By JOSIAH TAKANG (@jtakang22_7)
Photo credit goes to sportingnews.com.
With France’s 83-74 defeat of Canada in the final Olympic qualifier, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro men’s Olympic basketball field is set. On the same day, Serbia pummelled Puerto Rico, and Croatia defeated Italy to secure their spots in the field.
As such, the field looks like this:
GROUP A (How they got here)
1. France (2016 Olympic qualifying tournament)
2. United States (2014 FIBA World Cup Champion)
3. Venezuela (2015 FIBA Americas Champion)
4. Serbia (2016 Olympic qualifying Tournament)
5. China (2015 FIBA Asia Champion)
6. Australia (2015 FIBA Oceania Champion)
Generally, the United States has had the run of its first-round games, as it’s usually far and away the best team in the competition.This Olympics, however, the story is a little different. The French -- led by Spurs stalwart Tony Parker, recently-acquired Utah Jazz bruiser Boris Diaw and Charlotte Hornets guard Nicolas Batum -- are likely to present the top challenge to an American squad relatively weakened by Zika fears-related withdrawals, injuries and post-playoffs drain.
The scrappy Australians -- led by new Dallas Maverick center Andrew Bogut, Spurs swingman Patty Mills and scrappy (newly-crowned NBA champion) Cavalierss point man Matthew Dellavedova -- represent a pesky opponent, as well.
Unfortunately, the NBA’s No. 1 overall pick, Ben Simmons, will be absent for up-and-coming Australia. China lacks a bit of the firepower of games past, this year led by shooting guard Zhou Peng of the Guangdong Southern Tigers. Serbia is also a bit weaker, serving as a sleeper squad led by Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, captain Teodosić Miloš of Russian powerhouse CSKA Moscow and Suns draftee Bogdan Bogdanovic.
Venezuela, while the 2016 South American champion, has no NBA players (its only American-based player plays at the University of Mississippi), and all of the rest are based in Venezuela’s domestic competition, Liga Profesional de Baloncesto, which isn’t particularly well-regarded. Thus, “La Vinotinto de las alturas” (The Wine Giants) will likely be easily toppled by the Americans (and likely the other four sides in the group).
The Americans are the absolute favorite, and to see them lose at any point in the tournament would be a complete and utter shock. However, you can’t avoid the overhanging spectre of who’s not playing: LeBron, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, etc.
The Americans are the absolute favorite, and to see them lose at any point in the tournament would be a complete and utter shock.
Not to rattle old bones, but the last time this many American stars skipped the Olympics was 2004, and their replacements came back with an ignominious bronze. All that said, legendary Duke Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski also happens to be 75–1 as coach of the national side, which has not lost a game since falling to Greece in the semifinal of the 2006 World Championship.
The team boasts the likes of new Golden State Warrior and Oklahoma City pariah Kevin Durant, who teams up with Warriors strike partners Klay Thompson and Draymond Green for the first time in organized competition. DeMarcus Cousins brings hellfire and brimstone into the paint, whereas Paul George and Jimmy Butler offer added versatility on both sides of the ball.
If there’s any kind of deficit -- a word I use very lightly here -- it’s at the point, where 2016 NBA champ Kyrie Irving and first-time national teamer Kyle Lowry are more offensively-minded and objectively sacrifice a little more size than Team USA traditionally prefers at the position.
DeAndre Jordan will more than capably anchor the defense (as evidenced by this monster of a rejection versus China), but expect smarter teams to find ways to make him shoot free throws. (It should be noted that the last time I saw a rejection like that, it was on Harvard letterhead).
Nonetheless, the indomitable Americans still dwarf every team in terms of raw talent, but on the right day, any of those teams could hang around with Team USA enough to present a reasonable challenge before medal play begins.
GROUP B (How they got here)
1. Argentina (2015 FIBA Americas runner-up)
2. Spain (EuroBasket 2015 Champion)
3. Brazil (Host nation -- automatic qualifier)
4. Lithuania (EuroBasket 2015 runner-up)
5. Croatia (2016 Olympic qualifying tournament)
6. Nigeria (AfroBasket 2015 Champion)
Conventional wisdom would peg the Spaniards as the alpha in this group, led by a plethora of stars, including new Spur Pau Gasol, his brother Marc of the Memphis Grizzlies, Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio, Bulls sharpshooter Nikola Mirotic and captained by Felipe Reyes of Real Madrid (no, not that Real Madrid).
That said, it’s become fairly clear that 2016 Pau Gasol is longer the Pau Gasol of years past. Additionally, Marc is day-to-day with a lingering foot injury, and the squad will severely miss the big, athletic presence of Serge Ibaka, especially against relatively smaller international teams. The team has pushed the Americans in the past, but this squad definitely does not look as dominant.
Brazil is a good team with one potentially very dangerous player. For most international basketball fans, the one name associated with Brazilian basketball is the legendary Oscar Schmidt. Often considered Brazilian basketball's answer to Pele, he had a nearly 30-year career, lasting from 1974 to 2003).
He helped Brazil beat the U.S. in the 1987 Pan Am Games, among other notable accomplishments. He also scored nearly 50,000 points in his storied career -- 49,737, to be exact.
Unfortunately, however, like Pelé, his glory days are in the past for Brazil. The current iteration of the host nation’s squad does boast an NBA presence with four players, but three of the four are 33 and toward the end of their NBA careers: Marcelinho Huertas, Leandro Barbosa and Anderson Varejão.
The aforementioned one player under 30 is Raulzhino Neto of the Utah Jazz. The Nuggets point guard is 24, and he's on the big side at 6-foot-4, and he is… Really. Really. Good.
He can shoot from deep or drive, but most of all he can dish the rock. Great passers are rare, very dangerous and very valuable. Huertas played for the embattled Los Angeles Lakers, who were God-awful last season, but he's a clever, smooth, player who will benefit from playing alongside Neto.
Raulzhino Neto. Photo credit goes to nba.com.
He can shoot from deep or drive, but most of all he can dish the rock. Great passers are rare, very dangerous and very valuable.
Lithuania and Croatia bring talented teams as usual, but they just don’t have the starpower to realistically topple an American squad. Lithuania boasts star Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas, as well as Thunder rookie Domantas Sabonis, while the Croats bring to Rio feted Nets forward Bojan (not Bogdan) Bogdanovic, Magic guard Mario Hezonja and Sixers young gun Dario Saric.
The two young Croats lead a superbly talented new generation of young Croatian players who should arrive over the next several years and will make a splash in the international game.
The Nigerians qualified for these games by winning Afrobasket (the African Championships) in 2015, defeating Angola 74-65. The squad, featuring players in a diverse array of nations and leagues, resembles the West African nation’s national football side.
These professional leagues include the German Bundesliga (center Olumide Oyedeji), a star for FC Barcelona (no, not that FC Barcelona) in forward Shane Lawal and Italy’s Serie A (guards Stan Okoye and Josh Akognon).
This team, however, does bring some NBA cred in Al-Farouq Aminu of the Portland Trailblazers, 2015 NBA champion Warrior Festus Ezeli and the Pistons’ Michael Gbinije. Most of the roster is made up of American players with dual nationalities who have chosen to play for Nigeria.
No pushover themselves, on July 18, the Nigerians beat Argentina 96-92 in the first part of a double header in Las Vegas. In the second game on July 20, however, the Argentines came back and rather opened a fresh can of whooping, beating D'Tigers 101-79. The Nigerians may not have the NBA starpower of Argentina or France, but they are more than capable of pulling off upsets.
Group-stage matches to watch
USA vs. China, Aug. 6:
The Americans open play against China, who features NBA hopeful and Rockets draftee Zhou Qi. It should be noted the Americans have already pounded China in two successive warm-up games in the past week, 106-57 and 105-57, respectively.
Brazil vs. Lithuania, Aug. 7:
Nene and the hosts take on Toronto big man Jonas Valanciunas and a hard-nosed Lithuanian squad.
Serbia vs. France, Aug. 10:
Young Nuggets star Nikola Jokic leads Serbia in a game that should have big seeding implications.
USA vs. France, Aug. 14:
The Americans’ final group game will present their stiffest test of the group stage, with Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw, the 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert and outgoing legend Tony Parker on the other side.
Spain vs. Argentina, Aug. 15:
International legends and new Spurs teammates Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili face off for what will likely be the last time on the global stage.
Groupings (FIBA rankings in parentheses)
Rule Differences Between the NBA and FIBA
FIBA play features a shorter 3-point line, a trapezoidal lane area, 10-minute quarters and a different-feeling basketball. The shot clock resets to 14 seconds after an offensive rebound, players get just five personal fouls and can’t call their own timeouts.
As for the format, the top four in each group advance and are then seeded into a cross-group bracket, where A1 plays B4, A2 plays B3 and so forth. Head-to-head results and point differential are the second and third tiebreakers.