The FIBA Basketball World Cup was advertised as a two-team race, and it has lived up to that billing through the midway point of the group stage.
Both Team USA and Spain boast 3-0 records and a combined average margin of victory of 32.2 points. A seemingly inevitable championship clash has never felt more solidified.
That's not to suggest, however, that everything has gone according to the script. These look like the top two teams in this field, but not everyone agrees how the perennial powers should be ordered:
In some respects, that may not sound surprising.
After all, these two teams collided in the gold-medal game of each of the previous two Olympics. Seeing two superpowers collectively rise above the rest feels like a natural process under the survival-of-the-fittest aspect of international competition.
Yet history says this is far from natural. Mike Krzyzewski's 68-1 record as Team USA's coach highlights the sizable gap that should be sitting between his squad and everyone else.
Despite an eye-opening 114-55 dismantling of Finland in its tournament debut, the U.S. hasn't completely separated itself from the pack. In fact, one could argue rather easily Spain has had the stronger showing so far, spotlighting the potential problems it can pose to Team USA:
"Given their home-court advantage and superior chemistry (from having played as a team much more often), it's fair to call Spain the tournament favorites over the team that hasn't lost since 2006," wrote NBA.com's John Schuhmann.
After watching Spain steamroll to an 82-63 win Monday over Brazil—a team brimming with NBA talent in Nene, Tiago Splitter, Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa—it's hard to argue with Schuhmann's point.
It is fair to label the host nation as such.
But there's a difference between fair and correct. And despite Spain's strong start, it's wrong to dub any team the favorite other than the reigning champs.
"The way they play so aggressively, they can pressure the whole court," Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic, competing for Slovenia, told reporters about Team USA. "They can beat anyone."
It should be expected to beat everyone, although its road to the top may be rockier than usual.
The American roster isn't as overloaded with household names as it has been in recent years. Only two players (Anthony Davis and James Harden) returned from the 2012 Olympic team, and assumed team leaders Kevin Durant (fatigue) and Kevin Love (potential distraction amid trade talks) both withdrew from the roster.
Krzyzewski and his staff have been forced to make adjustments on the fly. The 21-year-old Davis became Krzyzewski's "main guy" on the interior, via Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune. Harden was thrust into the vacant leadership role.
"Right now, I think I would look to Harden as that leader," USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said, via Michael Lee of The Washington Post. "Harden is kind of a natural leader and he seems to be willing to accept that role. And you can just kind of feel it and sense. He's the one."
This shuffling of roles and roster spots has presented a number of chemistry issues. While the talent level is high enough to rise above them in read-and-react transition chances—six of these players led their NBA teams in scoring last season, after all (not including former MVP Derrick Rose)—the problems have occasionally surfaced in clunky half-court sets.
That, along with a wavering focus, led to the U.S. looking more vulnerable against Turkey on Sunday than Spain has at any point in the tournament. Turkey carried a 40-35 edge into intermission before the U.S. found its rhythm in the second half and skated to a 98-77 win.
"I think we didn't come ready to play in the first half and we can't afford to do that if we want to win a gold medal," Davis told reporters after the game. "So we've got to come out ready to play no matter who we're playing against."
It could prove to be a valuable lesson for Team USA, but it's one that a veteran team like Spain doesn't need.
So much attention has been (rightfully) paid to the size of the Spanish frontcourt—led by the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka—but Spain's advantage in terms of experience and the cohesion it creates might be even more impactful.
While the U.S. has been bogged down in the half court, the Spaniards have often executed with a championship-level crispness:
Through three games, Spain has assisted on 61 of its 95 field goals (64.2 percent). To put those numbers into perspective, only two NBA teams had a higher assist percentage last season, via NBA.com. And those teams, remember, have a full training camp and an 82-game schedule to fine-tune their offensive systems.
The U.S., meanwhile, has compiled a 53.0 assist percentage over its first three games. That number would have trailed all but two NBA teams last season.
Spain also might have the tournament's most impressive player to this point in four-time All-Star Pau Gasol. The 34-year-old shredded Brazil's talented frontcourt for 26 points (on 11-of-15 shooting), nine rebounds and three blocks his last time out.
Gasol is leading all World Cup scorers with 23.7 points per game and shooting a scorching 65.1 percent from the field. Davis, USA's top scorer, has gone for 19 points per contest.
Why, then, does the U.S. still enjoy an on-paper edge over Spain? For a couple different reasons, actually.
This team—USA's youngest since 1992—has already established itself among the elites and still has room for growth. The more minutes it plays together, the better this offense will flow. Given the pedigree of these players and this coaching staff, this group is too talented not to progress.
There are also the familiar themes that arise during every international competition: Teams can't match the U.S.' combination of length and athleticism. It's easy to game-plan against giveaways. Actually preventing Cirque du Soleil fast breaks once this sea of arms start swarming is an entirely different beast.
Team USA's roster also features an extraordinary amount of depth. Some countries struggle to get any NBA talent on the floor. NBA building blocks like DeMar DeRozan, DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond struggle to see the floor for the U.S.
Spain has the pieces to compete with or even knock off the U.S. A win for the host nation wouldn't qualify as shocking, but it would go down as an upset.
The distance between the two might be closer than it has been in some time, but Team USA remains the favorite until proved otherwise.
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