By most accounts, this is the most underwhelming Team USA Olympic men’s basketball squad since 2004. You may recall that the Americans won bronze that year. So if this team is being compared to that team, can Team USA actually fail to win gold in Rio?
Here are the other 11 teams in the tournament, ranked from least to most likely to beat Team USA in the 2016 Olympics. Sorry world: we got this.
TIER III: NO CHANCE WHATSOEVER
Venezuela won the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship. I’m still not really sure how that happened, and I’m comfortable saying that members of the Venezuelan team don’t either. In that tournament, Venezuela lost to Mexico, Argentina, Canada (by 20!) and Uruguay in the group stages, but beat Canada at the buzzer in the semis and somehow knocked off Argentina in the gold medal game. So, here we are: Venezuela is in the Olympic basketball tournament for the first time since 1992. Somehow, some way, Venezuela is here.
I don’t think the magic continues. Greivis Vasquez is out, and the overall competition in the Olympics is much tougher than in the Americas tournament. Taking nothing away from what Venezuela did last summer, but if you can lose to Mexico and Uruguay, the odds of you beating the best teams from other continents seem slim.
It may seem counterintuitive to place Argentina and (especially) Brazil higher than Venezuela given the results of last summer, but I have reasons. And one of those reasons is that Venezuela men’s basketball has an extraordinarily limited record of success at this high level. The nation hasn’t even qualified for the much larger FIBA World Championship since 2006, where they finished No. 23 of 24!
China beat out Iran and the upstart Philippines for Asia’s requisite spot in the Olympics this time around. There’s a shot that the Chinese do better than a few teams ranked higher on this list, but on paper there’s little to indicate this will be a different Olympic experience for the nation. China has never finished higher than No. 8 in the Olympic tournament.
It’s too bad that the Brazilian team is in pretty rough shape, because the host nation has had some success (fifth in the 2012 Games, sixth in the 2014 FIBA World Cup) and home nation advantage seems to be real. Perhaps we’re selling short the team’s younger players including Raul Neto and Cristiano "Future of the Chicago Bulls" Felicio. But Brazil’s frontline is rather decimated due to Anderson Varejao’s exit and Nene’s reduced mobility. Shooting is also going to be a problem. Never count out a team with Leandro Barbosa, I suppose, but Brazil doesn’t appear to stack up to the rest of the world.
Nigeria might have the best African team in years, even with the late withdrawals of Al-Farouq Aminu and Festus Ezeli. Unfortunately for them, the best African team in years is still going to struggle to win more than a couple games against the best European and American squads. Looking at the groups, it’s likely that Nigeria will never even get a shot at Team USA, as Brazil and Nigeria are the top two candidates to be ejected from Group B in the first stage.
TIER II: JUST NO
I typically like the teams who qualify in the last-chance wild card tournament: they have proven this summer that they have competitive rosters. Croatia, in fact, might have the most intriguing young roster in the Olympics with Dario Saric, Bojan Bogdanovic and future Rio 2016 darling Mario Hezonja.
But Croatia got into the Olympics by beating Tunisia, Greece and Italy (after having lost to Italy). Not exactly a world-beating tune-up. Croatia is going to be a lot of fun to watch, but it needs more seasoning to be truly competitive with the upper echelon in international basketball.
They are still around. They are close to home. They are ... old. Luis Scola, Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, Carlos Delfino: the Graying Generation. There’s just not much in the pipeline, nor has there been for years. So, while the wiles of the once-golden crew can wring out some wins, challenging Team USA like in the old days just isn’t happening. The moment has passed for the Argentines.
Like Croatia, Serbia wedged into the tournament in July’s wild card event. Unlike Croatia, Serbia was completely dominant, winning their two knockout games against the Czech Republic and Puerto Rico by a combined 55 points. Yes, that’s the Czech Republic and Puerto Rico, and the Serbian team was able to play at home in Belgrade. But Serbia won silver in the last big global tournament (the 2014 FIBA World Cup), finished No. 4 in Eurobasket last summer and have a big roster (necessary to compete with Spain, Team USA and other elites). There aren’t many NBA players on the Serbia team (just Nikola Jokic this year) but there’s plenty of talent with size and a top Euro point guard in Milos Teodosic. Serbia should be really solid.
Australia, per usual, got into the Olympic tournament by beating New Zealand twice. Congratulations! Champions of Oceania once again!
That said, Australia has a good roster. The entire projected starting lineup plays in the NBA, and a couple of them are starter-level quality. If Australia makes it to the medal round for the first time since 2004, Patty Mills is going to be a favorite for Tournament MVP (since Team USA will have several candidates, splitting the odds).
Joe Ingles is going to fun to watch in this setting, as well. But it would be an extreme fluke if Australia was able to compete with the Americans. At least we’d get the Kyrie Irving-Matthew Dellavedova face-off we’ve always dreamed of.
TIER I: ALMOST CERTAINLY NOT
Lithuania lacks the star power of days past, but it always seems to show up big for the higher-profile tournaments and has a really solid program that doesn’t rely strictly on NBA-level talent. Lithuania won silver at Eurobasket last year and damn near medaled at the 2014 World Cup, finishing fourth after a two-point loss to France.
Most of these guys are in their late 20s and early 30s and have been playing together every summer for more than a decade. But the star attraction might be Thunder rookie Domantas Sabonis, son of Arvydas, future of Oklahoma City. Lithuania isn’t beating Team USA, but every other team has reason to be scared.
No Marc Gasol essentially means no chance of winning gold (unless someone else ejects DeMarcus Cousins and Team USA). But Spain still has a helluva squad, starring the rest of the Golden Generation (Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Sergio Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez, Jose Calderon) plus the younger NBA players like Ricky Rubio and Nikola Mirotic. Perhaps most intriguing are Alex Abrines (another Thunder rookie) and Willy Hernangomez. Spain still has a team that has won two straight Olympic silvers. If Marc were healthy or Serge Ibaka were playing, the Spanish would be a clear No. 2 in the field and would have a strong shot at knocking off Team USA. Alas.
The world’s best chance to deny Team USA a third straight gold medal lies with France, who last month won entry into this tournament by beating the toughest wild card pool (Philippines, New Zealand, Turkey and Canada). Since a disappointing sixth-place finish at the 2012 Games, France has won 2013 EuroBasket and earned bronze at the 2014 World Cup and 2015 EuroBasket.
The bad news for France is that many of the most exciting young French players (like Timothe Luwawu) aren’t in Rio. The good news is that they aren’t in Rio primarily because France is stacked. The starting lineup features three NBA stars (Tony Parker, Rudy Gobert and Nicolas Batum) plus Boris Diaw and Euroleague MVP Nando de Colo. Joffrey Lauvergne and Thomas Heurtel come off the bench. France is right there with Spain in terms of top-line talent, and the French set is younger overall. Batum is an early favorite for the All-Tournament team, and watching him wrangle Kevin Durant should be loads of fun.
Still, there’s little chance France is beating Team USA. Parker can’t do anything with Irving defensively, the Americans have an enormous shooting advantage and the bench disparity is incredible.
This might be the weakest Team USA Olympic squad since 2004, but there’s little reason to believe anyone can beat them.
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