Historically, Olympic gold in men’s basketball has been as American as a cheeseburger with a side of tater tots.
Team USA has dominated Olympic men’s basketball in a dynastic way seen in few sports, having won the gold medal 15 times since the sport was added in 1936. Every other country has combined to win gold four times (including the 1980 USA boycott year).
In Tokyo, the Americans are once again heavy gold medal favorites, but the rest of the world is catching up — there are 37 NBA players in the games outside of Team USA — and the margin for error is much smaller. Can this American team led by Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard — which did not exactly dominate its exhibition games — continue the trend?
Here is a breakdown of the Men’s Olympic Basketball Tournament.
Gold Medal Favorite
Despite the stumbles on the way here — and the loss of Bradley Beal due to the coronavirus — this is still the most talented and deepest team in the tournament. Kevin Durant almost single-handedly beat the Bucks and looked like the best player on the planet, and now he takes on the international stage with Damian Lillard as his running mate. The roster is loaded with All-Stars such as Jayson Tatum and Zach LaVine on the wing, Bam Adebayo at center, and scorers like Jerami Grant or stoppers like Draymond Green off the bench. How much the three guys who just played in the Finals — Devin Booker, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday — will help against France in the opener remains to be seen (they landed in Tokyo less than 24 hours before that game), but by the medal round they will be part of the rotation.
The USA team we saw in the second half against Spain — one that uses its athleticism advantage, pressures on defense then runs on turnovers and misses, one that moves the ball in the halfcourt — wins gold. However, if the USA relaxes too much on defense or devolves into hero ball on offense, teams in this tournament can beat them. Will the Americans play as a team after just being thrown together less than a month ago? That’s the challenge for Gregg Popovich and staff.
A good test for Team USA right out of the gate against France (their toughest game in Group A). The winner of that game controls the group.
Teams expecting a medal (maybe gold)
They finished fourth in Rio, then fourth at the World Cup, and they expect to medal here. The Aussies don’t fear Team USA, who they beat in their last two meetings, including in an exhibition game in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. NBA veteran Patty Mills morphs into an NBA Jam player with the ball on fire during international games, and the roster has plenty of talent with Joe Ingles, Matisse Thybulle, Aron Baynes, Dante Exum, and former NBA guard Matthew Dellavedova. These guys have played together as a core for years and work well off each other, and the team plays a smart game. It’s a good bet they medal, and if Team USA stumbles this is the team that could be golden.
The golden generation of Spanish basketball has gotten old — Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Rudy Fernandez, and Sergio Llull are all in their mid-30s, the young guy is Ricky Rubio at 30 — but they won the World Cup in 2019, and no team has pushed team USA harder on the international stage. The USA overwhelmed Spain in a Las Vegas exhibition, but this is a team that is more than the sum of its parts and can beat an unfocused American squad or just about anybody else in this tournament.
Any team led by Luka Doncic on it is a threat (he is the one guy outside Durant and Lillard who could stake a claim as the best player at the Tokyo Games). Around him is a solid roster that includes Nuggets forward Vlatko Cancar and Zoran Dragic, Goran’s brother. Doncic posted a triple-double against Lithuania to qualify Slovenia for the games, and if he is hot in a short tournament the Slovenians can hang with anybody.
Teams who can get hot and win a medal
They knocked the USA out of the World Cup in 2019, and they have a deep roster led by three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert (who can be even more physical and a force in the international game). Also on the roster is Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier, Frank Ntlikina, Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, and Vincent Poirier. Their defense will be good, the team has played together for years, and if the shots fall they are absolutely a medal threat.
They upset Team USA in Las Vegas, and this team has plenty of NBA talent on the roster: Josh Okogie, Gabe Vincent, Precious Achiuwa, KZ Okpala, Jahlil Okafor, Chimezie Metu, Ekpe Udoh, and more. They may not be stars, but this team is deep with quality talent that plays well together, and NBA veteran Mike Brown coaches them. After beating the Americans, the Nigerians looked much less impressive in other Las Vegas exhibitions, but this team could get on a run and be a medal threat. They need to beat Italy in the group stage to advance.
They won a qualifying tournament to get to Tokyo and then added Danilo Gallinari to the roster, giving them a new top scorer. They also have Nicolo Melli on the roster. This team is loaded with quality international players who could be a threat, but it will be tough to get out of a group with Australia and Nigeria.
Feisty teams not lasting long
With free agent to be Dennis Schroder staying home, the Germans are led by Mo Wagner and Isaac Bonga. This is a tall team that is not a pushover, but they lack the top-end athletes and backcourt to be a real threat.
The golden generation has aged out, except for Luis Scola, who is this team’s best player at age 41. They also have Denvers’ Facundo Campazzo, but this team showed in Las Vegas it was a step behind the medal teams like the USA and Spain.
Tomas Satoransky was brilliant in the qualifying tournaments and led the Czech Republic to an upset of Canada to reach the tournament. This is a team of solid, professional international players, but it will be tough to beat France (or the USA) to get out of Group A.
Teams that should make sure to enjoy Japan during their short stay
The hosts have a hero in the Wizards’ Rui Hachimura, who is a huge star in his native country. Japan also has Yuta Watanabe on the roster, but they don’t have the depth of talent to hang in this tournament (although they did upset France in a warm-up exhibition game, so maybe this ranking is too low).
They were the top team from Asia at the World Cup, so they qualified for the Olympics, but that was a pretty low bar. Former NBA player Hamed Haddadi, now 36, is on the roster, as is former Seton Hall player Aaron Geramipoor, but this team will have trouble keeping games close in group play (they are in Group A with the USA, France, and the Czech Republic).