Team USA will be the favorites at the FIBA World Cup in China beginning on Aug. 31, sporting the tournament’s top roster by a sizable margin despite a slate of high-profile departures. But the most talent doesn’t always equate to a perfect international record. The United States finished sixth in the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis, and they followed that performance up with a bronze-medal finish in the 2004 Athens Olympics. A gold medal in September isn’t guaranteed.
It’s very possible Team USA hits its groove and rolls through the tournament, though they could face a dicey test or two along the way. So who has the best chance at knocking off Team USA at the FIBA World Cup? We at The Crossover took a brief look at five challengers to the United States.
The current crop of Spaniards won’t reach the heights of the 2008 squad that nearly beat the United States for the gold medal in Beijing, but Spain remains a solid threat nonetheless in the FIBA World Cup. And there are even some holdovers from the 2008 squad suiting up in 2019. Rudy Fernandez and Marc Gasol remain with the Spanish national team over a decade after their international debut, and Ricky Rubio has evolved from fresh-faced phenom to seasoned vet.
Willy Hernangomez and his brother Juancho add a dose of youthful athleticism, and they could emerge as Spain’s best players throughout the tournament. Much of Spain’s roster is over 30, and Tokyo 2020 will likely be something of a last hurrah for their aging core. Perhaps Spain can pull off a final four appearance in 2019, though their athletic limitations could prove significant a decade after nearly shocking the Redeem Team.
Gregg Popovich gave the Australian team quite the compliment on Wednesday when he called them a “huge, huge threat” to the United State’s chances of winning gold in China. And Popovich's concerns were validated on Aug. 24 when Australia defeated Team USA in an exhibition. The Australian squad is littered with NBA talent and international experience. They're a deeper crew than Spain, and could emerge as the United State's central competition.
There remains an athleticism gap that may ultimately doone the Austalians. Their centers Aaron Baynes and Andrew Bogut aren’t mobile, Joe Ingles is average and Patty Mills’ defensive deficiencies will need to be covered by Matthew Dellavedova. Ben Simmons would obviously boost this team, as would the lanky Dante Exum. Perhaps the team will be more competitive in 2020, though Australia is simply overmatched athletically compared to the United States in 2019.
Serbia will be an absolute delight to watch in international competition as they sport one of the game’s most inventive passers, Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets' star is a modern-day Bill Walton, a savant passing from the block with an increasingly adept handle and jumper. He’s returned Denver to the Finals conversation, and could enter 2019-20 with a FIBA medal in hand. Perhaps Bogdan Bogdanovic can catch fire with a slate of open jumpers created by Jokic, potentially forming one of the tournament's top duos.
The Serbian roster is fairly stocked with NBA talent. Boban Marjanovic joins Jokic in the frontcourt, as does Nemanja Bjelica. Serbia has a claim as the premier competition for Team USA, even without injured point guard Milos Teodosic
The French have a solid case as the best defensive team of the tournament, armed with strong defenders both at the rim and on the perimeter. Rudy Gobert headlines the stout defense, and his presence alone could deter the United States’ guards at the tin. There also may be difficulty getting into the lane at all. Frank Ntilikina remains an elite backcourt defender–if only he were even passable offensively–and Suns guard Elie Okobo is a similarly aggressive pickpocket. Nicolas Batum rounds out the list of impact defenders, able to switch through four positions effectively. France’s defense makes Gobert and Co. an immediate medal contender. A few strong offensive efforts from Evan Fournier could vault France toward the tournament’s final contests.
Greece has little chance to even medal in China, but they’re worth watching for one 6’11” reason: Giannis Antetokounmpo. The reigning NBA MVP has been slicing and slamming his way past teams in the qualifiers, and it would be thrilling to see Antetokounmpo take on the United States with an overmatched Greek squad. We’ve never seen a player quite like Giannis; don’t miss him in international competition when you have the chance.