Since Spain claimed a first-place finish at the 2006 FIBA World Championships, the country's basketball prowess has continued to evolve. Although the team couldn't overcome the U.S. at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, its '08 silver medal performance has Spain's players and fans thinking gold at the 2012 Summer Games.
A roster featuring an absolutely-fearsome frontcourt deserves plenty of respect, along with a dose of fear. However, any accolades thrown toward Spain must be accompanied by a crucial caveat:
Do the Spaniards possess enough skill at the guard position to truly challenge for global supremacy?
According to Spain power forward Serge Ibaka, his squad is just as talented as heavily-favored Team USA.
The Oklahoma City Thunder star and runner-up for 2012 NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors anchors Spain's low post along with accomplished national team veterans Pau and Marc Gasol. However, a balanced lineup is key to any title chase, as Ibaka should certainly understand after facing dynamic guards Kobe Bryant, Tony Parker and Dwyane Wade during the Thunder's 2012 playoff run.
If any team is able to contend with the Americans at the 2012 Games, success on the perimeter is paramount. When you analyze Spain's roster, it's tough to identify a gold-medal worthy group of guards that can begin to rival Team USA's impressive backcourt.
Star-on-the-rise Ricky Rubio would've struck fear into the heart of any opposing Olympic basketball coach. The 21-year-old point guard virtuoso lived up to immense hype during his abbreviated rookie season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he tore his ACL on March 9 during a collision with Kobe Bryant and can't help Spain from the trainer's room.
FC Barcelona star and national team captain Juan Carlos Navarro returns for his fourth Olympics appearance. The 32-year-old provides exceptional leadership and steady play at either guard position and performed very well at the 2011 European Basketball Championship, but should Spain really feel positive about the prospect of its aging leader matching up against the likes of Chris Paul and Deron Williams?
Jose Calderon, who earns his paychecks playing point guard for the Toronto Raptors, is a creative distributor with solid shooting skills. Calderon has converted 38 percent of his three-point attempts since entering the league in 2005 and ranked fourth in the NBA in assists per game last season (8.8).
During Spain's silver medal run at the 2008 Olympics, Calderon suffered a hip injury and missed the Summer Games' semifinal and final contests as a result. That could motivate him to make up for a missed opportunity.
But as we've seen throughout his NBA career, Calderon has significant defensive limitations that are occasionally viewed as a liability in Toronto (here's some proof).
Navarro and Calderon are both highly-capable outside shooting threats and legitimate known commodities who bring experience to Spain's backcourt. However, depth behind the duo is a major question mark.
Sergio Rodriguez, who spent five seasons in the NBA before returning to Spain, is a flashy passer but provides little in terms of the all-around arsenal necessary to go toe-to-toe with the Olympics' top guards. He is likely to serve as Spain's primary backcourt reserve, coming off a bench that also features intriguing Houston Rockets prospect Sergio Llull and unheralded combo guards Victor Sada and Rafa Martinez.
Spain's terrific frontcourt, which also includes NBA veteran small forward Rudy Fernandez, matches up nicely with an arguably-undersized Team USA interior and should flex its muscles during impressive victories early in Olympic play. Spain's true test arrives when the team competes against the athletically-gifted guard units of France, Argentina and the U.S.
U.S. basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo has heard all about the size of teams like Spain and Brazil, but believes that advantage simply won't be enough on its own to grab gold at the 2012 Olympics.
“Look, maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so,” Colangelo told The Rocky Mount Telegram. “I’ll take versatility and athleticism and speed and quickness. That beats size all day long because size alone can’t get it done.”
Spain's backcourt group may be quick and filled with quality shooters, but versatility is certainly not a strength. At 6'4", Calderon is the tallest guard on the roster.
How can Spain coach Sergio Scariolo expect to contend with the blend of height and athleticism possessed by American shooting guards Kobe Bryant (6'6"), Kevin Durant (6'9"), James Harden (6'5") and Andre Iguodala (6'6") in a potential gold medal showdown?
Spain's lack of an answer for Team USA's backcourt corps makes it hard to agree with Ibaka's assertion that Spain is on par with America on the basketball court.
If Spain wants to hear Marcha Real, its national anthem, while standing on the podium's top spot during award ceremonies, it will need more than size on its side. U.S. post players Tyson Chandler (the 2012 NBA Defensive Player of the Year) and Anthony Davis (a once-in-a-decade prospect at center) are likely already tired of hearing about their biggest threat's big men.
Guards of Spain, the gauntlet has been thrown.