With its roster trimmed and its exhibition schedule complete, Team USA is finally set for the FIBA World Cup. The 24-team competition starts this weekend with group play, where the field will be trimmed to 16 for the single-elimination rounds. The Americans are a decisive favorite, even after LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and LaMarcusAldridge declined to play, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and Paul George were omitted for injury-related reasons and Kevin Durant and Kevin Love bowed out. Who can prevent a second straight World Cup title for USA Basketball? Here are the most notable challengers at each stage:
Team USA begins the World Cup in Group C, the weakest of the four draws. Turkey -- led by Pelicans center Omer Asik and Turkish league mainstay and 2009 second-round pick Emir Preldzic -- is the top competition almost by default. Coach Mike Krzyzewski's team is poised for 40-point blowouts against Ukraine, Finland and the Al Horford-less Dominican Republic, while New Zealand won't fare much better. Turkey has the size and defensive ability to hold its own in spots, though the absences of NBA veterans Ersan Ilyasova, Hedo Turkoglu and Enes Kanter will be felt. A lot hinges on whether Turkey's younger players (headlined by 19-year-old guard Cedi Osman) can help compensate for those losses and provide some depth.
Regardless, Turkey shouldn't threaten Team USA. It's theoretically possible -- if amazingly unlikely -- that the coincidence of Turkey's best game and the U.S.' worst could give the Americans their first loss in international competition since 2006, but such an upset wouldn't likely damage the favorites much. The top four teams in each group will advance, making this initial set of games nothing more than a formality for Team USA. Should Turkey somehow pull the upset, however, it would be an early announcement of the Americans' vulnerability.
Here are potentially dangerous teams from Group D that the U.S. could face during the knockout rounds before the gold-medal game:
The first potential hurdle for Team USA may have already been flattened. Lithuania, even without Sarunas Jasikevicius and Linas Kleiza, had the makings of a medal contender. Then news broke that one of its top players, 6-foot-5 starting point guard Mantas Kalnietis, will reportedly miss the World Cup with a dislocated collarbone.
Kalnietis is the engine that drives the offense. It was through him that Lithuania might test the U.S. defense with pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll, leveraging the extra pass to create high-percentage shots for Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas and others. He was also the best choice to handle the active hands and frequent contact of Team USA's defensive pressure, with the likes of Sarunas Vasiliauskas and Adas Juskevicius representing a clear downgrade. That's a shame. Lithuania (albeit with Jasikevicius and Kleiza) gave the Americans their biggest scare in the 2012 Olympics, where the U.S. trailed with six minutes left and pulled out a 99-94 victory in group play.
A fully stocked Australia team would be a quiet contender, with both the size to punish opponents inside and the guard play to blitz from the perimeter. Missing, though, are the Aussies' two best players: Warriors center Andrew Bogut hasn't played for the Boomers since the 2008 Olympics because of various injuries, while Spurs guard Patty Mills is sidelined after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Fortunately for Australia, Bogut and Mills play at the national team's two deepest positions. Former NBA players David Andersen and Nathan Jawai and current Spurs restricted free agent Aron Baynes can fill minutes up front. Cleveland's Matthew Dellavedova and Utah's Dante Exum are both effective lead guards, if not as explosive as Mills, on whom Australia relied heavily for shot creation. With well-rounded forward Joe Ingles and a 2014 second-round pick, Bulls forward Cameron Bairstow, joining those five players, Australia should be versatile enough to make a successful tournament run.
Like many other national teams, Slovenia doesn't possess the depth or roster balance to be considered a serious contender. What it does have is a potent backcourt in brothers Goran and Zoran Dragic. Slovenia warrants mention as a team that could hang with the Americans, though even that status is somewhat fleeting. Take Tuesday's exhibition between the two teams as a case study: Slovenia was down only 11 at halftime but lost by 30. The Suns' Goran Dragic likely would have played more than 22 minutes if the tuneup had been a tournament game, but his presence couldn't have fully closed the gap between the two teams. Still, Slovenia is skilled enough at the guard spots and accurate enough from the perimeter to command Team USA's full attention.
A true foil for Team USA. Spain is loaded, topped by the ridiculous frontcourt triumvirate of Memphis' Marc Gasol, Chicago's Pau Gasol and Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka. Those three could anchor a perfectly solid World Cup team on their own, but Spain has the luxury of surrounding them with a quality group of perimeter players. The Knicks' Jose Calderon, 32, and Barcelona's Juan Carlos Navarro, 34, are the old hands and steady offensive leaders. Real Madrid's Sergio Rodriguez (formerly with Portland) and the Timberwolves' Ricky Rubio complement that pair with their more dynamic driving styles, while Rudy Fernandez (another Real Madrid player and ex-Blazer) still offers a spark from the wing.
The very threat of playing this team altered the makeup of Team USA's roster, yet even specific preparation might not be enough to fully handle Spain's interior strength. Kenneth Faried is woefully undersized against either of the Gasols, but any move toward a bigger lineup (say, featuring Anthony Davis alongside one of DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond or Mason Plumlee) could take away from the speed and energy that characteristically fuels USA Basketball's full-court attack. Spain, then, is the one opponent capable of putting the most talented squad in the tournament at a disadvantage: Team USA can try to adapt while betraying its own stylistic bent or stay true to its usual form while withstanding whatever bludgeoning the Gasols can muster. That choice could come to define the tournament.
It would be a surprise if the Spaniards didn't make the championship game, but a handful of the 11 other teams on that side of the bracket are capable of testing them.
Brazil: A rotation of NBA centers Tiago Splitter, Nene and Anderson Varejao has the strength and savvy to battle the Gasols in the post, perhaps to the point of mitigating Spain's biggest advantage. Marcelinho Huertas of Barcelona and 11-year NBA veteran Leandro Barbosa also give Brazil, an unselfish group, some punch on the perimeter. Make no mistake, though: If Brazil upset Spain to reach the final, Team USA would breathe a sigh of relief.
Serbia: CSKA Moscow's Milos Teodosic helps make Serbia one of the most explosive teams. Its roster is lined with size and offensive ability, but the likes of former NBA center Nenad Krstic and Nemanja Bjelica are overmatched against Spain's interior play. Still, it's possible that -- in a repeat of their 2010 quarterfinals upset -- Serbia could summon enough firepower and survive inside to trouble Spain. If so, it will likely reflect well on Suns first-round pick Bogdan Bogdanovic and Clippers center Miroslav Raduljica -- both of whom are poised to play pivotal roles for Serbia.
Argentina: It should also be formidable, but sits in political disarray and loses its bite without Manu Ginobili. Dusk hasn't quite set on the Golden Generation, but captain Luis Scola might no longer be capable of anchoring this team through Ginobili's absence. He'll have help from the usual fixtures (including Knicks guard Pablo Prigioni and former NBA forward Andres Nocioni), but there's no question that Argentina is positioned as something of an underdog.
France: The reigning EuroBasket champs are plenty talented, but they will be missing San Antonio's Tony Parker, Chicago's Joakim Noah and ex-NBA guard Nando De Colo. So much rests on the shoulders of San Antonio's Boris Diaw, Portland's Nicolas Batum and perhaps Orlando's Evan Fournier to create offense.
Croatia: The versatility throughout Croatia's roster is potentially threatening, particularly if rangier bigs like Damjan Rudez and Dario Saric can pull opposing bigs out of their set defense. Doing so would allow Bojan Bogdanovic, recently signed by the Brooklyn Nets, to thrive. Bogdanovic has the size and scoring ability to be a defining player in this tournament, especially in games against smaller opposing wings. Croatia did a nice job in EuroBasket of playing off of that strength with smart passing and crisp shooting, all of which should still be in store for one of the few teams with a fully healthy roster.