Argentina is obviously the favorite to develop silver hair (Hi-yo!). The once "golden generation" of Argentine stars are nearing middle age collectively. Manu Ginobili and Pablo Prigioni are both 35 years old. Luis Scola looks relatively spry at age 32, and he's become the team's star.
To many, this squad is dismissed as too old or too nonathletic. While these are legitimate concerns, many are ignoring just how balanced and cohesive this unit is.
That synergy was on full display on Sunday, when Argentina crushed Lithuania, 102-79. Lithuania is a good FIBA team, and it boasts a top draft NBA pick in Jonas Valanciunas. Argentina made Lithuania look out of place on the world stage, and Scola made Valanciunas look like a rookie in the bad sense of the word.
Gun to my head (and really, why are you putting me under such duress?), I'll take Spain over Argentina. I also would not be surprised to see the powder blue reign supreme over a more athletic Spanish squad. This is because Argentina's roster actually fits together quite well. The division of labor is proper and orderly.
As is often the case for the best NBA teams, this one has a big three.
Perhaps you've heard of him? He conjures memories of Zidane, as both were creative carriers of the bald spot. Manu is a bit more athletic, but his athleticism isn't conveyed in the ability to run or jump. It's that Ginobili moves laterally with the comfort and ease that most players have going straight ahead. In fact, Manu brought the "Euro step" to America.
For those who don't know, this is a move where a player takes his two steps with the ball in a switch-back zig-zag route. Until Manu, every NBA player took his two steps towards the hoop. Ginobili created a means of confusing defenders by making a deception out of his first step. Check it out:
At the ripe age of 35, Manu appears to be about as good as he always was. The main issue is that Ginobili has trouble staying healthy. While this is a massive problem for the San Antonio Spurs, Team Argentina can probably bank on an eight-game stretch of health from its star. In short spurts, few shooting guards have been better—and I mean that in the broader scope of NBA history.
Put it this way: If there was such a thing as an FIBA amnesty, Luis Scola would never receive it. The strong power forward is a beast on the international level, and he's probably Argentina's best player. The torch was passed in the 2010 FIBA world championship, when Luis ripped rival Brazil for 37 points.
Like Ginobili, few would call Scola "athletic" in the traditional sense. He's certainly strong, which helps Scola muscle his way to many a below-the-rim rebound. You will rarely see him ascend above the cylinder, as Luis prefers to defeat opponents with plodding skill. A shot fake here, a hook shot there. Suddenly, the long-haired shuffler has 20 points.
At this point, it's Scola's team insofar as we give teams to one player. Outside of the NBA, he can thrive as the focal point of an offense. In any context, he's flat out feisty:
Well, Pablo obviously has the best name on his team. Let's get that out of the way. He's Argentina's steady metronome, a floor-bound floor general who gladly distributes to his team's point-producers. Prigioni is 35 and will be New York's third guard next season. While he won't provide many highlights in his NBA or FIBA roles, he will make the right play more often than not.
The trio of Manu, Luis and Pablo has operated as Argentina's nucleus for nearly the last decade. In that comfort lies their advantage. The Argentines also have help from role player wings like Carlos Delfino and Andres Nocioni. This is less a team of thrilling superstars than it is a team of savvy, knowledgeable veterans.
I would contrast this squad with Spain, a team that knows itself well, but doesn't entirely fit together. The Spaniards are frontcourt-heavy with Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. If that talent was better distributed, you get the sense that they'd have a better team.
To have three players who might capably play center is a blessing that doubles as a curse. How do you distribute the minutes? How do you address the relative weakness on your wings?
Again, gun to my head, I'm taking Spain's superior talent. But know that Argentina is making quite an argument for FIBA's second-best team.