Preview and Predictions for Tokyo Olympics Men's Basketball Tournament
The Tokyo Olympic Games will have a new format for basketball.
In years past, 12 teams competed in two groups before the knockout stage. This year, the 12 teams will compete in three groups, reducing the number of guaranteed games from five to three. Two third-place teams will qualify for the knockout stage to have an eight-team tournament. It will take six wins to guarantee a gold medal in this year's Olympics.
International play features some rule differences that the average NBA fan should know. There's no rule preventing players from staying in the paint for more than three seconds, which means regular zone defense is permitted. It also takes five personal fouls to foul out instead of six. Technicals are considered a personal foul, so Draymond Green needs to be careful.
The goaltending rule is slightly different, too. The ball still cannot be touched when it is coming down, but it can be knocked off the rim, which would be called goaltending in the NBA. Finally, a timeout can only be called when there is a stoppage of play and only by the coach.
The game is more free-flowing and is officiated much differently than in the NBA. A lot of the normal fouls a player might draw in the NBA will not be called in the Olympics.
Now that we have the housekeeping out of the way, let's assess the three groups and predict how this year's men's Olympic basketball event will play out.
Iran, France, USA, Czech Republic
In this group, Team USA is the favorite. It will have a shot to make up for its seventh-place finish at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, although this is not the best team that the United States has sent to the Olympics in recent years.
Although Team USA lost its first two exhibition games, a roster headlined by Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard is too talented to get knocked out in the group stage. Now that the NBA Finals are over, Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday will join the squad to provide some backcourt reinforcements.
Team USA showed its pathway to victory in its final exhibition against Spain. It played lockdown defense, got out in transition and moved the ball in the half court. If Team USA uses this blueprint, it will be tough to beat.
Team USA's size—or lack thereof—is the biggest concern. Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green will handle the majority of the center minutes. JaVale McGee was a late addition to the squad, but he will likely see spot minutes.
Team USA might not be perfect, but it has loads of scorers from Durant and Lillard to Jayson Tatum and Zach LaVine. It will be a difficult team to defend throughout the Olympics.
This is not the easiest group. France is loaded with NBA talent on its roster, including Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier and Nicolas Batum. The Czech Republic is sneaky good, too. Iran is the fourth team in the group, but it will be hard-pressed to pick up a win.
France knocked out the USA in the World Cup and is returning most of that roster to Tokyo. But it struggled in its three exhibition games before the Olympics, including an 81-75 loss to Japan. The Czech Republic upset a loaded Canadian team in the qualifying tournament. It can get hot from deep, having shot 40 percent on three-pointers in that tournament.
The biggest question is whether the United States' depth to start the tournament will put it in a hole. Only eight players made the initial flight to Japan, as Holiday, Middleton and Booker were playing in the NBA Finals and LaVine stayed back because of COVID-19 protocols. (LaVine did join the team in Tokyo on Thursday.)
Winning that first game in pool play is critical. If Team USA isn't at full strength, the remaining rotation players will be under extra strain.
Group A Prediction
Right off the bat, the two best teams in the group will square off. The winner of France vs. Team USA will have a leg up on winning the group, while the loser of that game will have some work to do.
The Czech Republic should ease into the tournament with a game against Iran. This means it will have a chance to catch either the French or American squad on an off night and slide into second place.
Ultimately, talent should win out with the USA winning the group and France holding off the Czech Republic to advance to the knockout stage.
Australia, Germany, Italy, Nigeria
This year will be Australia's best chance to win its first Olympic medal in basketball. It finished fourth in the 2019 FIBA World Cup after losing to France in the third-place game. Heading into the Olympics, Australia is ranked third in the FIBA World Ranking.
The Boomers are loaded with seven NBA players, including Patty Mills and Joe Ingles. They also added Matisse Thybulle, who is making his national team debut. Australia might be a little light at center with Andrew Bogut retiring, but Aron Baynes and Jock Landale can hold down the fort there.
In an exhibition before the Olympics, the Boomers beat Team USA fairly comfortably, and they won a thriller against Argentina behind a Mills game-winning three. Beyond shooters like Ingles and Mills, Australia also has Chris Goulding, who shot nearly 39 percent from deep in the NBL last season. The Boomers should be able to defend, especially with Thybulle flying around and causing chaos.
This Australia roster has been together for a long time. Ingles and Mills are on their fourth Olympic team, Baynes and Matthew Dellavedova are making their third appearance, and Goulding is on his second team. The team has the experience and talent to take home a medal, if not win the whole thing.
Italy qualified for the Olympics by upsetting Serbia. The Italians even got a boost with Danilo Gallinari joining them after the Atlanta Hawks' playoff run ended. The name to watch is Simone Fontecchio, who led the team in the qualifying tournament with 19.7 points while shooting 53.8 percent from three and 57.7 percent from two.
The German national team will be heading to the Olympics without its best player, Dennis Schroder. Germany was still able to qualify for the tournament behind Moe Wagner's 14.3 points and Johannes Voigtmann's 8.0 rebounds. Without Schroder, someone will have to take over as a facilitator for this squad.
The Nigerian Olympic team made a big splash in its exhibition games. It upset Team USA with a three-point win and routed Argentina. Although none of the Nigerians' record NBA players are stars, they do boast several rotation players like Josh Okogie and Jahlil Okafor. This team's trajectory is pointing up.
The biggest X-factor in this group will be experience. The Aussies have a ton, but this is Italy's first Olympics since 2004 and Germany's first since 2008. Even though Nigeria played in 2016, it has since overhauled its roster, so this is a new team going to the Olympics. How these three teams handle playing in their first Olympic Games may determine which one advances to the knockout round.
Group B Prediction
Australia should win this group fairly easily, as it has the most talent and experience on its side. A 3-0 run in the group stage should be expected.
The other spot will come down to how quickly the other three teams get acclimated to the Olympic environment. When push comes to shove, Germany and Italy will not be able to match Nigeria's athleticism and speed. The Nigerians will finish second, with their lone loss coming from the Australians. The Italians will finish third in the group, while Germany will be heading home.
Argentina, Japan, Spain, Slovenia
The 2019 World Cup champion Spanish national team is the favorite in this group. The Spaniards are bringing back seven players from that team and are adding the 41-year old Pau Gasol. The core of this team has been together since the 2008 Olympics and has won two silvers and a bronze medal.
This Spanish team is stacked with talent. Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio and the Hernangomez brothers are all current NBA players. They also have former NBA players such as Pau, Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez, Victor Claver and Alex Abrines.
This could be the last run for this core to come away with the gold medal. No country can compete with the level of chemistry Spain has. With so many games under their belt, the Spaniards have an understanding of exactly who they are and how to play with one another.
With that continuity, Spain is one of the best teams in this field.
Argentina is led by a completely jacked 41-year old Luis Scola and Facundo Campazzo. This squad always plays hard and has the ability to grind out games. The Argentines have a lot of young talent on the rise such as Gabriel Deck and Luca Vildoza, both of whom signed with NBA teams toward the end of the 2020-21 season.
Slovenia is headlined by Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks. He averaged 21.3 points, 11.3 assists and 8.0 rebounds in the Olympic qualifying tournament. This squad shot 46.2 percent from three during that tournament. The Slovenians will spread the floor and let Doncic cook.
Host nation Japan is riding high after beating Belgium and France in exhibition games leading up to the Olympics. Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe will lead the way for the team. In the win over France, Hachimura put up 19 points and seven rebounds, while Watanabe scored 18 points and pulled down nine boards.
For this group, the biggest question is which style will win out.
Slovenia will lean heavily on Doncic to set everyone up and score, much in the same way he plays in Dallas. Japan will depend on its top two players to help carry the rest of the team despite its lack of shooting. Spain and Argentina both play a more system-based offense that will depend on everyone doing their part to keep everything humming.
This is the toughest group of the three. Spain beat Argentina in the 2019 FIBA World Cup final, while Slovenia won EuroBasket in 2017.
Group C Prediction
Spain will win the group, with Argentina finishing second. Spain won the World Cup final by 20 points, and its size will overwhelm Argentina.
Slovenia has a chance to make things exciting if Doncic catches fire, but with Goran Dragic retiring from international basketball, he will be missing another guard to share the load with. Japan will put up a valiant effort, but it is not ready to compete at this level yet.
Best Third-Place Finishers
In this year's Olympic format, the top two third-place finishers among the three groups will move into the knockout stage.
Thanks to Doncic, Slovenia will likely earn one of those two spots.
The other team will be Italy, who will just narrowly miss out on finishing second thanks to its competition being slightly weaker.
That leaves the Czech Republic on the outside looking in after two tough games against France and the United States, both of which could be blowouts.
NBA Scouting Opportunities
There will be some interesting players to keep an eye on throughout the Olympics.
Campazzo burst onto the scene with stellar play in the 2019 World Cup and ended up signing with the Denver Nuggets ahead of last season. This will also be many fans' first look at Deck and Vildoza, who signed toward the end of the season with the Oklahoma City Thunder and New York Knicks, respectively.
Australian Josh Giddey is projected to be a lottery pick in this year's draft. He is a 6'8" point guard with great vision but not a great shot. With how stacked the Boomers are, he may only get spot minutes in his first Olympic Games.
Another name to keep an eye on is Spain power forward Usman Garuba. He stands at 6'8" with a reported 7'3" wingspan, per ESPN's Jonathan Givony. He is a good rim protector and has the ability to switch onto guards in the pick-and-roll. His defense is ahead of his offensive game, but he projects to go anywhere from the late lottery to the 20s in this year's draft.
Knockout Round Prediction
If the groups play out as suggested above, the United States, France, Australia, Nigeria, Spain, Argentina, Slovenia and Italy will enter the knockout phase. The bracket for the knockout stage will be drawn on Aug. 2 to determine the pairings.
Look for Australia to beat Argentina in the bronze-medal game for its first-ever medal in Olympic basketball.
The gold-medal game will pair up two old foes, Spain and the United States. It will be the third time in four Olympics that both reach the finals. Although Spain has the size to bother Team USA, it will not be able to hang with the speed of the Americans, who will bring the gold medal home for a fourth straight time in a tough Olympics.
Tournament MVP Prediction
The tournament MVP will come down to Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard. If Team USA wins the gold, it will be behind the stellar play of both stars.
The nod will go to Durant, who will be Team USA's go-to scorer in crunch time. There are few Olympic teams equipped to defend Durant's size, shooting ability and athleticism, and he will exploit those mismatches when needed.