It's not as big an international tournament as the FIFA World Cup, or the basketball tournament at the Summer Olympics even. But the FIBA World Cup still has plenty of strong teams, superstars and intriguing storylines to follow.
Below, we'll break down the top three contenders for this year's title. Spoiler alert—two of them are the United States and Spain. But c'mon, you already knew that.
Most of the focus for this team has been on the players who aren't appearing, and for good reason.
The United States won't feature LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul George, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony, essentially leaving home more talent than arguably any other country possesses in the first place.
But this is no weak collection of talent. Anthony Davis is the NBA's next great star. Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose give the team two world-class point guards. Steph Curry is one of the best shooters in the world. James Harden is an irrepressible scorer. No team can match the talent the Americans have on the perimeter.
But Davis is the key. His athleticism and ability to score down low or stretch opposing big men out to the perimeter makes him the ultimate mismatch. His coach certainly thinks he'll be a handful for the United States opponents, per Beckley Mason of The New York Times:
'The separator is he has unbelievable feet,' [Mike] Krzyzewski said. 'He was a point guard at one time, and he can move his feet. He’s smart, and he wants to do it. He makes multiple plays during an exchange. He’s unusual.'
As pick-and-roll continues to be the fundamental action of almost every NBA offense, Davis’s odd skills make him a prototype: a player who can flash to the rim and dunk like a hyperathletic center, or step out and shoot as the typically less mobile stretch forwards do. Defensively, he can slide with smaller guards or challenge the toughest finishers at the rim.
He's the trump card for this United States team. Few squads will be able to match up with them on the perimeter, sure, but just as few will be able to deal with Davis.
Yes, the United States still has the most overall talent in this tournament and deserves to be the favorites, but Spain is pretty darn loaded, too. Serge Ibaka, Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol give the Spanish the advantage down on the block against anyone they face, while Ricky Rubio pulling the strings at point guard gives the team both flair and a touch of unpredictability.
And let's not forget about Jose Calderon and Rudy Fernandez. This Spanish side has a distinct advantage down low, sure, but they are a pretty balanced side elsewhere, too. This is a crafty, veteran side.
Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated feels they'll easily be the United States' biggest test in this tournament if they meet:
The very threat of playing this team altered the makeup of Team USA's roster, yet even specific preparation might not be enough to fully handle Spain's interior strength. Kenneth Faried is woefully undersized against either of the Gasols, but any move toward a bigger lineup (say, featuring Anthony Davis alongside one of DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond or Mason Plumlee) could take away from the speed and energy that characteristically fuels USA Basketball's full-court attack. Spain, then, is the one opponent capable of putting the most talented squad in the tournament at a disadvantage: Team USA can try to adapt while betraying its own stylistic bent or stay true to its usual form while withstanding whatever bludgeoning the Gasols can muster. That choice could come to define the tournament.
Indeed, Spain are the team that should be in the final. And indeed, few people will be terribly shocked if Spain wins the whole thing. Perhaps a fully loaded United States side would dismiss Spain more easily, but the squad as presently constructed will have a battle to be the Spanish.
With France missing Tony Parker and Joakim Noah and Argentina going without Manu Ginobili, Brazil looks like the most likely contender to crack the final if Spain doesn't make it.
They have good size in Tiago Splitter, Nene and Anderson Varejao, and Leandro Barbosa has been around the block a few times. Sure, it would be shocking if they upset Spain and the United States, but they seem the most likely to pull of the feat.
Will it happen? I wouldn't bet on it—this seems like a two-team tournament. But with those big ol' trees on the block, Brazil has a shot.