The men’s basketball tournament at the London Olympics gets underway Sunday, as 12 countries will play 38 games over 15 days to determine which teams get to take home gold, silver and bronze. This tournament could be extra special, as David Stern has indicated that it could be the last time that the U.S. sends a full complement of pro players to a major international tournament. Stern wants to phase out NBA players and make the Olympics and FIBA World Cup (formerly FIBA World Championship) more like Olympic soccer, with rosters limited to under-23 players. Kobe Bryant also drew media attention to Team USA by claiming that this year’s squad could beat the famous Dream Team of 20 years ago, a claim that his teammates have generally supported but one that has been panned by former Dream Teamers Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley. The argument isn’t worth having yet, as the U.S. has yet to win gold in 2012—how the current version performs over the next two weeks will determine whether Bryant’s claim is legitimate.
The 12 teams are divided into two groups who will play round-robin format, with the top four teams in each group advancing to the knockout round. From there, it’s your typical single-elimination, though there is also a bronze medal game between the losing semifinalists. The U.S. enters as a heavy favorite as the defending Olympic and world champions and the Red, White and Blue went 5-0 in warmup games prior to London, including a 22-point victory over 2011 European champions Spain in Barcelona. The U.S. is not invincible, however, as they only beat Brazil by 11 and Argentina by six. Still, no other team can match the U.S.’s athleticism and speed, and with experienced coach Mike Krzyzewski behind the bench, anything other than gold for the Americans will be a disappointment. Here’s a look at what to expect from the tournament, with a focus on the 39 active NBA players participating.
Argentina, France, Lithuania, Nigeria, Tunisia, United States
NBA players: Carlos Delfino (Bucks), Manu Ginobili (Spurs), Pablo Prigioni (Knicks), Luis Scola (Suns)
Argentina gave the U.S. its toughest test in warmups and they will expect a medal in what could be the final go-round for this experienced roster. The key members of the squad – Delfino, Ginobili, Scola and former NBA forward Andres Nocioni– all played together on Argentina’s gold-medal winning team in 2004. This is a veteran team that knows how to win at the international level; the only question is those old legs – eight of the 12 players on the roster are 32 or older – will hold up against twentysomethings like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Still, this team can play and will be one of the U.S.’s biggest barriers to gold.
NBA players: Nicolas Batum (Blazers), Nando de Colo (Spurs), Boris Diaw (Spurs), Tony Parker (Spurs), Kevin Seraphin (Wizards), Ronny Turiaf (Clippers)
This is another capable squad with NBA talent, though their players’ skill sets suggests that the French are just a poor man’s version of the American team. Any team with Parker running the point is in good position, and Batum and Diaw should form a decent, if undersized, forward pairing. There’s no place in this team for recent Nuggets first-rounder Evan Fournier or free agent guard Mickael Pietrus – though Pietrus’ brother, Florent, did make the cut. They’ll make it to the knockout round – though the drop off between the fourth- and fifth-best teams in this group is so massive that that really isn’t saying much. France were runners-up at the European championships last summer. Making it that far again this year would be a tremendous achievement.
NBA players: Linas Kleiza (Raptors), Jonas Valanciunas (Raptors)
Lithuania were stunned by Macedonia in the quarterfinals of the Euros last summer on home soil, and you can bet that they won’t be taking anyone for granted in London. They also feature perhaps the most intriguing non-American player in the tournament in Valanciunas, the No. 5 pick in the 2011 draft who will make his debut with the Raptors this fall. Only 20 years old, Valanciunas has an NBA-ready body at 7-foot, 240 pounds, and has a multifaceted skill set, with the ability to rebound, block shots and knock down jumpers. Valanciunas has dominated international competition at all age groups so far in his career, winning gold medals and tournament MVP awards at the Under-16 Euros, the Under-18 Euros and, most notably, the Under-19 Worlds last summer, putting up 30 points and 15 rebounds against a U.S. team featuring Kendall Marshall and Jeremy Lamb and dropping 36 in a blowout win in the championship game against Serbia. NBA fans should be sure to check out Lithuania’s game with the U.S. on August 4 to get a look at the player who could be the NBA’s next great foreigner.
NBA players: Carmelo Anthony (Knicks), Kobe Bryant (Lakers), Tyson Chandler (Knicks), Anthony Davis (Hornets), Kevin Durant (Thunder), James Harden (Thunder), Andre Iguodala (76ers), LeBron James (Heat), Kevin Love (Timberwolves), Chris Paul (Clippers), Russell Westbrook (Thunder), Deron Williams (Nets)
Despite multiple injuries preventing players such as Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade and Blake Griffin from suiting up, the U.S. still has a dominant squad, with a nice blend of players from the 2008 Olympic champs (Bryant, James, Anthony) and 2010 world champs (Durant, Love, Westbrook). The thought of Durant and James – the two best basketball players alive right now – on the same team is mouthwatering for a basketball fan, and getting to see Westbrook and James run the break off a blocked shot by Davis or Chandler should be a joy. The U.S. are deserved favorites, but if a team is to beat them, the following things will need to happen:
1. NBA.com’s John Schuhmann noted a few telling stats following the U.S.’s warmup win over Argentina: over the first four warmup games, the U.S. was outscored in the 58 minutes they played without a big (Chandler, Davis, or Love) on the floor and their defensive rating was 19 points worse without a big on the floor. So the doomsday scenario for Team USA is a team with skilled big men — let’s say Spain or Brazil, since their pretty much the only teams capable of doing this – that gets the U.S.’s big men, particularly Chandler in foul trouble early (it only takes five to foul out in the Olympics). From there, they pound the ball inside and exploit their size advantage.
2. Unprepared for the prospect of a close game, the U.S. is unsure of who to go to in the final minutes. James? Durant? Bryant resorts to hero ball and forces up shots while double-teamed, shooting the U.S. out of the game.
That scenario’s not that far-fetched, right? Of course, it’s rendered pointless if James plays one of those games that make you wonder how anybody can ever stop him (think Game 6 of the Eastern Finals).
Nigeria and Tunisia
NBA players: none
These teams should just be happy to be here.
Australia, Brazil, China, Great Britain, Russia, Spain
NBA players: Patrick Mills (Spurs)
No Andrew Bogut, no hope for the Aussies.
NBA players: Leandro Barbosa (Pacers), Nene (Wizards), Tiago Splitter (Spurs), Anderson Varejao (Cavaliers)
Brazil is an athletic, energetic bunch with the chance to push the U.S. if their bigs get going. Barbosa is a decent point with playoff experience, but overall Brazil has a poor history in international competition: they haven’t medaled at Worlds or the Olympics since 1978.
NBA players: Yi Jianlian (Mavericks)
China doesn’t pose much of a threat to medal, but since Group B is more balanced than Group B, they could sneak into the knockout phase with a couple victories. In addition to Jianlian, former NBA player Wang Zhizhi is still poking around at age 33.
NBA players: Luol Deng (Bulls), Joel Freeland (Blazers)
You’ve got to give credit to the host nation for trying. They got Deng to suit up, and tried to recruit the Bobcats’ Ben Gordon (born in London) and Byron Mullens (British mother), but Gordon has never seemed interested in playing for Britain and Mullens is out with a toe injury. The Brits won’t be totally embarrassed with Deng and Freeland, who spent the past three seasons in the Spanish league, but their roster beyond that is a joke. They’ll hope to steal a victory against China or Australia.
NBA players: Timofey Mozgov (Nuggets), Andre Kirilenko (Timberwolves)
Russia has put together a couple of noteworthy international performances in recent years, shocking host nation Spain in the final to win Euros in 2007 and placing third at Euros last summer. Russia’s last three Olympic outcomes are not as strong, however: they were 8th in Sydney, didn’t qualify for Athens and placed just 9th in Beijing. This year’s version is heavy on swingmen, but, once again, they’ll be unlikely to medal in the Olympics
NBA players: Pau Gasol (Lakers), Marc Gasol (Grizzlies), Jose Calderon (Raptors), Victor Claver (Blazers), Serge Ibaka (Thunder)
Ibaka, who moved to Spain as a teen and gained citizenship last year, makes this a very formidable team, with a frontcourt that rivals that of the United States. Indeed, Ibaka and the Gasol brothers bring size that no team – not even the Americans – can match. Spain has won the last two European championships and won worlds in 2006, but they finished just sixth at worlds in 2010 and will be looking for revenge against the U.S., who denied them Olympic gold four years ago. Spain has a nice blend of athleticism and experience and several of their other players have NBA experience, including Rudy Fernandez, who will return to Spain this fall after spending four seasons in the NBA. Marc Gasol missed Spain’s warmup loss to the U.S. and his return should ensure a more even encounter if the teams meet in the knockout phase. But if Spain falls short, the absence of Ricky Rubio could end up being the biggest reason why, as his playmaking abilities are impossible to replicate.