There are two ways to view Spain as we approach the start of the 2012 Olympic men's basketball tournament on Sunday. Spain is either simply the best of the group of teams that constitute the challengers to Team USA's throne, or Spain is a true rival to Team USA, the only real challenger for gold.
How you answer that question determines how you'd approach the team. Either way, Spain is the No. 2 team in the world. But is the greatest threat to that status the rise of another challenger (France, Brazil) or an ultimate triumph for Spain, moving it into No. 1? Can Spain realistically beat Team USA, or is silver the best case scenario?
The strength of Spain is in its frontcourt, where Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka anchor the post on both ends. The weakness of Team USA is in its frontcourt, where Tyson Chandler is the only true center, and Anthony Davis -- who has no international or NBA experience -- is the only true back-up center. Kevin Love is an amazing player, one of the 10 best in the NBA. But he's not a center, and he's going to have trouble defending either Gasol in the pivot. LeBron James is the best player in the world, and might end up as one of the greatest players ever. He's in his prime. It's going to be a challenge for him to guard a Gasol or keep Ibaka off the offensive glass.
That frontcourt, in my opinion, separates Spain from the pack. It's ridiculously good. The bonus is that in comparison to the rest of the challengers, Spain's wing and guard corps is strong. It'd be stronger if Ricky Rubio were healthy, but there's a lot of NBA experience in those ranks. Jose Calderon is a fine distributor and has had good shooting numbers. Rudy Fernandez and Juan Carlos Navarro are fearless and creative; no one on Team USA who played in 2008 will forget the series of runners and teardrops J.C.N. dropped on them in the gold medal game. (Few who watched it live will, either.)
There's really not a bad player on Spain's roster. The Gasols and Ibaka represent some of the best top-line talent outside of Team USA; the depth isn't rivaled outside of the Americans. That's why Spain is a true challenger: the team lines up as far better than any other contender.
But Spain is not infallible. Put plainly, Spain was awful at the 2010 FIBA World Championship in its title defense. It missed Pau and Calderon, but lost four games total, to France (who finished 13th), Lithuania (3rd), Serbia (4th) and Argentina (5th). Spain did win EuroBasket 2011, but looked shaky in group play before putting it together and blasting through. And remember that Spain is a recent power: its rise coincides with the rise of the Gasols. Both will be in London. But Pau is no longer young. We've seen what his performance slip has done to the Lakers. Could it do the same to Spain?
If it does, Spain still probably wins the silver. Marc is too good, Ibaka is too good, Pau is still good when he's not great. But if Pau can stave off the effects of age for this cycle, Spain's a real threat to Team USA, in my opinion.
FIBA World Ranking: No. 2
Previous Olympic experience: Silver in 2008; 7th in 2004; 9th in 2000.
How they got here: Won EuroBasket 2011, earning automatic bid.
Most important group games: vs. Russia (August 4), vs. Brazil (August 6)
Players you've heard of: Basically all of the players.
Medal hopes: Very, very strong.
Future outlook: Extraordinarily bright.