We have wondered if Team USA is vulnerable in the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Star defections from the tournament team have left a lot of lower-tier players on the American roster, and the team has just one 2019 All-NBA selection. The top three players in the tournament are playing for other nations. Team USA lost a game for the first time (while using exclusively NBA players) in 13 years. They lost to the USA Select team by double-digits in a one-quarter scrimmage. Signs of trouble are brewing.
But for Team USA to lose, someone has to beat them. Who might that be? Here are seven national teams with the best chance to knock off Team USA, either in the early rounds or the knockouts, and make history.
Serbia is the obvious No. 1 choice to win the World Cup if the United States can’t swing it. The Serbs were the runner-up to Team USA in the last two global tournament (2014 World Championship, 2016 Olympics) and might be more talented now. Nikola Jokic is the second best player in the entire tournament, Bogdan Bogdanovic is one of the most dangerous wings in the tournament, and the team swept through its warm-up schedule with nary a hiccup.
With the United States’ weakened roster and having tasted defeat at the hands of the Americans in two gold medal games, Serbia has to be aching to get that win. They can totally do it.
Red flags: Jokic’s defense is a major concern against Marc Gasol and Spain, who will almost assuredly be in Serbia’s group in the second stage. The second stage determines knockout seedings, which is very important — you want to give other teams a chance to beat or wear down the Americans before you have to face them.
Also, Serbia doesn’t really have a defender to deal with Giannis Antetokounmpo. But then again, no one does.
Spain is the last nation to win a global tournament that wasn’t the United States (back in 2006). Pau Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Juan Carlos Navarro, Nikola Mirotic, and Jose Calderon are gone or out, which really hurts Spain’s infamous depth.
But there’s still Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, the ageless Rudy Fernandez, the Hernangomez brothers, and lots of Euroleague talent like Sergio Llull and Victor Claver. Coach Sergio Scariolo has been around about a decade, and Spain has medalled in each of the past three Olympics games. This is the traditional, synergistic powerhouse that a thrown-together U.S. team could struggle with.
Red flags: Most of the roster is at least 30, and there’s just not a ton of shooting unless Gasol steps out a lot or Fernandez goes on a two-week hot streak (certainly possible). Spain finished with bronze in the 2017 EuroBasket tournament after Slovenia crushed them in the semifinals. Was that defeat a sign of things to come?
Greece has the best player in the entire tournament, and it’s not particularly close. That matters a lot in a two-week tournament. There were absolutely two-week stretches during the NBA season where no one could come close to stopping Antetokounmpo. Heck, there were two-month stretches. And the talent differential between the NBA and the World Cup is massive. If Antetokounmpo finds a flow, Greece can beat anyone and everyone.
The Greeks also have some experienced complementary talent like Nick Calathes (one of the better point guards in the tournament), and grizzled veterans Giannis Bourousis and Georgios Printezis. With just one uber-talented, two-way NBA star and lots of European talent, there shouldn’t be major stylistic shocks in the tournament (unlike for more NBA-heavy teams like the United States).
Seriously though, who on Team USA will guard Antetokounmpo? Kawhi Leonard isn’t walking through that door.
Red flags: Greece has been pretty bad in major tournaments since winning bronze in the 2009 EuroBasket. Of course, Greece didn’t have Antetokounmpo for those tournaments. Georgios Papagiannis is supposed to play a major role in this tournament, backing up the 36-year-old Bourousis? That’s wild to me. Wild.
The best case that Australia can beat the United States in the World Cup is that Australia just beat the United States like a week ago in the warm-ups before the World Cup. Of course, these were warm-ups. The game was played in front of 50,000 screaming Australians, while the World Cup will be played in front of like 5,000 mostly indifferent observers and a couple thousand traveling, screaming fans.
But Australia is certainly capable of beating Team USA. We just witnessed it! Between Joe Ingles, Patty Mills, Aron Baynes, Andrew Bogut, and NBA champion Matthew Dellavedova, the Aussies have plenty of cerebral, gritty players who know their NBA counterparts on Team USA and other squads well. And you know Australia will be feeling confident after beating the United States once already.
Red flags: After beating Team USA, Australia lost a warm-up to Germany. The Boomers actually lost three of their five warm-ups! This speaks to the Boomers’ greatest weakness: that’s a streaky team. If Mills or Ingles get shut off, Australia’s defense doesn’t really seem good enough to keep them alive. Australia also has a pretty brutal draw, being in Group H with Lithuania, Canada, and Senegal. Canada has been as ravaged by disappearances as the United States, but Australia has to be better than two of France, Germany, and Lithuania just to make the knockouts.
France shouldn’t be a sleeper, but because their best player — the third best player in the tournament — is a defense-first center, most of us aren’t considering them a top-tier threat. But with Rudy Gobert anchoring the middle, some heady scorers and playmakers like Nando de Colo and Evan Fournier, and an overall young roster, Les Bleus could be a real threat.
I could not be more thirsty for a France vs. Greece battle in the knockouts to see Antetokounmpo run up on Gobert. United States vs. France — for the pleasure of watching Donovan Mitchell drive on Gobert — is also highly desired.
Red flags: Frank Ntilikina is apparently going to start due to his defense? This is like Derrick White starting for Team USA, and I feel like I have to say “no offense to Derrick White” after that sentence. Also, France has been pretty lousy in international play the last few years.
European basketball powers come and go, but Lithuania is forever. Lithuania has actually fallen off a bit in recent years, but Domantas Sabonis and a resurgent Jonas Valanciunas should help them storm back. Four-fifths of Lithuania’s projected starting lineup is 27 years old or younger, and the depth seems solid, which should help with the busy two-week sprint that is the World Cup.
Sabonis could really be a star at this level, feasting on lesser defenders. Team USA is expected to play relatively small, which could help Sabonis and Valanciunas get loose. Valanciunas’ defense should also come in handy against Myles Turner, Gasol, and Gobert. Can we get some Sabonis vs. Turner action too, please?
Red flags: Not much success in recent years, and the universal Giannis Problem looms large. You’d hate to see Sabonis just completely overwhelmed by Antetokounmpo, unless, of course, you are rooting for Greece.
Our last candidate is perhaps the least traditional. Germany is outside the top-20 in FIBA rankings and has won just one medal in a global tournament ever (bronze at the 2002 World Championship). For so long, the team was Dirk Nowitzki and literally no one else any NBA fan has heard of.
Now, the team has some heft and depth while Nowitzki is gone, with three NBA players led by Dennis Schroder and Maxi Kleber. Heck, Germany is deep enough that a fourth NBA player, Isaac Bonga, was cut last-minute! Can you imagine a German national team of the previous two decades cutting an NBA player because they had the depth? Mindblowing.
So how does Germany beat Team USA? Catching them sleeping, basically. Of all the non-gold contenders, Germany would seem to be best positioned to get a shocking upset in the quarterfinals.
Red flags: Germany’s path to the knockouts is rough (France in first stage, probably Lithuania and Australia in second stage). In the end, Germany is largely relying on Dennis Schroder. Ask the Atlanta Hawks about that.