1. Team USA Is A-Coming: With the Olympics has approaching, we find ourselves again watching another Team USA take a shot at the gold, that has eluded them to varying degrees since 2000. When we examine this issue, we are quick to point out a few things. The idea that the United States hasn’t won the gold isn’t some sort of silly national shame. Rather, the world has improved, the rules of international basketball (shorter court, three point line, and length of game) encourage upsets, and Team USA has made some bad choices. Still, the United States team is obviously the favorite. Here’s a quick look at the notables on the other squads:
–Argentina: They are not quite the same young team they were starting in 2002. The core of Manu Ginobili, Fabricio Oberto, Andres Nocioni, Carlos Delfino, and Frederico Kammerichs are all still here and they are still a tough squad but they are down off their peak in 2004. Kammerichs never made it over to the NBA and under the current economic climate that really has little incentive to even try.
–Australia: Australia usually has a pretty strong team. They just missed out on the bronze in 1996 and 2000 and have a solid gore, even without old standbys like Andrew Gaze and Shane Heal. They have Andrew Bogut, Christ Anstey (the ex-Bull), as well as American ex-pat C.J. Bruton and NBA draftee David Andersen.
–Iran: Jaber Rouzbahani is the only name any of us recognize without doing any research. Rouzbahani is a big guy (7″5) who is a bit lumbering but is obviously effective in clogging the lane on the smaller FIBA court but Iran will be near the bottom of the bracket.
–Lithuania: Lithuania is also removed from its glory days under Arvydas Sabonis but they definitely still have players. Sarunas Jasikevicius has always been a deadly player in this context and Darius Sonagila and Roberta Javtokas make a tough front court.
-Russia: Start your team with Andrei Kirilenko and add in some J.R. Holden, one of the best guards in Europe (and Russia), as well as some live bodies like Victor Khryapa and Sergey Monya (a couple of old Portland draft picks), and you have a team that should be as good as anyone in the bracket outside of Argentina.
–Croatia: The 1992 Croat team might’ve been the best non-U.S. team ever but that was a long time ago. Croatia hasn’t placed a medal since 1994 and hasn’t had too many impact pros since the Dino Radja-Toni Kukoc-Drazen Petrovic days. Now the names are Roko Ukic, a defense first guard who the Raptors just signed, and ex-Net Zoran Planinic. Gordan Giricek obviously would help (as would Nikola Vujcic) but Giricek about sign a big deal and return to Europe (As a side note, Giricek is a somewhat underappreciated player, who worked hard to make an NBA career because he clearly wanted to play against the best players).
–Angola: Those whacky Angolans are back. They’ve made every Olympic game since 1992 (the year Charles Barkley tangled with them famously). While Angola runs basketball in Africa, they’ve been also-rans in the Olympics. Their best finish so far was tenth back in 1992. In FIBA play, Angola had its best finish in 2006 at 3-3. Expect more also-ran status this year.
–China: They actually have the makings of a decent team with Yi Jianlian, Wang Zhizhi, and Yao Ming. Unfortunately, they guard situation is still very weak. China has had problems making an impact even with a player as great as Yao (2-4 in FIBA in 2006). Being in the same bracket as Germany, Spain, and the U.S. won’t help them improve this year either.
–Spain: Spain was the winner in 2006 in Japan and that was no fluke. The team is loaded: Pau Gasol, Rudy Fernandez, Raul Lopez, Juan Carlos Navarro, Jose Calderon, Jorge Garbajosa, and Marc Gasol are all viable NBA players and Pau and Calderon are stars. The U.S. will be in for a battle with Spain in the first round and in the medal round.
–Germany: The team placed very strong in the European Cup. They’ve got perhaps the only player that could start for the U.S. in Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman rediscovering his ancestral roots helps as well. While people like Germany to make a run, I think the group they placed in is just too deep for them to get into the medal round.
–Greece: As if Group B wasn’t tough enough with the U.S., Spain, and Germany, Greece has been a solid team for a while. They don’t have any jaw dropping stars but Theo Papaloukas can shoot, Vassilis Spanoulis is a great guard. Up front, Antonis Fotsis and Sofoklis Schortsianitis can be effective and have beat up the U.S. before.
There are some tough teams in the bracket but I do think this is the year that the U.S. gets back in the gold. Of course, a gold medal is a nice thing to have but it doesn’t mean that the teams will ever be as dominant against the world as they were in the early 1990s but that’s a good thing. Good basketball around the world means better basketball for the NBA.
2. International Ball Historically Speaking: Well we’ve discussed the current squads. But another interesting question is whether countries have historical examples. I thought about this a little bit when I lamented that Croatia has disappeared from the contention since the mid-1990s. Besides the U.S., how well have other teams been able to replace their players with new generations of players. I thought an interesting way to measure this was to see how often the countries placed in the top four since 1992. Here are the results:
Viewing this another way, let’s assign point values to each finish in the top four (i.e. 4 points for each gold, 3 for each silver, etc.) and see how the countries do by a point system:
Obviously the sample size is small but really only Lithuania has shown much continued success over time, with Russia having some occasional good teams. Notably, Yugoslavia has disappeared since the Vlade Divac days have passed. It’ll also be interesting to see where Spanish and Argentinean hoops are in ten years when Dirk and Manu are out of the picture. It seems more likely that they’ll be replaced by stars in new places.