The USA is going to win the gold medal in men’s basketball in Rio.
(And in women’s basketball, where we may be even a bigger favorite. But that’s another post.)
There is no need to couch that statement — short of the ship Team USA is staying on in Rio’s port sinking, there is no team in this tournament that can truly challenge the USA’s depth and athleticism. This is not “the 73-win Warriors are going to win the NBA title” confident, this is “the 73-win Warriors need to beat the winner of the West Coast Conference tournament” confident.
Some nations may play better as a team, but this is not 2004 in Athens where the talent gap is close enough that the USA’s moments without cohesion will matter. The Americans do play fairly well as a unit, and they are just vastly more talented than anyone else.
But the Olympic Committee has to give out silver and bronze medals, too. It’s the rules.What other teams could medal?
What other teams could medal? Here are the five teams battling it out for one of those other medals, in reverse order of likelihood. (Note: there are a couple of other teams to watch who have an outside shot to medal — Croatia and Australia.)
5) Argentina. The golden generation of Argentinian basketball won them actual gold in Athens in 2004 — Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto, and Carlos Delfino were part of those teams. The challenge is the much older versions of Ginobili, Scola, and Delfino also have key roles on this team a dozen years later, and the generation that came up behind them simply is not as good. That said, Argentina just beat a good French team in an Olympics tune-up, and they play well as a unit.
4) Serbia. Led by Denver’s Nikola Jokic and other name players — Bogdan Bogdanovic (Sacramento has his rights but he will play in Europe at least another year), Miroslav Raduljica,Nemanja Nedovic, and CSKA Moscow’s point guard Milos Teodosic — Serbia won one of the three qualifying tournaments this summer to get into the Rio games. They are bruising inside and have quality point guard play, but they don’t have great wing play. That said, Teodosic is a challenge for any team to handle and he could lead them to a medal.
3) Lithuania. They have quality big men inside — the Raptors Jonas Valanciunas and the just drafted Domantas Sabonis out of Gonzaga — plus they have a quality point guard in Mantas Kalnietas. More than that, Lithuania has been one of the most consistently strong teams on the international stage for more than a decade. They lack a depth of playmakers and that will be their undoing (that and a not mobile defense), but this is a team that will be difficult to play against and nobody will look good even in beating them.
2) Spain. While Spain’s core talent has gotten older — Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon, Sergio Rodriguez — they still have a lot of it including Willy Hernangomez, Nikola Mirotic, Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navaro, and Ricky Rubio. (They will miss Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.) Spain the defending European champions and won the silver medal the last two Olympics — this team is not as good as those teams, but they still have the talent to get a medal. Spain is going to ask a lot of Pau Gasol, we’ll see if he’s up to it.
1) France. You could interchange France and Spain, but I like what the French bring to this tournament in terms of talent and balance. They have Tony Parker running the point, Nicolas Batum defending on the wing, Boris Diaw as a playmaker at the four, and Rudy Gobert blocking shots in the paint. They have depth with Nando de Colo (MVP of the qualifying tournament), Mickael Gelabale, and Joffrey Lauvergne. This team needs to hit its threes to be a real threat (they should have brought Evan Fournier), and it needs Tony Parker to be the vintage version of himself more than just occasionally. Still, France should get hardware out of Rio.