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Olympics preview: Even without stars, U.S. men's basketball favored in Rio

The U.S. basketball team has won the last two Olympic gold medals, but will gold be the expectation with the lack of stars playing in Rio? Maybe fresh faces are just what Team USA needs to keep things fun.

The allure of Olympic basketball sits oddly wedged between fantasy and formality. When we talk about Team USA, we’re dreaming of an All-Star team-up unbridled by NBA conferences or awards voting, the best of the best joining forces to represent their country. Given that wealth of talent, the United States will always be favorites in international play, more so than any country in any sport played anywhere. The caveat: even when the on-court product is at its peak, blowing out smaller countries is wholly unsurprising and can border on anticlimactic. Winning gold is a standard, but so is finding a way to make the dominance appealing.

The last two Olympic wins dodged the issue and checked all the boxes, helped by the power of clean narrative. After struggling in the early 2000s, the “Redeem Team” of ’08 restored the glory. An all-time stacked 2012 roster bridged three eras, from Kobe Bryant to LeBron James to Kevin Durant and most everyone in-between. Peak excellence still belongs to the legendary 1992 squad, as neither scouting nor analytics nor hindsight can ever truly unseat the Dream Team’s star power and cultural cachet. The Rio Games begin with the same expectations as always, but on a strange, different tonal note that’s characterized by absence.

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Don’t get it twisted—Team USA remains the absolute favorite, and to watch them lose at any point would be a total shock. But before getting to who is playing, you can’t avoid who’s not. LeBron. Stephen Curry. Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul. James Harden, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin. The list goes on and the reasons vary. It feels like crying wolf to point out, but the last time this many American stars passed on the Olympics was 2004, and their replacements came back with bronze.

That said, Mike Krzyzewski is 75–1 as coach of the national team, which has not lost a game since falling to Greece in the semifinals of the 2006 World Championship. The pressure to not slip up persists, B-team or not, and there’s more than enough on the roster to accomplish the task and do it in proper aesthetic fashion.

Starring for the U.S. the last time it lost was 22-year-old Carmelo Anthony, now the elder statesman tasked with helping a new group mesh. The other Olympic holdover is Durant, ready to properly team with Warriors pals Klay Thompson and Draymond Green for the first time. DeMarcus Cousins brings destructive interior scoring. Paul George and Jimmy Butler offer added versatility on both sides of the ball. If there’s any kind of hole, it’s at the point, where NBA champ Kyrie Irving and first-timer Kyle Lowry are more scoring-minded and sacrifice more size than Team USA traditionally prefers. DeAndre Jordan will ably anchor the defense, but expect smart teams to find ways to make him shoot free throws. Yes, we’re nitpicking.

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Could another country actually win this thing? Not for lack of trying, and though most of the world’s powers are present, the U.S. won’t be the the only country missing pieces. Traditional challenger Spain will be without Serge Ibaka (prepping for next season) and Marc Gasol (recovering from injury), leaving older brother Pau Gasol to do much of the lifting at age 36. He’s one of several international greats likely playing in their last Olympics, with his new Spurs teammates Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker on their way out for Argentina and France. In group play, expect Les Bleus to at least test Team USA , with international experience and NBA-quality talent at every position. Serbia, Lithuania and Croatia bring talented teams per usual, but there’s nobody with the depth and scoring on paper to topple the Americans.

Other things to know: No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons will be absent for up-and-coming Australia. Canada, the world’s other rising nation, will be absent altogether. Bojan Bogdanovic plays for Croatia, Bogdan Bogdanovic plays for Serbia, and the hopes of both countries fall partially on the potent jump shots of their frequently confused shooting guards. African champs Nigeria and surprise FIBA Americas winner Venezuela round out the field.

It’s not quite the A-list tournament one might have hoped for, but there’s still a lot of parity in the field. Maybe fresh faces are exactly what Team USA needs to make gold-or-bust stay fun. For those looking to fill the off-season basketball void, it’s all worthy of attention.


Athletes to watch

Kevin Durant, USA

It was always going to be exciting to watch Kevin Durant rain down threes in this tournament, but as you may have heard, his job situation recently changed. We’ll get a sneak preview of what the 2016–17 Warriors look like as KD lines up alongside Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Should he choose, Coach K can bust out the nuclear football and run out America’s version of the new, improved death lineup, with a reasonable faux-Curry in Kyrie Irving and several worthy options at forward. Plus, this creates the only 100% acceptable opportunity to bandwagon-root for Golden State.

Carmelo Anthony, USA

Much has been made about his NBA teams’ struggles, but at the international level, Anthony has been a consistently lethal presence for more than a decade. He’s still a perfect floor-spacing forward and now adds U.S. leadership to his considerable hat wardrobe. Plus, with a win in Rio, Melo becomes the first men’s player ever to win Olympic gold three times. 

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Pau Gasol, Spain

One of the most successful international players ever suits up for what is likely his last go with Spain, who have won two straight silvers and return a talented, cohesive group. They’re still very much a threat, and will lean on Gasol’s interior wizardry to make a run at the medal rounds. Once again, they’ll go as far as he can take them.

Rudy Gobert, France

From an intrigue standpoint, the enormous Jazz center may be the most important player in Rio. France made a run in qualifiers without him, and since there’s no restricted area in international play, the 7' 1" Gobert can park himself around the rim for pretty much the entire tournament. If he keeps out of foul trouble, his defensive impact creates a window for France to make a run.

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Dario Saric and Mario Hezonja, Croatia

The former, a 76ers draftee, has been a curiosity for NBA fans and a key player for his country at a young age. The latter, an immensely talented gunner, is due for more playing time with the Magic next year. They’re part of an extremely talented generation of young Croatian players who should properly arrive over the next several years. Get in on the floor.

Group-stage matches to watch

USA vs. China, Aug. 6: The Americans open play against China, who feature NBA hopeful and Rockets draftee Zhou Qi.

Brazil vs. Lithuania, Aug. 7: Two tough frontlines collide as Nene and the hosts take on Jonas Valanciunas and a hard-nosed Lithuanian squad.

Serbia vs. France, Aug. 10: Young Nuggets star Nikola Jokic leads Serbia in a game that should have big seeding implications.

USA vs. France, Aug. 14: The Americans’ final group game could present their stiffest test of the group stage, with Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw, Gobert and Tony Parker on the other side.

Spain vs. Argentina, Aug. 15: International legends and new Spurs teammates Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili face off for what will likely be the last time.

Groupings (FIBA rankings in parentheses)

Group A

France (5)
USA (1)
Venezuela (22)
Serbia (6)
China (14)
Australia (11)

Group B

Argentina (4)
Spain (2)
Brazil (9)
Lithuania (3)
Croatia (12)
Nigeria (25)

Gold-medal dates

Sunday, August 21, 2:45 p.m. ET (For gold), 10:30 a.m. ET (For bronze)

Rule reminders

FIBA play features a shorter three-point line, a trapezoidal lane area, 10-minute quarters and a different-feeling basketball. The shot clock resets to 14 seconds after an offensive rebound, players get just five personal fouls and can’t call their own timeouts. As for the format, the top four in each group advance and are then seeded into a cross-group bracket, where A1 plays B4, A2 plays B3 and so forth. Head-to-head results and point differential are the second and third tiebreakers.