Olympics: Is the Absence of Rubio Keeping Spain from Looking Like Contenders?

Zach HarperContributor IIIAugust 8, 2012

BEIJING - AUGUST 24:  Kobe Bryant #10 of the United States speaks to an official as Ricky Rubio #6 and Marc Gasol #13 of Spain look on in the gold medal game during Day 16 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games at the Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium on August 24, 2008 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Spanish basketball team is lacking energy and it could be because Ricky Rubio isn’t around.

Aside from a brief little explosion of machismo that erupted when Nicolas Batum took a cheap shot to Juan Carlos Navarro, Spain’s team has looked less than stellar in the Olympics so far. Even though they’re now posting a healthy 4-2 record and have advanced to the semifinal round, Spain doesn’t look to be the danger to taking USA’s gold medal as we once assumed.

When I say they’re looking less than stellar, it’s in comparison to Team USA and how they’ve looked in their five games so far. While they are two completely different teams with very different styles of play, they’ve been held to a very similar standard of excellence because they are the second best team in the world.

There are a few things Spain is struggling to do against top tier opponents like Russia, Brazil and France.


Post-Entry Passes

Even though Jose Calderon, Sergio Llull and Sergio Rodriguez are very good passers, for some reason it seems like Spain is incapable of throwing consistent post-entry passes to the Gasol brothers. We’ve seen creative defensive looks to deny the post, but there is a certain level of impatience with the Spanish guards that is not rewarding their big men for ending up with post-position.

They’ve been so bad with post-entry passes that I was starting to wonder when Jameer Nelson was granted Spanish citizenship.

When Pau Gasol needs an extra second to seal off his defender on the block, the dribbler should be patient as long as there is time on the shot clock to let him get set, feed him the ball and put the defensive big man in a hurt locker.

The same goes with Marc Gasol. In fact, it goes double for Marc. The younger Gasol brother is so much bigger and stronger than his defender, once he gets position and the ball down low, the defense really has only hopes and prayers to stop him. With Pau you can allow him to get the ball and face up to use his quickness. But allowing Marc to have the ball on the block and be able to bully his way to the basket or let him dissect the double team with his deft passing touch seems almost unfair.

And yet we see Spanish perimeter players reversing the ball to the other side far too quickly.


Dribble Penetration

Unless someone does actually make a post-entry pass in good time or the Spanish bigs manage to get a high-low game going, we aren’t seeing a ton of perimeter players getting into the paint and putting pressure on the defensive interior. Age or plantar fasciitis or both have slowed Juan Carlos Navarro, and it’s killing his ability to get into the middle of the floor and get his patented shots off.

Sergio Llull and Rudy Fernandez can do it occasionally, but it’s never really a consistent attack for them, even when running pick-and-rolls. Jose Calderon has never been a big penetrating guard and does the majority of his surgical passing by setting up guys coming off screens or cutting backdoor.

And Sergio Rodriguez just isn’t talented enough to consistently be that threat unless he can catch a closing perimeter defender shifting his weight to the wrong side.


Where are the energetic plays?

We saw a backdoor cut by Rudy Fernandez for a fun reverse dunk on an alley-oop against France. We saw the occasional Gasol brother scream after a big play. But for the most part, it appears that this team is waiting to be inspired.

Whether it’s Fernandez dunking or Navarro going on a scoring binge or someone whipping a fancy pass around the floor, this Spanish team is lacking energy on the floor. We saw it during the FIBA tournaments the past two years, and we definitely saw it during the 2008 Olympics. But we don’t see it much anymore (although the Batum punch on Navarro may inspire such).

Where we saw all of this stuff competently executed was with Ricky Rubio. Rubio never played heavy minutes for Spain, and he definitely had a poor showing for the national team post-Olympics in 2008, but what he showed he can do in the NBA last season is set guys up. 

Not only is Rubio’s passing something that gets the entire arena buzzing, but he’s also a disruptive defender that can help his team go on runs by forcing turnovers. Without Rubio on the floor, you rarely see Spain forcing the team to be careless with the ball. They’ve forced just 54 turnovers in six games so far in the Olympics. 

Want to know how Rubio can affect a post-entry situation? Ask Nikola Pekovic from the Timberwolves just how easy scoring was last season when Rubio was setting him up inside.

Want to see dribble penetration and energetic plays? Ricky Rubio can solve those problems for you with one quick crossover. Nobody on Spain can run a pick-and-roll like Rubio, and while European coaches may have been wary of handing over control to such a young player in the past, Rubio proved over the last year that he would be more than competent. 

Unfortunately for Spain, Rubio tore his ACL in March and won’t be fit to play for a couple more months. You can see the repercussions of the injury radiating through Spain’s lineup and play. 

It doesn’t mean Spain isn’t a contender because they definitely are. They’ll play Russia on Friday and be 40 minutes away from once again challenging Team USA for the Olympic gold medal.

It just doesn’t seem like they’re a serious threat without a point guard that can energize them with a flick of the wrist.