LAS VEGAS – After a week of NBA teams throwing money around like a busload of retired tourists at a swarm of slot machines, it seemed only appropriate for the best, brightest and richest basketball players to assemble in this city of excess.
Had they not been engaged in the task at hand, players probably would have walked around with smile reminiscent of Jim Carrey in The Mask. Salsa anyone?
But they came to Las Vegas to play . . . play basketball that is and, more importantly, to prepare for the London Olympics, where Team USA will play its first game on July 29 against Tony Parker and France.
Team managing director Jerry Colangelo and head coach Mike Krzyzewski will announce the 12-man roster on a show televised on NBA-TV at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Nine of the 12 positions are set – forwards LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love; guards Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook; and center Tyson Chandler.
The final three will be from a list that includes Blake Griffin, incoming NBA rookie Anthony Davis, Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala, James Harden and Eric Gordon.
Defections have complicated the decisions for Colangelo and Krzyzewski. Six players have withdrawn because of injuries or personal decisions including Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, LaMarcus Aldridge and Lamar Odom.
The players, however, believe that superstar talent runs deep in the league and no one seems overly concerned.
“There’s nothing that we don’t have on this roster,” said James, still enjoying winning his first championship on June 21. “We’ve got some guys that are going to play both small and big, so it’s nothing that changes for us.”
The national team completed the first day of workouts against a select team of younger NBA players that included Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Jrue Holiday, DeMarcus Cousins and Derrick Favors. The select group proved feisty, losing one five-minute game 14-11 but winning the other 19-4. Workouts and scrimmages will continue Sunday through Wednesday, and then the national team has an exhibition game Thursday against the Dominican Republic at the Thomas & Mack Center on the Nevada-Las Vegas campus.
While players say they are focused on defending the gold medal they won in China in 2008, it was difficult to ignore the wild and crazy first week of free agency under the new collective bargaining agreement.
All of it was good news for the national team.
Bryant and the Lakers got a new teammate in Steve Nash and now have hope in the Western Conference.
Williams got a promise of $98 million from the Nets and a new teammate in Joe Johnson; Griffin will get $95 million from the Clippers; Gordon will sign an offer sheet of $58 million from the Suns.
Anthony and Chandler were thrilled with the news that Jason Kidd would be signing with the Knicks.
James still is campaigning publicly for Ray Allen to sign with the Heat.
Davis has not yet turned 20 but is the No. 1 pick in the draft and has an excellent chance to make the Olympic team.
And although Durant, Wesbrook and Harden lost in the Finals to the Heat, they at least got there and have nothing but optimism about the future.
In short, it’s quite easy for these guys to focus on basketball because back at home, everything is great.
“Guys have a lot to smile about,” Bryant admitted.
The intensity of the activity was surprising to most players, however.
“The changes have been unbelievable,” Griffin said. “I kind of thought the lockout and the new CBA was supposed to resolve all that. But it seems like it’s just the same as last year and the years before. It’s good for the game. It keeps things interesting and people are excited to get new players but we’ll see how it goes once the season starts.”
Players agreed if there was a loser in the last week, it was the Dallas Mavericks, whose 2011 championship now seems like it happened five years ago.
The Mavericks have been decimated, choosing to not re-sign Chandler last year because they did not want to commit to a long-term contract.
They got bad news in mid-week when Williams, a native of the Dallas area, chose to stay with the Nets and move to Brooklyn rather than sign with the Mavericks.
Then the next day after Kidd had told the Mavericks he would re-sign with them, he changed his mind and agreed to terms with the Knicks.
The Mavericks also lost Jason Terry to the Celtics.
“I am a little bit stunned, but I kind of felt like it was going to be [like] that, honestly,” Chandler said. “If they weren’t able to land Deron Williams or Dwight [Howard] I knew there would be trouble down the road.”
So does he feel sorry for his former team?
“I feel sorry for Dirk; really for Dirk and the coaching staff,” Chandler said. “Shawn Marion, guys that I played with there. You go from winning a championship to kind of it seems like you’re almost in a rebuilding stage. Especially for Dirk at this point in his career I really feel bad for him.”
Williams said there were several times when he was trying to decide whether to come home or join the Nets in Brooklyn that he thought he was going to sign in Dallas.
The Nets had an advantage since he has been on their team. He could sign a five-year $98 million contract with the Nets but only a four-year $75 million deal in Dallas. Williams said, however, that he made the decision for basketball reasons.
“Money never really factored into my decision, honestly,” Williams said. “I think it’s hard for people to believe. I have a good accountant and the extra year in New York because of the cost of living and taxes and I live in the city so there’s city tax on top of that, it doesn’t end up becoming that much more money.
“t was just more of a basketball decision. I love Dallas, I was looking forward to going home and living there. It fits more of my lifestyle with four kids. As far as that I thought Dallas would have been the better situation for me. But as far as basketball and the direction they’re going and they’re willing to spend money — we’re more aggressive in pursuing people – [it] swayed me the other way.”
It may be the first time in the recorded human history of Las Vegas that someone said money didn’t matter.
But it does seem appropriate that the combination of great players and wealthy owners has resulted in excess. And what better place to talk about that?
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.