The road to the FIBA World Cup title still goes through the USA.
Not literally, the tournament in China tipped off today and will be played there through Sept. 15. But the USA is still the team to beat, the heavy favorite. Westgate Sports Book in Las Vegas has the United States at -175 to win the whole thing. Even with all the headlines here focused on who is not playing and the lack of star power, the USA still has the deepest pool of talent on the planet to draw from. This is still a very good team.
But they are vulnerable, to use the word of USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo. Maybe to only a handful of teams, but that is more than in years past.
Who are those handful of teams that could knock off Team USA? Here are the top five.
Led by Nikola Jokic, and with Bogdan Bogdanovic on the wing, Serbia has been the second-best team in the world for at least five years now. They picked up silver medals at the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics. The Serbians are talented, deep, experienced, and they have the chemistry of a team that has been playing together for years, which is why the oddsmakers have them at just 2-1 to win it all. Milos Teodosic is sitting this one out and they will miss his playmaking, but Jokic’s passing will keep the offense moving. There are questions about the Serbian defense, but this team has the best shot at knocking off Team USA — and getting revenge for those silver medals.
Why is Greece a threat to beat the USA and win it all? Two words: Giannis Antetokounmpo.
For the first time in a long time, the best player in an international tournament will not be an American. The NBA MVP has some good talent around him, such as former NBA player Nick Calathes (a quality point guard who can set up the Greek shooters), but in the end it’s all about Antetokounmpo. Every team that faces Greece has to ask, “who do we have who can slow him?” Team USA does not have a good answer to that question.
No team epitomizes the chemistry of a group that has played together for years — in the case of some members of the Spanish team, decades — than Spain. After the USA beat them in an exhibition a couple of weeks ago, Donovan Mitchell marveled at how Spain did not call plays at the end of the game, but rather would just point or even nod and every player knew what to do next. They also have talent — Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez, Juan Hernangomez, Willy Hernangomez, Sergio Llull, and more. This team is older and — with some key players sitting this one out — lacks athleticism, but they are still a threat on the international stage.
They are anchored in the paint by the two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, which would make matchups against Antetokounmpo and the Greeks or Kemba Walker/Mitchell and the Americans interesting. France also has talent on the perimeter such as Evan Fournier and Frank Ntilikina. This should be a stout defensive team that will struggle a little to score, but they are sleepers to win the whole thing.
They have already beaten the Americans once. Granted, that was in their home country in front of 52,000 rabid fans on a night Patty Mills got red hot, but still they did it.
And three years ago in the Olympics, the Australians pushed the USA, losing by 10 to a stacked American squad that needed a late-game burst from Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony to pull away a little. There is talent on the roster including Joe Ingles and Andrew Bogut, but the Boomers are considered a longshot to win it all. That said, we know they are capable of beating Team USA.