FIBA World Cup: Why Spain's Threat to Team USA Is at an All-Time High

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 4, 2014

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 12:  Pau Gasol #4 of Spain celebrates making a shot during the Men's Basketball gold medal game between the United States and Spain on Day 16 of the London 2012 Olympics Games at North Greenwich Arena on August 12, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

No one needs to tell Team USA how much of a threat Spain poses to its FIBA World Cup championship chances.

The U.S. knows what it's up against. If its uncharacteristically oversized roster didn't give that away, then the history books pulled back the curtain on that "secret."

Spain was the final hurdle Team USA had to clear at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. While the Americans squeaked out narrow wins in each of those matchups (118-107 in 2008, 107-100 four years later), the problems Spain presented were obvious.

Yet close as those contests were, Spain looks even more menacing this time around. A 89-73 win over Serbia completed its perfect 5-0 run through Group A.

In downing Serbia, Spain got another 20 points from Pau Gasol, who continued his run as one of the tournament's most remarkable performers. Marc Gasol chipped in 11 points and eight rebounds, and Juan Carlos Navarro got loose from the perimeter, hitting three triples and scoring 15 on the night.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 5:  Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski of the USA Basketball Men's National Team goes over a play during practice at Palau Sant Jordi on September 5, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

A potential championship meeting between the two FIBA heavyweights feels more certain by the second, and alarms could be sounding on USA's side based on what has transpired.

The U.S. has looked strong to start the tournament, but it was supposed to. Turkey, which pestered the U.S. before a flat second half led to its 21-point defeat, is the only team on USA's schedule ranked among FIBA's top 10 teams. Spain has played two such teams in France (eighth overall) and Brazil (10th) and knocked off both by an average of 21.5 points.

Serbia entered play as the 11th-ranked team, eight spots higher than Team USA's second-toughest opponent, New Zealand.

Considering both the level of competition and the ease with which Spain has disposed of it, it isn't a stretch to say this has been the most impressive team over the first week of play.

In fact, some have taken that stance even further. They now see this tournament as being Spain's to lose:

Whether one accepts that as fact is entirely dependent on perspective. It's a subjective status, and one holding no actual on-court benefit.

What is getting harder to argue, though, is that the gap separating Spain and Team USA is as small as ever.

The U.S. holds its typical advantage in athleticism, but Spain has several edges of its own.

The Spanish squad features 10 players from its 2012 Olympic roster, compared to only two for Team USA (Anthony Davis and James Harden). While the U.S. boasts a number of rising NBA stars on its side, Spain has proven commodities who have worked together before.

As's Sam Smith noted, that experience allows Spain to implement and execute more complex schemes than the U.S. can build during its limited time together:

Spain’s roster is filled with current and former NBA players other than the big men, including Jose Calderon, Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navarro, Sergio Rodriquez, Rudy Fernandez and Victor Claver. More importantly, they have played together and run multiple sets with more player movement and passing than we see with the USA team. They’ll generally place the Gasols at each elbow and run a series of pick and rolls, down screens to free shooters with Navarro and Fernandez three-point threats.

There is almost a poetry to Spain's offensive execution, unlike the single-sentence statements—exclamations in the open court, frustrations when the pace slows—made by the USA.

As Cleveland Cavaliers big man Anderson Varejao, one of three NBA players on Brazil's frontcourt, said after his team suffered an 82-63 loss to Spain on Monday, this team attacks from all angles.

"You can’t just guard one guy," Varejao said, via's John Schuhmann. "The way they move the ball, it’s hard. It’s tough to guard them."

It will take more than incendiary offense to knock off a team employing the likes of James Harden, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving, among others, but that's hardly the lone trick in Spain's bag.

Spain's defense might actually be harder to solve than its all-encompassing offense.

The interior is anchored by former NBA Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol and three-time All-Defensive first-team selection Serge Ibaka. Add Pau Gasol's 7-foot frame to the mix, and dribble penetrations become perilous to the point of teams transforming their offenses to run from the outside in.

Team USA constructed its roster to contend with that size, but as Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney noted, those changes can't guarantee the containment of a skilled, smart, strong Spanish frontcourt:

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 CousinsAndre Drummond or Mason Plumlee) could take away from the speed and energy that characteristically fuels USA Basketball's full-court attack.

There is no such need for experimentation on Spain's side. The Spanish already understand its strengths and can treat these early games for what they are: tuneups.

Older and (presumably) wiser than before, Spain should be able to game-plan based around what has and hasn't worked in past matchups. Its size, shooting and discipline have bothered the U.S. before, and coach Mike Krzyzewski's team doesn't have a LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Kobe Bryant to work his magic.

Spain has all of its key contributors back, plus a raucous home crowd capable of rattling an inexperienced opponent:

Team USA didn't bring its best to this stage. From those the team expected to be without (James, Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, etc.) to the ones the coaches had to race to replace (Durant, Paul George and Kevin Love), its roster casualties could fill an MVP ballot.

It speaks to USA Basketball's depth that it still managed to field such a deep, talented roster, but that doesn't change the fact this looks like Krzyzewski's "B" team.

LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 1: Andre Drummond #25 of the USA White Team handles the basketball against Mason Plumlee #35 of the USA Blue Team during the USA Basketball Showcase at the Thomas & Mack Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on August 1, 201
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Spain, on the other hand, hit its home floor with its best and brightest, along with some revenge to exact.

Prior to the 2012 Olympics, Gasol told (via Steve Buffery of the Toronto Sun), "I think that we can win the tournament."

That confidence, and Spain's chances to stop Team USA on the international stage, has only grown since.

The U.S. has the pieces in place to pull off another tournament win, but the danger posed by Spain has reached an all-time high. These are the top two teams in the world, and finding the slightest separation between them has never been a more strenuous task.