July 16, 2012; Washington, DC, USA; Brazil center Nene (13) talks to United States forward Carmelo Anthony (15) in the second half at Verizon Center. Team USA won 80-69. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE
Brazil finally has Nene in the mix. Can the nation come together and finally live up to its potential in London?
Brazil should be an international power. With a frontcourt rivaled only by Team USA and Spain, NBA experience up and down the roster and a brilliant coach, Brazil should be a top medal contender in every competition it enters at full or near full strength.
With Nene, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter -- all three credible at center or power forward -- up front, Brazil is legitimately bigger than Team USA and as long as Spain. None of the three are elite scorers, but that's what Leandro Barbosa and Marcelo Huertas are for. Ruben Magnano, the legendary Argentine coach, puts it all together.
On paper, this is a serious medal threat, and possibly even a real rival to Spain. But paper and performance haven't matched up for Brazil.
In 2010 at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey, Brazil had everyone but Nene. (Admittedly, Nene's pretty important.) The Brazilians finished a disappointing ninth, far below expectations. But hey, that was an improvement from a disastrous 17th place in the 2006 Worlds with, again, everyone who matters but Nene available. By 2014, the team's on track to finish top five!
As a big fan of South American basketball, the lack of success has been mystifying to me. Of course you miss Nene when he can't play -- he's the team's best player. But Varejao and Splitter are legitimately good, and Barbosa can score on anyone in the world. Brazil has been mediocre without Nene, whereas other teams with similar profiles would be merely mortal with their star.
But that won't matter in London, as we'll see Brazil with its star for the first time in a while. In Group B, the Brazilians will get their chance to face off against Spain's Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka, and will have to hold out hope that Barbosa, Huertas and former Hornet Marcus Vinicius can counter Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez and Juan Carlos Navarro. Russia also looms, with Andrei Kirilenko posing a challenge for Vinicius and Varejao.
With Argentina fading into the sunset and no other Western Hemisphere team poised to rise to challenge Team USA over the next couple of cycles, on paper it looks like Brazil's time. But paper hasn't ever been a good predictor of what Brazil does on the court, so we'll reserve judgment on the nation's prospects for 2016 in Rio until we see how they handle Group B this time out.
FIBA World Ranking: No. 13
Previous Olympic experience: Did not qualify in 2000, 2004 or 2008; finished top 10 in 13 of 14 previous Olympiads
How they got here: Finished second in the 2011 FIBA Americas tournament for an automatic bid
Most important group games: vs. Russia (August 2), vs. Spain (August 6)
Players you've heard of: Nene, Varejao, Splitter, Barbosa
Medal chances: Plausible
Future outlook: Free Bebe!