VILNIUS, LITHUANIA - SEPTEMBER 08: (L-R) Shawn Huff of Finland defends against Andrei Kirilenko of Russia during the EuroBasket 2011 second round group B match between Finland and Russia at Siemens Arena on September 8, 2011 in Vilnius, Lithuania. (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Andrei Kirilenko is at the center of everything for Russia as it prepares for the 2012 Olympics.
There is only one player you'll see in the 2012 London Olympics who means more to his team than Andrei Kirilenko. (That player: France's Tony Parker. We'll get to him later.) It's no exaggeration to say that Kirilenko is the LeBron James of Team Russia: its best player on offense and defense, not just the Most Valuable Player due to quality, but the Most Important Player because of his all-encompassing role. In this exercise, let's drill down further: if Kirilenko is LeBron, Russia in 2012 is the 2009 Cavaliers. There are some other good players (Mo Williams, Alexey Shved, Anderson Varejao, Timofey Mozgov) involved but just one planet. For Russia, that's Kirilenko.
Kirilenko is the difference between not making the tournament and winning a medal. The Olympic tournament is famously exclusive: there are 30 or so respectable teams in the world, and only 12 make it into the Games. (Compare that to 24 for the World Championship.) Russia finished third at EuroBasket 2011 four years after winning the tournament, but that wasn't enough for an Olympic bid: the Russians had to qualify via the last-chance tournament held in Venezuela this month. They did so, and quite easily. Without Kirilenko, they may have anyways, but it's not certain. There were some good teams that got left out.
Can Russia medal? From Group B, advancing to the knockouts should be no sweat at all: outside of megapower Spain, Kirilenko is the second best player in the group. (We'll give the advantage to Great Britain's Luol Deng there. I'm also cognizant of the existence of Nene, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter.) Russia essentially only needs to place above Britain and China, something that shouldn't be a problem. Australia is another team that Russia should be better than, and Brazil, in play for the group's No. 2 seed, has been uneven in international play, finishing just No. 9 in the 2010 Worlds.
After escaping group play, it's all bracket math. Or, more directly, it's all about avoiding Team USA in the quarterfinals. The Americans should win their group, which means that they'd draw the No. 4 seed from Group B in the quarters. In the semifinals, Team USA would likely play the winner of the game between Group B's No. 2 seed and Group A's No. 3 seed. So finishing third -- not second -- in Group B actually puts off a date with the Americans until the Finals. But Team USA isn't the only trouble in Russia's path. That No. 3 seed from Group A is likely to be Lithuania, Argentina or France, teams which might all be favored over Russia. If Russia lands the No. 3 seed, avoiding Team USA, the opponent will be one of those teams, and a semifinal match would potentially be Spain, who might be as strong as the Americans.
It's all about bracket luck when it comes to teams like Russia attempting to win a medal. But at least that's in the realm of possibility.
Here's the rundown on Russia.
FIBA World Ranking: No. 11
Previous Olympic performance: No. 8 in 2000, No. 9 in 2008, didn't qualify in 1996 or 2004
How they got here: Defeated Nigeria in the semis of the July qualifying tournament to win a bid
Most important group games: vs. Brazil (Aug. 2), vs. Spain (Aug. 4)
Players you've heard of: Andrei Kirilenko, Timofey Mozgov, Viktor Khryapa, Sergei Monia, Alexey Shved
Medal hopes: Decent if not overwhelming
Future outlook: Not terrible