Basketball at the Beijing Olympics will definitely be a sport to watch out for. With China eager to prove itself in front of the home crowd, the United States sending its best NBA players, and Argentina looking to defend the 2004 gold medal, the competition will be fiercer than ever!
However, as all of us know, the medal podium can only have three teams on it. I consider the following five teams to be the strongest contenders for one of the medals.
1) Argentina: Defending Olympic Champions
The Argentines know how to play tough games at the Olympics. In Athens 2004 opener, they beat Serbia and Montenegro 83-82 at the buzzer. They lost to Italy 75-76 in a group match, only to come back and destroy them in the finals 84-69; and they were victorious against the United States in the semifinals 89-81. In addition, with players such as Manu Ginobili and Fabricio Oberto leading the team, one can be sure that they will get far in the competition.
2) Spain: Current World Champions
The Spaniards dominated the 2006 World Championship in Japan. The only team who came close to defeating them was Argentina in the semifinal (75-74), but in every other game the closest anyone got was 10 (Angola).
Moreover, the Spaniards have only lost two games in the past two years at major tournaments combined (2006 in Japan and then2007 European Championship). The teams who defeated them were Russia and Croatia, with Croatia still having to qualify for the Olympic tournament.
As for the players, the leaders for the Spaniards will certainly be Jose Calderon, Jorge Garbajosa, and Pau Gasol. The trio might turn out to be the most dangerous one we will see on the court.
3) Lithuania: All about team play
With Lithuania, one doesn’t know where the danger is going to come from. They have an incredibly long bench, and their focus is on team play rather than on the individuals. These two factors were the main reasons why they were first at 2005 European Championships, and third in 2007.
Furthermore, ever since 1992, when they started competing as an independent country at the Olympics, the Lithuanians have always made at least the semifinals. They currently hold three bronze medals (1992, 1996, 2000), and one fourth place (2004).
4) United States of America: Dream Team Revisited
Does anybody recall basketball at the 1992 Olympics with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone et al.? Do you remember that the United States beat their opponents by 43.75 points on average? Do you know that Croatia played the “closest” game against the USA at those Games, and ended up losing to the Dream Team 117-85 in the final game? Gosh, wasn’t that the most boring Olympic basketball tournament ever?
But, that was 16 years ago. Now, we will get to see a new lineup, and a new Dream Team in its struggle for the gold in Beijing. It would be redundant to praise the skills of players such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, and the likes because we all know what these guys are capable of.
The United States hasn’t won a gold medal at major tournaments since the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and they are thirsty to reclaim the title of world's best. Will the NBA All-Stars live up (and, play up) to the task? Personally, I can’t wait to see!
5) China: Home Advantage
Chinese basketball has advanced tremendously in the past four years. They made themselves heard at 2004 Athens Olympics, when they defeated Serbia and Montenegro 67-66 in their last group game to advance to the quarterfinals. In 2006 in Japan, they were amongst top 16 teams in the world.
Although they have never won a medal at the Olympic Games, with home court on their side, and several very talented players (Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian, just to name a few), China will be a serious contender for top placement in the tournament.