The Olympic basketball tournament will finally begin on Sunday, and the question remains the same as it’s ever been since USA Basketball quit treating major international tournaments like an All-Star game: Can anyone beat the United States?
Despite looking just beatable enough that any talk about this year’s squad being potentially better than the Dream Team should be permanently tabled, the USA enters yet again as the overwhelming favorite. That’s what happens when you can put LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony on the court at the same time, backed up by a supporting cast of NBA All-Stars.
Team USA defeated four of the world’s top 16 teams during an unbeaten pre-Olympic schedule, including No. 2 Spain and No. 3 Argentina. But they hardly looked unbeatable in doing so, struggling at times against Argentina and Brazil and falling behind by nine early against Spain before roaring back for an impressive 22-point victory in Barcelona.
The final three quarters of that contest showcased Team USA at its best — suffocating defense, easy transition baskets, good ball movement and dead-eye shooting. But the first put a spotlight on its flaws — lack of size, a tendency to rely on one-on-one play and poor defensive cohesion. It wasn’t nearly enough to mar the overall performance, but the opening 10 minutes did provide a warning that anything can happen in single-game, international play.
The best candidates to engineer such an upset remain the same: Spain, Argentina, France and Brazil.
Spain: Tuesday’s exhibition revealed a startling lack of depth. While it can to trot out a number of elite NBA players, such as the Gasol brothers and naturalized big man Serge Ibaka, there was a huge dropoff when the reserves were called on against Team USA. Spain’s best bet will be to hammer its opponents inside for fouls and easy buckets and hope that key backcourt players like Juan Carlos Navarro can overcome nagging injuries as the tournament wears on.
Manu Ginobili’s Argentina presents problems with its experience and toughness.
Argentina: The front-line talent pales in comparison to Spain, let alone Team USA. But with Manu Ginobili leading a cast of hard-nosed veterans, no international team is tougher or more experienced. He scored 23 points as Argentina, looking like the more physical teams at times, climbed back from an early 16-point deficit to test the USA in a recent 86-80 loss. Though the USA prevailed, the message was clear: Argentina isn’t going to back down to anyone.
France: Spurs fans will be keeping a close eye (no pun intended) on point guard Tony Parker, now sporting goggles after nearly losing an eye in a New York City club brawl earlier this summer. He was the driving force behind France’s second-place finish in last summer’s European Championship. Parker is bolstered by an impressive array of NBA talent that includes Nicolas Batum and Boris Diaw, but the absence of Bulls center Joakim Noah could be devastating.
Brazil: Like Spain, Brazil has the size to punish Team USA inside with Nene, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao. Then there’s Marcelinho Huertas, perhaps the world’s best point guard outside of the NBA. As if that wasn’t enough, Brazil’s secret weapon might not even suit up — head coach Ruben Magnano led Argentina to victories over Team USA at the 2002 Worlds and 2004 Olympics and is widely regarded as one of the best minds in international basketball.