Four countries that can compete with USA Basketball for Olympic gold
Team USA rules over the international basketball landscape with an iron fist. A starting lineup of Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis with Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and Blake Griffin coming off the bench would probably be a shoo-in for the gold medal, not just in basketball, but in handball, judo, synchronized swimming, and the triathlon as well. Instead, those are all players who WON’T be suiting up for the good ol’ US of A at the Olympics this year. But the bad news for the rest of the world is that America’s 12-man junior varsity roster still boasts a combined 33 All-Star appearances, 24 All-NBA honors, 10 All-Defensive Team selections, five scoring titles, and Harrison Barnes. USA Basketball has blasted opponents by an average margin of victory of 43 points in five exhibition contests, and, realistically speaking, nobody, not Papua New Guinea, not Mordor, not Vanessa Carlton, has a Drummond’s chance at the free throw line of stealing the gold away from them.
But is anything really that guaranteed, especially in a world where the foul stench of bronze in the 2004 Athen Games still reeks about as badly as the Zika-infested Brazilian countryside and where the ineradicable mental images of Draymond’s donkey may have traumatized the entire team into a permanent state of mediocrity? For the sake of competitive spirit (something that one lanky small forward for Team USA could use a lesson in), here are the four countries best suited to compete with America for basketball gold in Rio.
Perhaps the lone Achilles’ heel for USA Basketball is the relative lack of experience at the Olympic level. Kevin Durant and grumpy grandpa Carmelo Anthony are the only two players on the roster with any prior Olympic experience whatsoever. That’s not going to be a problem for the Baltic nation of Lithuania, a team returning six members from their 2012 squad that competed at the London Games. They’re also coming off a strong recent performance on the international stage, making it all the way to the championship game against Spain in EuroBasket 2015. The team is led by Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas, a smooth post-up/pick-and-roll player who is battle-tested against the NBA’s top talent and who may be the team’s most effective weapon against DeMarcus Cousins considering his knack for baiting Boogie into near-ejections.
Valanciunas is complemented by Thunder rookie Domantas Sabonis (who has some size 22 shoes to fill given the plunderings of father Arvydas, who famously led the USSR to gold at the 1988 Seoul Games, in Olympic play) and a strong scoring forward in Real Madrid’s Jonas Mačiulis. All in all, Lithuania is full of high-IQ athletes who work well in the halfcourt, move the ball effectively, shoot at a solid clip from distance, and make the right cuts, which should make them a handful to deal with in Rio.
If Andrew Bogut ever manages to take a proper shower over the course of the Rio Games, watch out. Bogut, the blue-collar bruiser, is one of six NBA players on the Australia roster along with Patty Mills, Joe Ingles, Cameron Bairstow, Aron Baynes, and lower body enthusiast Matthew Dellavedova. The Aussies will play slow and be physical, hoping to limit your number of possessions and wear you down over the course of 40 minutes. In the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, their last major international competition, Australia averaged just 78.0 points per game (compared to 104.6 points per game by Team USA in the same tournament) but held opponents to a stingy 73.0 points per game. But even if Australia generally likes to slow down the pace of play, they are still excellent at forcing live-ball turnovers and converting them into easy transition opportunities.
The playmaking of Ingles and the caffeinated dribble drives of Mills also make this team a ton of fun to watch in tight spaces.
With their two best young players, Dante Exum and Ben Simmons, not even making the trip to Brazil this year, the future looks awfully bright for Australia, but the present looks pretty darn good too.
Where to even begin with the lovable French? The jiggly goodness of Boris Diaw? The condor wings of Rudy Gobert redirecting shot attempts towards the concession stands? The do-it-all artistry of Nicolas Batum? Or the still-spicy herky-jerky play of Tony Parker? France brandishes a squad that’s as deep and experienced as any, and they’re fresh off back-to-back top-three finishes in both the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup and 2015 EuroBasket. It’s a thing of beauty when the French launch into one of their patented sequences of swinging the basketball from side to side.
Another name to watch out for is Nuggets big man Joffrey Lauvergne, whose mobility as a rangy pick-and-pop big gives France’s offense more creativity and unpredictability and is surpassed only by his immaculately coiffed hair.
With former Spur Nando de Colo and the sweet-shooting Thomas Heurtel filling out the rest of the rotation, France has depth, size, and skill all over the court, so they’re sure as hell not just rolling over when the time comes to face off against the United States.
Who else but the fearsome Spanish Armada? The absences of Marc Gasol (still recovering from a broken foot) and Serge Ibaka (undisclosed reasons but possibly a casualty of the naturalized player rule that only allowed either him or Nikola Mirotic to be on the roster) definitely hurt. But Spain’s cause is still led by arguably the greatest player in international basketball history in Pau Gasol. The six-time All-Star is still kicking at 36 years old and is coming off a flat-out dominant performance in EuroBasket 2015 where he guided Spain to a first-place finish with a manic 25.6 points per game, 8.8 rebounds per game, and 2.3 blocks per game en route to MVP honors.
Gasol won’t be able to compete against the brute strength of DeMarcus Cousins or the jack-in-the-box athleticism of DeAndre Jordan. But what he will be able to do is serve as the fulcrum of the Spanish offense, facilitating from the high post and slicing up the opposition with midrange jumpers, back-to-the-basket buckets, and powerful rolls/drives to the rim.
Gasol may not be a No. 1 option in the NBA anymore, but he becomes a man possessed on the international stage, and this Spanish team will go as far as he takes them. Still, his supporting cast is nothing to sneeze at either. Spain has all of the talent of a squad like France but with better floor spacing and stronger all-around perimeter play. Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navarro, and consonant-to-vowel god Sergio Llull are all cold-blooded assassins from deep who can generate offense off the bounce as well. Mirotic, Gasol’s now-former teammate on the Bulls, is a full-bearded mismatch on the offensive end, and Jose Calderon always manages to become not useless in global competition. And let’s not forget about the unparalleled passing brilliance of Wolves guard Ricky Rubio, who is a better pure playmaker than anyone on Team USA.
But ultimately, this is all probably just a glorified thought exercise. With Ibaka and the younger Gasol out of commission, Spain has neither the rim protection nor the sheer scoring punch necessary to knock off The Land of Liberty. As such, it has become painfully obvious that nobody is dethroning Team USA come hell or poop water (something that, ironically, the Olympic water sport athletes might actually have to endure this year). They’re simply too talented, too athletic, too long, and too much. Unstoppable with a true center and unstoppable without one (Kyrie Irving-Klay Thompson-Kevin Durant-Paul George-Draymond Green crunchtime lineups, anyone?), we might as well just engrave a bald eagle into the gold medals already and get it over with. But still, for the love of entertaining wire-to-wire international basketball, a man can surely dream, can’t he?
Image Credit: Christopher Johnson- Wikimedia Commons