, but my name is in the hat.”

James’ stance sounded unchanged from before the NBA season, when he also stopped short of saying he planned to be in Tokyo.

“Team USA? Um … I don’t know,” he said on Sept. 27. “See how I can do throughout this season. I will address that at some point, hopefully have an opportunity to have a conversation with coach Pop [Gregg Popovich].”

At 35, James will be older come the Tokyo Opening Ceremony than all but one previous U.S. Olympic men’s basketball player: Larry Bird in 1992.

He skipped the 2016 Rio Games to rest after leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA title. Other stars also missed the Rio Olympics for various reasons, including Stephen Curry, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, all fellow Tokyo finalists.

Perhaps a player even more valuable to Team USA is James’ Lakers teammate Anthony Davis. Davis said Monday night that he did not know whether he would accept a roster spot.

“I’m getting old,” the 26-year-old said, smiling.

Davis spoke at greater length when asked before the season.

“I want to play USA Basketball,” he said Sept. 27. “If I get the opportunity to do so, they invite me, I definitely would love to do so. So, hopefully, guys are listening. So Pop, I’m ready.”

If the U.S. is thin anywhere, it’s at center. Neither of the 2016 Olympic centers is a Tokyo finalist (injured DeMarcus Cousins and healthy DeAndre Jordan). Outside of Davis, none of the NBA’s All-Star centers this season are Americans: Joel Embiid (Cameroon), Rudy Gobert (France), Nikola Jokic (Serbia) and Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania).

MORE: Kobe Bryant: Redeem Team 2 might not be enough

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