Which Olympic Rosters Are Best Suited for International Play?
FIBA has some different rules from NBA basketball in terms of what is officiated, in terms of the shapes on the court. The jarring difference was enough for Tim Duncan to infamously lament "FIBA sucks" after a particularly difficult run with Team USA. Some NBA players benefit from the closer (by 19 inches) three-point line and altogether lax officiating. Apparently, Duncan was not one of those players.
One day, the NBA and FIBA will adopt identical rules, and there will cease to be a difference between the bodies. Already, the NBA is considering the international game's legalization of offensive goaltending. Zones have been legalized in American pro basketball, leading to a new era of pick-and-roll and slash-and-kick attacks. Perhaps the imitation of FIBA at home helped Team USA toward a run of international competence. The era of increased defensive freedom in the NBA has coincided with the United States winning the last World Championship and the last gold medal.
There is still a difference between FIBA and the NBA beyond use of a four-letter vs. a three-letter acronym. The three-point line is the biggest one of all, seeing as 19 inches is quite a bit in a game of inches. Guys who shoot long twos are suddenly blessed with a game that makes sense (See: Dwyane Wade in 2006 and 2008). In general, outside shooters are rewarded at the expense of one-on-one isolation players. You hear that, aging Kobe Bryant? Less iso-play, more open threes please.
Brazil almost has a better NBA team than a FIBA squad. The Brazilians are bigger than they are skilled on the perimeter, which is a rarity in international play. On the wings, they feature a wet tissue paper assortment on mediocre talent. In the frontcourt, they impress.
The center and power forward duties are shared between Nene, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao, all players who could conceivably make an All-Star team one day. I'd venture to say that Varejao has deserved such honors in the past, as his defense is among the most fearsome in basketball.
At point guard, Brazil flaunts the crafty Marcelo Huertas. The 6'3" point has never played in the NBA, but he crafts beautiful offense for Barcelona season after season. In the exhibition game against Team USA, Marcelo tallied a staggering (for international play) 13 assists.
Brazil's problem is that they're redundant in the frontcourt. While it's certainly fun to boast such a depth at the tallest position, this team would be so much better were the talent distributed. If it had one player of Anderson Varejao's talent on the wing, Brazil might be No. 2 on this list. Still, it is not to be taken lightly by any opponent.
Amnesty Luis Scola at your peril, Daryl. The guy's a beast, especially on the FIBA stage. In the exhibition game against Team USA, Scola flattened Carmelo Anthony possession after possession. Scola's a skilled scorer down low and he can reliably hit the mid-range jumper.
On the wing, Argentina is led by the reliable, bald-spotted Manu Ginobili. Manu is getting up there in years, but he's still one of basketball's most effective players in short spurs. Last year, he played a mere 34 games, but did so while posting career high production in PER and win shares.
Manu shoots well from almost any spot on the court. It doesn't matter if he's on the right or left side of basket, so defenses cannot feel comfortable shading him in any one direction. Though sometimes reckless, he's a savvy passer and an altogether creative force. His "Euro step" is among the best in basketball, and it enables a fairly unathletic wing to get finish around the rim at will. Simply put, he's one of the best, especially in this kind of game.
At point guard, Argentina is led by John Leguizamo lookalike Pablo Prigioni. At 35, Pablo is steady and smart, a bit like Jason Kidd was for the 2008 USA team. He does not dominate the ball or the stat sheet, but Argentina tends to play much better when Prigioni is at the helm.
So why is Argentina only ranked fourth on this list? It's the other guys, men who look better suited for a softball beer league. This is a slow team, and that's an issue in the aggregate. Also, Argentina's stars tend toward the plodding. It's no big issue if only one of these guys is a bit floor bound, but all three? That's a problem.
Tony Parker was collateral damage in a nightclub incident between rappers. The speedy point guard took shards of glass to the eye, but thankfully, looks to have recovered nicely. Had he bowed out of the Olympics, France would have been at a loss.
This isn't simply because he's the team's best player—it's because he gives France its best asset. This is a team blessed with synchronicity, thanks mostly to Parker running the show as a player-coach in all but name. France runs beautiful offensive sets, similar to San Antonio's "motion-weak" designs. This can be devastating in the international game because opponents often have little time to practice or gel.
Team France lacks overwhelming talent, but the talent is nicely dispersed. Boris Diaw is a versatile forward, Nicolas Batum is an ascending wing. Ronnie Turiaf and Kevin Seraphin are not world beaters, but they are decent players, especially for this level of competition.
So what is holding France back? Joakim Noah had to skip the Olympics due to injuries suffered in the NBA playoffs. France is lacking a bit on size, and Noah would really have vaulted this team another level. Still, France is dangerous if simply because it is an extension of Tony Parker's mind. Look for this team to play unselfish, wise Spurs basketball.
All hail the big bullies. Spain is huge up front and related. Pau and Marc Gasol will man the middle, probably to terrifying effect. Both are tall, wide and highly skilled. Both can pass and just with a guard's facility.
Marc is the better defender, possibly the NBA's third best five-spot stopper, behind Andrew Bogut and Dwight Howard. Pau is underrated on that front, probably because the Lakers keep forcing him to matchup against power forwards. Spain will do the same, but it should work a bit better on this stage. Dirk Nowitzki is not playing this time, so Pau won't have to worry about guarding a tall, sweet-shooting power forward (unless Durant assumes that role later on).
Serge Ibaka fills out Spain's froncourt rotation, and for all his defensive mistakes, he's a better shot-blocker than any America has, save for the 19-year-old Anthony Davis, whom Mike Krzyzewski almost never uses. Serge does not have an ideal international game, but he will augment one of the tournament's few formidable defenses.
At point, Spain is steered by Jose Calderon, an efficient offensive player who struggles to move laterally on defense. This won't be such a problem for Spain, considering the support the team has to back Jose up. Also, Calderon appears to play better in FIBA than in the NBA. Ricky Rubio will not be playing due to a torn ACL. This is an obvious blow to Team Spain, but Calderon might be the better player for this situation.
So what are the flaws? Spain has weak wings (like a penguin). Rudy Fernandez and Juan Carlos Navarro are certainly fun players to behold (when they're on), but neither could hold their own on the NBA level. It's a lot to ask that they contain Russell Westbrook and LeBron James.
1. Team USA
You were expecting...?
I had and have my reservations about this particular group, but the addition of Anthony Davis quelled some of my concerns. Should Tyson Chandler go down with foul trouble or injury, Team USA at least has a shot-blocker to replace him. Right now, the team is too Chandler-dependent, but not enough to lose that No. 1 ranking.
The U.S. remains at the top because it has versatile wings who can shoot well from the short FIBA three-point line. This roster is a chameleon, adjusting seamlessly to almost any opponent. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony can play either small forward or power forward. To his immense credit, LeBron can play any position on the floor, actually. America will sometimes play James at center and put him in the middle of a zone so he can carve it up with passing from a centralized place.
Team USA claims smothering wing defense from Andre Iguodala and the aforementioned LeBron. This team's greatest strength is its athleticism, which can be stunning when coming in the form of an Iggy, LBJ, and Westbrook fast break.
The point guards—save for Russ—aren't so screamingly athletic, but Chris Paul and Deron Williams are surgical with their passing and efficient with their shots. If you want to set up the perfect FIBA drive-and-kick attack, these guys would be your top picks for such a mission.
So what might hold America back? The size deficit is an issue, as I don't trust Kevin Love to play center if called on. Tyson Chandler must stay healthy and out of foul trouble to ensure Team USA's overdog status. Also, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony need to shoot smartly. Both are prone to taking difficult, contested shots. Against this level of talent, they shouldn't have to. If either goes rogue, the Americans could falter. For now, they're No. 1.