Spain, Brazil among Team USA's toughest challengers at Olympics
While the U.S. men are the prohibitive favorite to win the Olympic gold medal, their lack of size and need for unusual lineups have created hope around the world for a major upset. Here's a look at the five main challengers the U.S. will face in London.
Spain is the world's No. 2 nation for basketball, and its deep roster stands as proof of the potential challenge it could pose to the U.S. in London. Nine of its team members are current, former or future NBA players, including All-Star 7-footers Pau and Marc Gasol, whose size advantage could cause matchup problems with the U.S. frontcourt.
Spain will try to win without injured point guard Ricky Rubio, who drove Spain to within four points of the U.S. in the final three minutes of the 2008 Olympic final before the U.S. pulled away to win gold. While Rubio won't come off the bench this time, the Spanish backcourt remains strong. Rudy Fernandez and Juan Carlos Navarro will play after recovering from injuries last season. Navarro has been held out of training as he recuperates from plantar fasciitis, and his health is crucial: He has been an exceptional scorer in games against the U.S over the years.
The big question for any U.S. opponent is whether its backcourt can hold onto the ball against the American defensive pressure, and Spain -- even without Rubio -- has no shortage of ballhandlers. Jose Calderon (of the Raptors), Sergio Rodriguez (who spent four seasons with the Blazers, Kings and Knicks) and Sergio Llull (the 24 year old of Real Madrid whose second-round rights were purchased for a record $2.25 million by the Rockets in 2009) will all be available.
If Spain can avoid turnovers and establish its offense in the half court, then it will look to feed the Gasol brothers and control the game from the blocks, with Pau and Marc moving fluidly between the high and low posts. Both are excellent rebounders, scorers and passers, and Spain will count on them to read the defense and set up their teammates. Coming off the bench will be 6-foot-10 Serge Ibaka, the Thunder's shot-blocking specialist who can also knock down elbow jump shots, and 6-foot-9 Victor Claver, who is moving to the Blazers next season.
The U.S. will likely counter with a variety of unorthodox lineups, units that emphasize athleticism in order to mask a lack of size up front. Spain will play more traditionally, and the familiarity of its players -- they've been contending for medals for years and know each other as well as any international team -- will generate confidence that it can read and react to the unpredictability of the U.S. rotations. The U.S. deserves to be the heavy favorite, but the continuity, depth and experience of the Spanish gives them the best shot at delivering an historic upset. They will have to play exceptional team basketball, but they also believe that they've invested the necessary time together to produce the game of their lives.
Others may rate Argentina or France as the most dangerous challenger to the U.S. and Spain, but the Brazilians have a superior blend of coaching, size and experience. It starts with coach Ruben Magnano, who led Argentina to upsets of the U.S. in both the 2002 Worlds and 2004 Olympics. Magnano is to international basketball what Pete Carrill once was to the NCAA Tournament, but Magnano plays at a faster pace and with superior talent. His players know how to move without the ball and look for each other in space, enabling his team to create easy baskets in the half court by using backdoor cuts for layups and dunks.
The key to the team is 29-year-old point guard Marcelinho Huertas, who recently signed with Barcelona of the Spanish league. He is an exceptional international playmaker with a strong handle, a skill he demonstrated in an exhibition loss to the U.S. on Monday. Huertas attacked the American defense to buy time for his teammates to cut to the basket. The big problem for Brazil is its failure to establish a reliable backup to Huertas: When he was on the bench, the U.S. defenders forced his surrogates to create turnovers that were crucial in the U.S.' 80-69 win.
Huertas will have to play big minutes for Brazil to earn a rematch in the medal round (Brazil, like Spain, has been assigned to Group B for the opening round and will avoid the U.S., which is expected to win Group A.) When he's on the floor, Brazil will seek to play through its effective trio of NBA big men, all 6-foot-10 or taller: Nene (of the Wizards), Tiago Splitter (Spurs) and Anderson Varejao (Cavaliers). All are currently in their peak years.
Leandro Barbosa will also be a key player in providing penetration and scoring from the perimeter, threats that can take pressure off the big men and spread the floor against the rotating U.S. defense. Every opponent will likely have trouble dealing with American defensive pressure, but if Brazil can maintain control of the ball, then its combination of length up front, Huertas' playmaking and Magnano's schemes can cause problems for the U.S.
This will be the final Olympics for Manu Ginobili, who will turn 35 the day before the opening game in London. And the dynamic of his national team has much in common with the Spurs -- Argentina knows it can win the gold medal based on its experience, but it also acknowledges that it may be too old to win again. Eight players are in their 30s, something that should give Argentina confidence when the game begins, but reason to worry down the stretch. As fatigue sets in, a younger American opponent could raise its level of intensity.
Matchups will also be a problem against the U.S., as Argentina is a small team that won't be able to exploit the Americans' absence of a traditional center beyond 7-foot-1 Tyson Chandler. The tallest Argentinian is 6-foot-11 backup center Marin Leiva, and its go-to big man is 6-foot-9 power forward Luis Scola, who overcomes his lack of size in the NBA by outworking opponents. But that style figures to be less effective in the Olympics. The deep U.S. bench will be able to come at him in waves.
A key player will be 32-year-old Andres Nocioni, who rarely played for the 76ers last season and hasn't scored in double-figures since he averaged 11.4 points for the Bulls and Kings in 2008-09. He must be an aggressive scorer in the Olympics, but at 6-foot-7, he will have difficulty against the more athletic American forwards.
Argentina will play through its NBA backcourt of Ginobili, Carlos Delfino and point guard Pablo Prigioni, the 35 year old who will make his NBA debut next season with the Knicks. They may be able to handle the first layer of defensive pressure, but can they run their offense effectively enough to overcome the swarming American defense?
Argentina is scheduled to finish group play with a game against the U.S., but it may not have reason to give its best effort at that time. Assuming that the Americans win Group A, then the best route for Argentina would potentially be to finish either second or fourth in the group and land in the opposite bracket for knockout play, avoiding the U.S. until the final. A strategic loss could place Argentina in the easier bracket, thus increasing its hopes of reaching the gold-medal game.
The French avoided a catastrophe when Tony Parker was cleared to play in the Olympics following the eye injury he suffered during a brawl at a New York nightclub this summer. Parker is more important to France than he is to the Spurs. He was an MVP candidate for San Antonio this season, but he is absolutely indispensable for France as a playmaker, scorer and inspirational leader.
France has long been the least reliable contender in international basketball. Its run of disappointing results ended last summer at EuroBasket, where it finished second in the European championship to Spain behind Parker's tournament-leading 22.1 points per game. The question is whether France can maintain that performance against more dependable contenders like the U.S., Spain and Argentina.
However, France is loaded with NBA talent. Parker will share the backcourt with Nando De Colo, the 6-foot-5 combo guard who will join him as a 25-year-old rookie in San Antonio next season. Nicolas Batum, whose contentious free-agent negotiations secured him a salary of more than $10 million with Portland over the next four seasons, is a 6-foot-8 small forward who can play in transition, knock down threes and defend at a high level. Boris Diaw, another Spur, has all of the skills needed to be an international big man. But the French suffered a big loss when a lingering ankle injury sidelined center Joakim Noah from the Olympics, leaving the team without a reliable defensive quarterback to protect the rim. Instead, France will rely on NBA backups Ronny Turiaf and Kevin Seraphin up front.
France opens the Olympics with a game July 29 against the U.S., a matchup that promises to set the tone for both teams. The U.S. should be hungry to establish itself as the gold-medal frontrunner against a team of NBA opponents, while France will look to prove that it can hang with the Americans. It should make for one of the most interesting games of the tournament.
The Russians dominated the recent Olympic qualifying tournament behind 6-foot-9 small forward Andrei Kirilenko, who looks healthy after a season in the Euroleague with CSKA Moscow. If Kirilenko can maintain his high level in the Olympics, then it will help the Russians defend and create opportunities in the open floor.
Russia is a big team across the board with five current, former or future NBA players. Timofey Mozgov, who was famously included in the Knicks' trade package for Carmelo Anthony two seasons ago, is a 7-foot-1 center. He'll be joined up front by 6-foot-9 power forward Viktor Khryapa, the former Blazer. Alexey Shved is the 6-foot-6 shooting guard who appears to be headed to the Timberwolves next season, and point guard Anton Ponkrashov is an imposing 6-foot-8.
Kirilenko is the only Russian in his 30s. The young roster has been pulled together by David Blatt, the American who spent the last decade establishing himself as one of the top coaches in Europe. Russian basketball struggled to develop young talent following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it would be unfair to view this team as endemic of a new promising era. It is built around the unusual skills of Kirilenko and the coaching of Blatt, and it lacks star power. The Russians would do very well to medal in London.