Running down the Olympic field

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Running down the Olympic field

As the Olympics are set to kick of in few days, it’s time to look at the field and separate the contenders from those who are just happy to be there. As per usual, the US team is the prohibitive favorite but there are more than a few teams who could take from them their birthright as the world’s best basketball team.

 

Angola

It’s not that the Angolans are a bad basketball team but in this competition they are just a bit outclassed. While being the dominant force in African basketball since the late 1980’s (they have won nine of the last ten African championships), they have never finished higher than tenth at the Olympics.

 

The team draws all its players from just two Angolan basketball clubs so this team really is not in that good of shape talent wise. The only real positive is that Angola has finished in the top 11 in the last two world basketball championships.

 

Best case finish: Tenth place, this team making it to the medal round would be a bigger miracle than the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team.

 

Argentina

Only three nations have ever hoisted the gold medal in basketball, The United States, The USSR and, of course, Argentina. What’s more, the Argentines are still the defending gold medal winners after beating the US in the 2004 semi-finals.

 

This team boasts some serious NBA firepower with Luis Scola, Fabricio Oberto, Andrés Nocioni and Manu Ginóbili, whose status is questionable after an ankle injury. Losing point guard Pepe Sanchez will hurt but Pablo Prigioni is more than capable of picking up the extra minutes.

 

There is little youth coming up for the Argentines so they will rely on the same players who were veterans during the 2004 run.

 

Scola and Oberto are both good bigs in the international game with their ability to hit jumpers, make unselfish passes and do all the cutting, screen-setting and rolling that their offense will generally require. The key however will be how Ginóbili plays and if time has not yet caught up to this older team.

 

Best case finish: Gold, they’ve done it before but will need to ride their starters into the ground to do it again.

 

Croatia

This it not close to the old Croatian teams which threw waves of NBA talent onto the court. No, this squad features one NBA player and came to the Olympics with a sixth place finish in the Eurobasket tournament and then earned second place in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

 

The Croats are a high scoring guard oriented team that relies on a high volume of 3-point shooting. Some of their top players include 3-point bomber Marko Popovic, deft ball-handler Roko Ukic, scoring swingman Marko Tomas and Zoran Planinic, a solid point guard with NBA experience.

 

While they lack star power this team has shown some spunk upsetting Spain last summer. Their

draw pits them against Iran and Australia to advance past pool play as Argentina, Lituania and Russia will almost assuredly advance to the medal round.

 

Best case finish: Get to the medal round and maybe get a quarterfinal win with an extremely good draw. This team lacks the firepower to compete with the upper echelon teams.

 

 

Lithuania

The old guard of international basketball, Lithuania has been in every Olympic consolation game since it left the Soviet Unionand won three bronze medals. They still have a fair amount of talent but injuries have taken some key players out of the lineup.

 

Scoring guard Arvydas Macijauskas and forward Darius Songaila have been important parts of this team for several years but won’t play in Beijing. They still have players like Euroleague MVP Ramūnas Šiškauskas, a trio of good big men (Robertas Javtokas, and brothers Darjus and Kšyštof Lavrinovič) and star point guard Šarūnas Jasikevičius.

 

The biggest concerns for this team rest on ball handling and the play of Jasikevičius. Against the US, Lithuania struggled in even bringing the ball up the court and were constantly under duress.

Jasikevičius was a top international scorer for a long time but has not scored nearly as consistently in his last two tournaments. He will need to find that scoring ability again if the Lithuanians have much hope of medaling.

 

The Lituanians played in nine pre-Olympic friendlies beating Argentina and Turkey but losing to the US and Spain by an average of more than 30 points.

 

Best case finish: A bronze medal, there is not much hope for winning more than a few games in the knockout round.

 

Iran

This is another one of those teams that draws mostly from local leagues and as such will likely not be particularly competitive. They got to the Olympics by winning the FIBA Asia championship and were beneficiaries of the fact that the Chinese team played none of its top players and finished 10th.

 

Samad Bahrami is a 6’7” swing man who is the best Iranian player and Hamed Sohrabnejad is their undersized shooting power forward. Center Hamed Hadadi, who is 7’2”, gives Iran some inside punch and will likely be playing in the NBA soon. He however could miss some games after suffering an ankle injury in an exhibition against China.

 

Aside from those three, Iranmostly boasts a fleet of guards under 6’4”, some of the shoot-first variety and some pass-first. They did beat a Serbian team with some name players in a pre-Olympic tournament but also got destroyed by China.

 

An interesting fact is that Iran has had 18 coaches since 1981 who have hailed from Iran, the USSR, Russia, Serbia, Nigeria and the United States.

 

Best case finish: Ninth, in a few years this squad could develop into an decent international team but now they are too young and a short on talent.

 

Russia

Entering this competition, I pegged this team as a wildcard which could make some noise. If their play against the US was any indication, this team has the tools to do just that.

 

They are coached by American David Blatt, one of the best coaches in Europe, who played his college ball for Princeton’s Pete Carril. His team upset Spain and Greeceon the way to the Eurobasket championship in 2007.

 

The big three players for Team Russia are forward Andrei Kirilenko, guard J.R. Holden, an American who picked up Russian citizenship after finding a home on top club team CSKA Moscow, and forward Viktor Khryapa, a talented player with range who just finished a four year stint in the NBA.

 

The rest of the roster is filled out by role players, many also from CSKA, including Sasha Kaun who was a member of the NCAA Champion Kansas Jayhawks last season. The Russian offense is relatively complex with a lot of off-ball cutting and screening that can exploit defenses which don’t maintain focus. There defense is a matchup zone which is a sort of zone-man hybrid.

 

The biggest question for the Russians is the health of Khryapa. He has a ligament injury in his ankle and his presence on the floor gives them more offensive options and flexibility. Without him, Kirilenko and Holden shoulder more of the offense, a burden which will reduce their effectiveness.

 

Best case finish: Silver medal, they have good coaching and a good system but their overall talent level means that they probably won’t be able to pull enough upsets to earn gold.

 

China

The past Chinese teams have usually struggled because of a fundamental flaw. They have usually been one man shows.

 

This year might be a bit of an exception since Yi Jianlian and Sun Yue have developed into somewhat decent second a third options, but the team will once again really revolve around the talents of massive center Yao Ming.

 

Team Chinadoes have a number of good shooters on its roster (Wang Zhizhi, Zhu Fangyu) and a fair amount of height (three 7-footers). They however do struggle mightily on defense and have an underwhelming collection of guards, whose biggest flaw is that ability to handle the ball.

 

Their offense will probably around getting the ball to Yao and allowing him to work for shots or find one of the many shooters on the team if the defense concentrates on him.

 

Their draw will do them no favors as they will play Spain, the US and Greece, three teams that love to run the full-court press and could wreak havoc on the Chinese back court. The only hope for China is that Yao plays huge (like 30 points and 15 boards per game) and facilitates by finding open shooters who then hit at a ridiculously high clip.

 

Best case finish: Getting to the medal round. The only way they do this is but finishing ahead of Germany. It’s a long shot but they have an outside chance of doing it.

 

Germany

Another team that suffered from “one man show syndrome,” the Germans have added a second real player in LA Clippers center Chris Kaman. This now makes them a two man show with Kaman, Dirk Nowitzki and a big drop-off after that.

 

Kaman is a very good low post scorer who will block shots while Nowitzki is a multi-talented scoring/rebounding/shooting/offensive machine. Their rest of the roster is mostly filled with mediocre Eruoleague players. The team does boast six players 6’10” or taller (many who try to mimic Dirk’s perimeter game) but beyond that there is not much good to say about this team.

 

The only real story coming out about this German squad is the mini-controversy about Kaman joining the team even though he had never actually been to Germany. It really isn’t that big a deal. He wants to go to the Olympics, they want him, it really hurts no one, so just let him play and stop calling him a traitor. 

 

Best case finish: The Quarterfinals, they need to be better than China to get out of pool play. Two stars are better than one so they probably make it. Beating Lithuania, Russia or Argentina in the quarterfinals is not as likely.

 

Australia

There was the concern with this team that the coaches would rely on Andrew Bogut like the Chinese do on Yao and ultimate face an early exit. After their performance against team USA it’s clear that the Aussie coaches do know what they’re doing.

 

The Australian team, often called the Boomers, is constructed relatively simply. Bogut is the centerpiece and he is surrounded by talented complementary players.

 

In the front court boasts Euroleaguers Matthew Nielsen and David Anderson (one pf the best big men on the old continent) as well as former NBA player Chris Anstey. Anderson, Bogut and Anstey are all capable of steeping out and hitting jumpers from the international three-point line as well as fighting for rebounds and scoring in the post.

 

Many have criticized their backcourt but there really is some talent there. C.J.Bruton can run the show, feed the post and the like, while Patrick Mills had a great game against the USdespite not hitting jumpers. Brad Newley is a nice slasher from the 3 spot and he is backed up by a plethora of players who seem to fit well in the offense, hitting a few open shots, making the right cut and other things that make the action run smoother.

 

They run a variation of the Princton offense to perfection and simply pack the lane on defense, a ploy that pushed the US out of its comfort zone. The precise offense created a lot of open looks against the stronger, faster US squad.

 

The biggest asset the Aussies have however is attitude. They don’t back down from anyone and are not shy about knocking people around. They were in no way intimidated by the American talent and let them know it throughout the game.

 

Best case finish: The bronze medal game. They have the talent and coaching for a sustained run but will need to jump Russia, Lithuania or Argentina to avoid a quarterfinals game against the US, Spain or Greece which they would almost surely lose.

 

Greece

Depth, defense and great point guard play are the characteristics of a Greek team that made a name for itself by knocking off the US in the 2006 World Basketball championships. The team comes to being with a more experience and a few minor alterations as one of the top contenders.

 

Gone from the 2006 squad is dreadnaught center Lazaros Papadopoulos. In his stead is a three headed monster at the center spot. Ioannis Bouroussis provides shot blocking and defense while Kostas Tsartsaris can shoot and provide finesse scoring. Sofoklis Schortsanitis brings power post scoring, is excellent in the pick-and-roll and uses his 375 pounds to set some very solid screens.

 

Antonis Fotsis is a supremely talented power forward who can shoot, score and rebound and Panagiotis Vasilopoulos plays the role of defensive menace. The best scoring guard on the team is slashing guard Vasileios Spanoulis who spent time in the NBA and has improved his long range shooting tremendously in the last two years.

 

The best part of this team is its point guard unit which ranks with the US and Spainas the best in this world. Dimitris Diamantidis is a tall point guard known for his tenacious defense (he blocked a Tim Duncan shot in an exhibition) and can effectively play both guard spots.

 

The best Greek player is veteran Theodoros Papaloukas who at 6’7” can play the one, two and three spots and is considered one of the best players not in the NBA. His 12 assists helped slay the USin 2006 and he will likely cause matchup issues against smaller American players.

 

In terms of style the Greeks can throw a lot at opponents. They play great defense and, with the departure of Papadopoulos, can now employ more aggressive presses. They also are running more (in the past they reserved running for key games like facing the US) and are no slouches in the half-court either.

 

The Greeks crushed everyone they faced in the qualifying tournament, winning every game by at least 20 points. One of the biggest edges Greece has is the ability to slow the game down and force top teams like the US and Spain out of their comfort zones.

 

Also, Fran Fraschilla call them the best team in the world, emphasizing team every time he says it. What this means for them is beyond me, but it is worth noting.

 

Best case finish: Gold, this is the best defensive team in Beijingand has proven that they can hang with the Americans.

 

Spain

Talent is the key for this team as they have the second most in the Olympics behind Team USA. They simply boast a bevy of current former and future NBA players, many whose games are built for international play.

 

They like to play fast, relying on aggressive zones and presses to force turnovers. They key for the team, however, is just how loaded they are at every position.

 

Swingman Rudy Fernández is a pure scorer and with guard Juan Carlos Navarro give Spain penetrating ability and shooting.

 

Felipe Reyes, Jorge Garbajosa and the Gasol brothers are a versatile front court which will be important against the smaller US power forwards. Pau Gasol is a force in the post but Garbajosa may be the key as his ability to run pick-and-pops and post skills will cause fits for opposing power forwards.

 

Many are keeping and eye on Ricky Rubio, a young point guard who may go first in the 2009 draft, since he can make eye-popping plays. José Calderón’s performance, however, will be much more important as he will be trusted to run the offense against a slew of aggressive defenses.

 

If, against the US, he can show the same care with the ball (i.e. few turnovers) that he did in the NBA, it could be game changing because the Americans rely heavily on running after turnovers. Take away those takeaways and the US scoring machine will sputter badly.

 

This team got to Beijing with wins over Greece and Argentina in the World Basketball championship.  Their last Olympic trip was a nightmare as they went 5-0 in pool play with wins over gold and silver medal winners Argentina and Italy but were upset by a 3-2 US team in the quarter finals.

 

Best case finish: Gold, they have the talent, but do they have the will and the coaching to get it done?

 

USA

Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

 

For the US team that crown is the expectation of this team’s destiny. They are expected to beat every team like they are Angola. Any moment of weakness is jumped on as a sign that they are not as good as their predecessors and why America is falling behind in its own game.

 

Gold is seen as this team’s birthright and few teams before have dealt more with a situation where second place is indeed first loser.

 

Is this fair? Probably not. But the team seemed to take it as a challenge, calling themselves the “Redeem Team” and promising to reclaim gold and the superiority that comes with it. Our game can be ours for another four years before the world comes after it again.

 

The newest question for them is about the construction of the team. Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer were added because they were skilled power forwards, but then LeBron and Carmelo Anthony where played at the four spot.

 

Only one shot blocker (Dwight Howard) was taken to Beijing but after a few games it seems that more shot blocking is needed since this team tries so frequently to jump passing lanes.

 

This team as it is currently built plays smaller than its predecessors but is also more versatile. It still doesn’t run much of an offense but there is usually more patience in forcing the zones to move and looking for holes instead of driving blindly into three or for opponents. A large number of their points come from runouts and open court plays made after turnovers, block and even made baskets.

 

The addition of Michael Redd provides the dead eye shooting the US lacked in 2004 and has already shown a feel for finding open spots in the perimeter of zones.

 

Defensively this team is as it always is, not adapting to opposing offenses but looking for quick takeaways to feed the running machine. At times in the exhibition season they used their size and strength to throw off cutters, harass dribblers and disrupt rather than gamble. If coach K can harness that and apply it consistently, the US will be much further on its path to gold.

 

With players like Kobe Bryant, James, Anthony, Wade, Chris Paul and Howard the US should be the favorite and rightly is. It’s still a Tiger Woods situation, the US against the field. The difference is that there are three knockout round games the US needs to win.

 

They control their own destiny in that they will likely be better in terms of talent than any team they face. One slip up, however, and the humiliation and questions abound for another four years.

 

Best case finish: Gold. It’s not reasonable that this team will be considered a failure with anything less than domination but that’s the way it is.

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