It’s Olympics season! And for all you basketball fiends who can’t quite get your fix from grainy summer league highlights, these Games should offer a healthy dose of frenzied competition and jaw-dropping entertainment. Who needs all that Bolt/Blake intrigue? Does anyone really give a damn if Phelps breaks the all-time medal record? Who cares about that refreshed sense of national pride? All we really want to see is Kevin Love battling Marc Gasol in the low post in the dying minutes of that gold medal game. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves…
On paper, this tournament should start and end with the United States. Since 1936, they’ve won all but four of the gold medals available in the discipline, and with the sting of an embarrassing bronze medal performance in 2004 still lingering, it may be many years before they again relinquish their stranglehold on the top of the podium. The team is, to put it mildly, unfairly stacked. They can score at will from four out of the five positions on the floor, can lock down any offensive threat that comes their way, have more athleticism on their bench than the rest of the world combined, and have the mental and physical toughness to pull out those close fought wins, if it ever comes to that. Just think, they’ve Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, and Carmelo Anthony doing the scoring, Tyson Chandler and Kevin Love ripping down boards, James Harden and Andre Iguodala playing lockdown defence on the perimeter, and Chris Paul and Deron Williams dropping enough dimes to solve Spain’s economic woes. To put it simply, there’s nothing this team can’t do, and no area of the game they can’t dominate. And had they not lost some key contributors to injury – Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Blake Griffin, and Dwight Howard, among others – their golden hopes may have looked even more secure.
All that praise is not to suggest, of course, that the US team is flawless; they do have a few minor weaknesses. At the centre position, for instance, they leave a little to be desired. Tyson Chandler will be carrying the workload, and while he‘s an all-world player on the defensive end, he doesn’t have the explosiveness of a Dwight Howard, nor the scoring touch of an Andrew Bynum, who declined his invitation to camp.
Backing up Chandler will be NBA first overall selection Anthony Davis, who was a force in college, but who may not be prepared for the high level of competition faced at the international level. Don’t be surprised if Kevin Love slips into the five spot if the Americans feel like they need a little bit more big man scoring.
Besides a theoretically shaky line-up down the middle, the only thing Team USA has to fear is their own ego. They’ll have to fend off the assumption that they’ve already got the gold locked up (not reading this article would be a good start) and be prepared to get down and dirty in games against the likes of Spain or Argentina. But this isn’t the Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury-led team from 2004. This year’s team is mature, serious about winning, and impeccably talented. Be shocked if the Americans aren’t belting out a garbled version of the Star-Spangled Banner in a few weeks time.
Even if America is the overwhelming favourite for gold, however, it’d be foolish to overlook some of their chief rivals. Spain, for one, is heading into London with expectations of gold, no matter how justified Americans are in their cockiness. The two-time defending European champions are loaded with NBA talent and a winning pedigree. They’re especially strong up front, where Marc and Pau Gasol have teamed up with Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka to create a dangerous trio of big men. One might well argue that Spain’s front court is stronger than Team USA, so expect a lot of slow, methodical half-court play when the two powerhouses eventually meet. Chandler won’t enjoy Marc’s bruising ways, and all of the USA’s big guys will have trouble scoring against the defensive dynamo that is Ibaka.
But while Spain is set at the power forward and centre positions, their backcourt leaves a little to be desired. They’re pretty much set at the point, where Toronto’s Jose Calderon will be splitting minutes with former Portland Trail Blazer Sergio Rodriguez, but at shooting guard and small forward they might run into problems. The projected starters are Juan Carlos Navarro, a.k.a. La Bomba (SG), who had an all-too-short run with the Memphis Grizzlies before taking his limitless range back to Spain, and Rudy Fernandez (SF), who had a few good years with the Blazers, and played last year in Denver. While both of these guys can put the ball in the hoop, and will surely flourish against weaker opponents, neither can match up defensively against anyone the USA throws at them. They’re simply not big, strong, or fast enough. It will be at these two positions, where the USA boasts the likes of Bryant and James, that Spain’s shortcomings will be most evident, and it may end up costing them the gold.
After Spain and the USA, perhaps the strongest team in the field is Argentina. Led by NBA players Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni, Carlos Delfino, and Manu Ginobili, Argentina should be a solid bet for a place on the podium, even if their chances of overall victory are slim. Though they won it all in 2004, Argentina will have trouble defending against the quickness of some of the younger teams, and the size of some of the larger. Featuring only one player taller than 6’9”, and none over 7’0”, Argentina’s size may be their biggest detriment. Still, the hardnosed nature of players like Scola and Nocioni should set a good precedent for their team-mates, and Argentina will surely duke out a couple of tough victories.
After the USA, Spain, and Argentina, who own the top three spots in the FIBA world rankings, it‘s anyone’s guess as to who might challenge for the podium. France, which features a bevy of NBA talent, including Tony Parker, Nic Batum, Boris Diaw, and Ronny Turiaf, should be in contention for a medal. Much of their success will rely on the performance of Batum, who, when at his best, can play with just about anyone in the NBA, but is prone to inconsistency. Parker will, of course, be solid, but will need some scoring help from the offensively inept Turiaf, the ageing and overweight Diaw, and the generally mediocre Kevin Seraphin of the Washington Wizards. France is a team that could well have a strong showing, if their questionable performers come out firing, but could just as easily disappoint.
Basketball-mad Lithuania is also looking to compete for a medal. They have only one current NBA player, the Raptors’ Linas Kleiza, who has been known to really step up his game in the international arena, but their biggest asset may be Kleiza’s future team-mate, centre Jonas Valanciunas. The seven foot tall 20-year-old is considered one of the best players in the world not to have played in an NBA game. Expected to be a big part of the Raptors’ future, Valanciunas will be excited to show that he can play with the big boys.
The twelve qualifying nations are split into two groups, A and B, from which the top four sides in each will advance to the medal round. Group A is comprised of teams Argentina, France, Lithuania, Nigeria, Tunisia, and USA. With the relative strength of Argentina, France, Lithuania and the United States, the very most Nigeria and Tunisia have to hope for is a single preliminary round victory and perhaps some autographs from Lebron and Co.
Group B, however, is a little more intriguing. While Spain is an absolute lock to advance, and probably to finish at the top of the group, there isn’t a lot of breathing room between Australia, Brazil, China, and Russia. Only five spots on the international rankings separate all four teams, with Australia being the strongest at number nine, and Brazil the weakest at number thirteen. One of those four teams will be left out of the medal round, so the competition in Group B preliminary games should be furious. The sixth team in Group B, Great Britain, is unfortunately not in the same class as their opponents, and has very little chance of advancing.
Some of basketball’s traditional powerhouses and top-ranked international teams (Turkey, Serbia, Greece), failed to qualify for this year’s Olympics, so the competition should be theoretically wide-open. But with Spain and USA standing head and shoulders above most other teams in the tournament, the gold medal game looks like something of a foregone conclusion. So perhaps the most intriguing competition in this year’s Games will be the race for the bronze. Argentina, Lithuania, France, Brazil, Russia, China, and Australia will all be very much in the hunt, and games between these teams will be tightly contested and fierce.