Ranking the biggest threats to Team USA in the 2016 Olympics
Ranking the Olympic threats to USA Basketball in Rio
The 2016 Olympics tips off in Rio on Friday, and one of the prime events for the United States is the basketball portion of the games. USA Basketball has dominated nearly every year they've been in it, especially since allowing professional players to take part in 1992. It's been legitimately shocking when the U.S. is challenged, let alone when they completely blew the 2004 Olympics and went home with the bronze medal.
So who can challenge USA Basketball in 2016? Here are the 11 teams ranked, how they got here, and what they have to offer up in a match-up against Team USA.
Group A: Australia, China, France, Serbia, USA, Venezuela
Group B: Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, Lithuania, Nigeria, Spain
11. Venezuela -- FIBA Rank: 22nd
Guards: Gregory Vargas, Jose Vargas, John Cox, David Cubillan, Heissler Guillent
Forwards: Windi Graterol, Dwight Lewis-Padron, Nestor Colmenares, Miguel Ruiz, Anthony Perez
Centers: Gregory Echenique, Miguel Marriaga
How'd they get here? The Venezuelan National Team won the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. Venezuela made it through the preliminary round and second round of the FIBA Americas to set themselves up for a showdown with Canada in the semi-finals. In a controversial win, they moved on to the FIBA Americas championship game, which guaranteed them a spot in the Olympics. They ended up beating Argentina by five in the gold medal game to win the tournament outright.
How have they done in previous Olympics? Venezuela hasn't played in the Summer Olympics for basketball since 1992. They went 1-4 in group play with their only victory coming against China by eight points. They lost to Russia, Lithuania, Australia, and Puerto Rico by a combined 43 points.
Missing anybody significant? Brooklyn Nets guard Greivis Vasquez.
Strengths: There aren't many. With Greivis Vasquez sitting out of the Olympics because the Brooklyn Nets are concerned with him getting back on the court in the best shape possible after his ankle injury last season, the already thin Venezuelan roster is now lacking a star. They have John Cox, who was their leading scorer in the FIBA Americas run. Gregory Vargas was a big time leader for them in that tournament. Is resiliency a strength you can go to? They were resilient in the tournament to qualify for the Olympics but that's probably not going to last.
Weaknesses: There is not a lot of shot-making on this team and they don't have the size to make up for it on the boards. In their ugly exhibition against USA Basketball, this team managed just 45 points and shot 23.9 percent from the field. I'd expect more of that without Vasquez there to get quality shots for the team. They have a couple of guys around 6-foot-9, but throw them into the mix against a team with good size and they'll look like a junior varsity team out there scrapping to keep up. If you can't make shots and you can't grab rebounds, you're in serious trouble.
Players to Watch: The previously mentioned Cox and Vargas will be guys who put up the best fight. Forward Anthony Perez just finished a college career at Ole Miss. The 22-year old averaged 7 points and 4 rebounds while hitting 39.5 percent on 76 attempts from 3-point range. They'll really miss Vasquez though.
Prediction when they play Team USA: They're going to get smoked. The only reason that exhibition against Venezuela didn't get out of control is because USA missed a lot of shots they'd normally make.
10. China -- FIBA Rank: 14th
Guards: Guo Ailun, Zhao Jiwei, Sui Ran, Zhou Peng, Li Gen
Forwards: Yi Jianlin, Zhou Qi, Zhai Xiaochuan, Ding Yanyuhang, Zou Yuchen
Centers: Wang Zhelin, Li Muhao
How'd they get here? China took home the gold medal at the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship. It was the third time in 10 years China qualified for the Olympics by taking gold at the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship. China went 8-0 in the pool play and tournament, taking down India, Iran, and Philippines to win it all.
How have they done in previous Olympics? China has sent a team to the Olympics every time since 2004. They've never finished higher than eighth (1996, 2004, 2008). They lost all five games at the 2012 Olympics by a total of 126 points. Their closest loss was to Spain by 16.
Missing anybody significant? No.
Strengths: There is some real talent in the frontcourt. Yi Jianlin can still be a dangerous scorer on the international level. Wang Zhelin is a good scoring option. Zhou Qi is a quality rim protector. Their size is a big advantage against some of the lesser quality teams in this competition.
Weaknesses: Overall, guard play is a problem for China. They don't have a lot of guys who can get dribble penetration and that makes it hard to set up their big men. There also isn't a lot of outside shooting from this team either, unless they can get their big men going on some pick-and-pop action. That leads to a lot of contested shots and that means a troublesome offense the defense can't make up for.
Players to Watch: Yi Jianlin, Zhou Qi, and Wang Zhelin are the main players for China. Jianlin was a lottery pick nearly a decade ago. Zhelin was a late second-round pick of the Memphis Grizzlies back this year. Qi was the 43rd pick by the Houston Rockets this year. There's also Guo Ailun, who is a tenacious guard. Guo played solidly against Team USA in their two exhibitions and will be the best for China at breaking down the opposing defense.
Prediction when they play Team USA: They're going to get rolled. They lost by a combined 99 points in their two friendly exhibitions leading up to the Olympics. That may end up being the most competitive they are against the U.S. considering the red, white, and blue will now have something to play for in the Group A play.
9. Nigeria -- FIBA Rank: 25th
Guards: Josh Akognon, Ben Uzoh, Michael Umeh, Chamberlain Oguchi, Michael Gbinije
Forwards: Stan Okoye, Andy Ogide, Ebi Ere, Ekene Ibekwe
Centers: Ike Diogu, Shane Lawal, Alade Aminu
How'd they get here? Nigeria won the 2015 FIBA AfroBasket gold medal to qualify for the Olympics. After advancing to the single elimination tournament of the 2015 AfroBasket, Nigeria dominated Mozambique and Gabon to get to the semi-finals. It was there they took down Senegal in overtime and then beat Angola in the Finals to take home gold and qualify for Rio.
How have they done in previous Olympics? The only other Olympic games Nigeria's basketball team has participated in was in 2012 in London. They went just 1-4 in pool play and failed to move on to the tournament format of play. Their sole victory came against Tunisia by four points. Their four losses were to USA, France, Argentina, and Lithuania by a combined 122 points. The loss to USA Basketball was by 83 points (that's not a typo).
Missing anybody significant? Portland Trail Blazers center Festus Ezeli and forward Al-Farouq Aminu, former NBA big man Gani Lawal.
Strengths: The Nigerian team has actual NBA talent. They have four guys on the roster who have played in or will play in the NBA. They also have good size, so rim protection and rebounding will be there for Nigeria. Chamberlain Oguchi was a real weapon for them in AfroBasket, dominating in his last couple of games from the perimeter.
Weaknesses: This team doesn't have strong guard play, nor do they have a lot of reliable shooting from the perimeter. Outside of Oguchi and Gbinije, they could really struggle to stretch the floor against some of the better teams. And if you pressure their backcourt, you can force them into a lot of turnovers. That's where you see the same vulnerability with this team that you saw in the 83-point drubbing back in 2012 in London. It would be a little extreme to expect that to happen again, but they can be blown out if they don't take care of the ball.
Players to Watch: Al-Farouq Aminu would've been the biggest name to watch, but insurance reasons appear to have kept him from playing this year. Ben Uzoh, rookie Michael Gbinije, Ike Diogu, and Ekpe Udoh are all NBA players or guys who have made the NBA in the past. Gbinije, who will play for the Detroit Pistons this year, is a much needed shooter for this roster. Josh Akognon is a real point guard who can score.
Prediction if they play Team USA: It's not going to be as bad as what happened in 2012. Nigeria is a bit more experienced now than they were then. But it's not going to be pretty either. USA should handle them and maybe just win by 50 this time.
8. Australia -- FIBA Rank: 11th
Guards: Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova, Damian Martin, Kevin Lisch, Chris Goulding
Forwards: Joe Ingles, Cameron Bairstow, Brock Motum, Ryan Broekhoff
Centers: Andrew Bogut, Aron Baynes, David Andersen
How'd they get here? Australia beat New Zealand in two games known as the 2015 FIBA Oceania Championship. They won both games by a total of 160-38 to qualify for their 12th straight Olympic appearance.
How have they done in previous Olympics? Australia has been pretty competitive in a lot of the Olympic action they've participated in. They've finished fourth in Olympic basketball three different times (1988, 1996, 2000). USA beat them in the bronze medal game in 1988. Australia lost to Lithuania in the bronze medal game in both 1996 and 2000. They finished seventh in the 2012 Olympics, losing to Team USA by 33 in the first elimination tournament game.
Missing anybody significant? Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum, Philadelphia 76ers rookie Ben Simmons.
Strengths: There is a lot of talent and a lot of size on this Australian team. Seven players have played in the NBA. Another one, Brock Motum, played at Washington State and was on the Utah Jazz summer league roster a couple years ago. With Andrew Bogut, Aron Baynes, David Andersen, and Cameron Bairstow, the Boomers should be able to dominate the boards and the interior against most teams. They also have solid outside shooting with Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova, and Joe Ingles at their disposal.
Weaknesses: They don't have dynamic wings and that could end up hurting them against the upper echelon teams out there. Ingles is their best wing player, and he's more of a stretch-4. The Jazz used him as a point forward in case of emergency a couple of times last year, but Australia just doesn't have much athleticism on the perimeter. That could hurt them in attacking the basket off hard closeouts and getting back in transition to match up well defensively.
Players to Watch: Their seven or eight NBA caliber players are certainly the ones to watch for Australia. It'll be interesting to see how Ingles does stretching the floor, or how much Bogut is able to play on the perimeter. But the two most important players will be Mills and Dellavedova. Australia will need dribble penetration and a threat coming around those pick-and-rolls.
Prediction when they play Team USA: Australia won't roll over against the Americans but there will only be so much they can do. A loss of 20-30 points will look much worse than how difficult they make it, but that's what to expect.
7. Brazil -- FIBA Rank: 9th
Guards: Marcelo Huertas, Raul Neto, Leandro Barbosa, Alex Garcia, Vitor Benite, Rafael Luz.
Forwards: Guilherme Giovannoni, Marquinhos Souza, Rafael Hettsheimeir.
Centers: Nene, Cristiano Felicio, Augusto Lima.
How'd they get here? They're hosting this party. The host country gets an automatic berth into the Olympic games for basketball. While Brazil would normally find a way to qualify anyway, this was certainly the easiest road on the court to get there.
How have they done in previous Olympics? From 1948 to 1964, Brazil won three bronze medals. They haven't done that well since then, but they've still been a tough team at the international level. Brazil finished fifth overall in the 2012 Olympics. After going 4-1 in group play, Brazil lost to Argentina in the quarterfinals.
Missing anybody significant? Golden State Warriors center Anderson Varejao, Atlanta Hawks center Tiago Splitter.
Strengths: Guard play, big men and home court advantage. That's what Brazil has going for them. Even if Marcelo Huertas can't be a quality point guard in this competition, Neto and Barbosa are more than capable of being a nuisance and a match-up problem to many countries playing. Barbosa will be their best perimeter scorer and he'll be balanced out by Nene and Felicio inside (assuming the young big man gets some time). Both of those guys should be able to scorer effectively around the basket.
Weaknesses: Much like Australia, Brazil doesn't really have much athleticism and talent on the wings. That will hurt them against the U.S. if they end up playing them. Souza can play and has done well for them in the past, but the depth on the wing simply isn't there. They could really miss the depth they normally have with Splitter and Varejao both out.
Players to Watch: Barbosa and Neto are the two NBA guards most worthy of your attention. Nene can be a monster in a lot of these situations too. His ability to overpower other big men as a primary weapon looks much different here than it does in the NBA at this stage in his career. And Souza can get hot for them.
Prediction if they play Team USA: Considering the U.S. is missing some of their more dominant players, it wouldn't shock me to see Brazil keep it within 20 points for most of their contest with Team USA if they should meet.
6. Croatia -- FIBA Rank: 12th
Guards: Roko Ukic, Bojan Bogdanovic, Rok Stipcevic, Krunoslav Simon, Filip Kruslin.
Forwards: Mario Hezonja, Dario Saric, Luka Babic, Zeljko Sakic, Marko Arapovic.
Centers: Miro Bilan, Darko Planinic.
How'd they get here? Croatia needed one of the qualifying tournaments this summer to get their ticket punched for the Olympics. Brooklyn Nets guard Bojan Bogdanovic led the team over Greece and then Italy in overtime to win their tournament and get to Rio.
How have they done in previous Olympics? The last time Croatia made the Olympics was in 2008. They finished sixth that year by going 3-2 in group play and then losing to Spain in the quarterfinals. They also lost in the quarterfinals in 1996. They best they've done was win the silver medal in 1992.
Missing anybody significant? Ante Tomic and NBA free agent Damjan Rudez.
Strengths: There is a lot of firepower on the wings. Bogdanovic can fill it up from deep and will be the team's best scorer. The athleticism and size of Orlando Magic wing Hezonja and Philadelphia 76ers incoming rookie Saric will allow Croatia to get out and run quite a bit. Simon can also shoot the ball well from deep, so he should help provide plenty of floor-spacing.
Weaknesses: You have to wonder if Ukic is enough at the point and where the Croatians turn inside. Ukic had a cup of coffee in the NBA and he's a very solid point guard. But he could struggle against the defensive pressure of the better teams. Bilan is a talented big man, who just won the Adriatic League MVP this year. But is he going to be able to battle with more experienced big men?
Players to Watch: Always Hezonja. We know Bogdanovic will score and Saric will certainly be intriguing as a 3/4 tweener. But Hezonja is the show. Remember in an international competition, he hit a 3-pointer up 15 with a few seconds left and then dapped up the opposing coach after he did it.
Prediction if they play Team USA: As much talent as there is on the wings, USA should feast on the thinness at point guard and center positions. Croatia can put up a fight but this would be somewhere around a 20-point game.
5. Serbia -- FIBA Rank: 6th
Guards: Milos Teodosic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nemanja Nedovic, Stefan Markovic, Stefan Jovic.
Forwards: Nikola Kalinic, Marko Simonovic, Milan Macvan, Stefan Bircevic.
Centers: Nikola Jokic, Miroslav Raduljica, Vladimir Stimac.
How'd they get here? Much like Croatia, Serbia won one of the three qualifying tournaments this summer. Serbia dominated the Czech Republic and Puerto Rico by a combined 55 points to easily get a berth to the Rio Olympics.
How have they done in previous Olympics? They last qualified in the 2004 Olympics and finished just 11th out of the 12 teams. Prior to that, they finished sixth in the Sydney Olympics and won the silver medal in 1996.
Missing anybody significant? Minnesota Timberwolves forward Nemanja Bjelica and former NBA big man Nenad Krstic.
Strengths: It's a shame Bjelica and Krstic won't play because that would give them the depth to play with just about anybody in this tournament. They have some real players up and down the roster. Teodosic is a fantastic international point guard. Bogdanovic of the Phoenix Suns can score from the perimeter. Nedovic provides some athleticism in the backcourt. And they have two talented big men in Jokic of the Denver Nuggets and former NBA big Raduljica there to bother opposing frontcourts.
Weaknesses: The forwards are a bit weak for Serbia. Kalinic won't be able to hang with most of the elite forwards in this tournament. Simonovic can shoot the ball from deep but he won't do much defensively. Macvan can play and will be a good rebounder, but he'll get eaten alive by more athletic 4's.
Players to Watch: Teodosic is always a treat for the basketball junkies out there. He's a true professional point guard who can either score when he needs to or pick apart the defense with his passing. Jokic was one of the more productive and efficient rookies last season in more limited minutes than you'd expect him to play. Radujlica against DeMarcus Cousins will be like watching a bootleg Pacific Rim remake.
Prediction when they play Team USA: Again, it's a shame Krstic and Bjelica aren't there for Serbia. They could've at least made it interesting against Team USA. Instead, USA should be able to beat them by anywhere from 15-25 points when Serbia is at the top of its game.
4. Argentina -- FIBA Rank: 4th
Guards: Manu Ginobili, Facundo Campazzo, Carlos Delfino, Nicolas Laprovittola, Nicolas Brussino.
Forwards: Andres Nocioni, Luis Scola, Patricio Garino, Leonardo Mainoldi, Gabriel Deck.
Centers: Roberto Acuna, Marcos Delia.
How'd they get here? By finishing in the top 2 for the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship, they got themselves an automatic berth into the Olympics. It didn't even matter than Venezuela upset them. They beat Mexico in the semifinals to qualify.
How have they done in previous Olympics? They've been superb. They lost to Russia in the bronze medal game in 2012, which kept them from earning a medal in three straight Olympics. In 2008 in China, they won the bronze by beating Lithuania. In 2004, they pulled off the upset of all upsets by taking down Team USA in the semifinals and then taking out Italy in the gold medal game. It's the only time since 1992 that USA hasn't won the gold.
Missing anybody significant? Houston Rockets guard Pablo Prigioni.
Strengths: They're really smart basketball players. Just up and down this roster, you're going to find a high basketball IQ with just about everybody. Ginobili can still play and have those incredible bursts that overwhelm opponents. Scola is a problem in international play. Campazzo and Laprovittola will be competent point guards and Nocioni is still good in international play. There's a solid six guys in this rotation.
Weaknesses: There is zero rim protection and the rebounding may be an issue. The interior defense won't just be bad. They simply can't stop any of the interiors of the top 5 teams, which puts more pressure on the perimeter players to be great defensively. That's going to lead to huge decisions and problems Argentina will face with their defensive rotations. And if the 3-point shots aren't falling for Argentina, they might be in trouble.
Players to Watch: Always Ginobili and Scola in these competitions. Manu is just a wizard on the floor. And there is such thing as Scola God Mode. Some NBA fans who aren't familiar with Scola in international play will laugh at this idea. Fair enough. He'll have at least two games in the Olympics in which he drops 35 on someone and there's nothing anybody can do about it.
Prediction if they play Team USA: They lost by 30-plus against the U.S. in that exhibition. I think they can make it closer than that and maybe even cut it in half. But the USA clicking on most cylinders will be too much for the red carpet Argentina's interior defense will lay down.
3. Lithuania -- FIBA Rank: 3rd
Guards: Mantas Kalnietas, Renaldas Seibutis, Marius Grigonis, Vaidas Kariniauskas, Adas Juskevicius.
Forwards: Jonas Maciulis, Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Paulius Jankunas, Domantas Sabonis.
Centers: Jonas Valanciunas, Antanas Kavaliauskas, Robertas Javtokas.
How'd they get here? Lithuania took down Georgia (Republic, not state), Italy and Serbia in the 2015 EuroBasket to earn an automatic berth into the Rio Olympics. They lost to Spain in the gold medal game for EuroBasket but they had already qualified so it didn't hurt that much.
How have they done in previous Olympics? In 1992, 1996, and 2000, Lithuania won the bronze medal each time. In 2004 and 2008, they lost the bronze medal game to the United States and Argentina, respectively. In 2012, they lost to Russia in the quarterfinals, finishing eighth overall. It was their worst showing since breaking away from the USSR.
Missing anybody significant? Former NBA players Linas Kleiza, Darius Songaila, and Sarunas Jasikevicius. Also, Martynas Pocius. Free agent Donatas Motiejunas.
Strengths: Year in and year out in international competition, Lithuania is some of the best in the world. A big part of that is the skill combined with the size. They have four guys 6-foot-10 or bigger and they're all pretty well skilled. They have smart play on the wings and should have enough shooting to space the floor for the bigs. They should dominate the boards against most opponents. They have a couple of really good guards in Kalnietas and Seibutis, but it's not the same depth they used to have.
Weaknesses: Breaking down the defense for the full 40 minutes will be hard to do. They don't really have that playmaking wing at their disposal and things will get rough if they have stretches without Kalnietas and Seibutis on the floor. You'd love for Kuzminskas to end up being that guy but he's not a great perimeter player.
Players to Watch: Valanciunas is a monster and he'll feast on most opponents. Sabonis is the son of Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis and a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. It'll be interesting to see how he does in his first big stage competition.
Prediction if they play Team USA: They'll put up a great fight. The lack of guard depth may end up being their undoing, but Lithuania can keep it close. Still should be a double-digit victory.
2. France -- FIBA Rank: 5th
Guards: Tony Parker, Nando de Colo, Antoine Diot, Thomas Huertel.
Forwards: Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw, Mickael Gelabale, Florent Pietrus, Charles Lombahe-Kahudi.
Centers: Rudy Gobert, Joffrey Lauvergne, Kim Tillie.
How'd they get here? They were the third team that won a qualifying tournament this summer. Their qualifying experience required them beating Turkey and Canada, respectively.
How have they done in previous Olympics? France lost to Spain in the 2012 Olympics, which left them finishing sixth in London. Prior to that, they missed the Olympics in 2008 and 2004. The best they've finished was in 2000 when they lost to Team USA in the gold medal game and walked away with silver.
Missing anybody significant? Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier. New York Knicks center Joakim Noah. Washington Wizards center Ian Mahinmi. Kevin Seraphin.
Strengths: Talent. They have loads of talent and top talent at that. Parker, Diaw, Batum and Gobert would make up a spectacular four-fifths of an NBA lineup, let alone an Olympic lineup. The French team has depth at the point guard position and enough size there to feel comfortable playing two point guards at the same time. They have lots of passing and the defense should be very good anchored by Gobert. You shouldn't be shocked if this team walks away with silver again.
Weaknesses: Is there enough outside shooting? With Batum, you'd think they have quite a bit. The shorter international line opens up Parker and Diaw as legitimate threats from downtown. But this is where leaving Fournier off the roster doesn't make a ton of sense. He'd provide such a weapon for them and instead, they're left needing what he provides the most. If Parker can't be effective, they may not have enough dribble penetration but that's a big if.
Players to Watch: Gobert. Parker, Batum, and Diaw will be very good and entertaining. But it's Gobert who could end up having the biggest impact for them. Not only is his rim protection some of the best in the world, but the rule of being able to touch the ball when it's above the cylinder could turn him into one of the most valuable players in the tournament.
Prediction if they play Team USA: A very competitive game. This could be one of the rare threats against Team USA that keeps it in single digits all night. The U.S. should take France very seriously.
1. Spain -- FIBA Rank: 2nd
Guards: Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navarro, Sergio Llull, Jose Calderon, Sergio Rodriguez.
Forwards: Rudy Fernandez, Nikola Mirotic, Victor Claver, Alex Abrines, Felipe Reyes.
Centers: Pau Gasol, Willy Hernangomez.
How'd they get here? Spain beat Lithuania to win the 2015 EuroBasket. They beat Poland, Greece and France (in overtime) to earn that automatic berth into Rio as they made the gold medal game. Then they took down Lithuania by 17 points.
How have they done in previous Olympics? They've earned the silver medal in the past two Olympics. They lost to Team USA both times in 2008 and 2012 to go home with second place. In 2008, they lost by 11 to USA. In 2012, they lost by just seven points.
Missing anybody significant? Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol. Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka (can only have him or Mirotic -- not both). Fernando San Emeterio.
Strengths: This team is loaded. They have good outside scorers in Fernandez, Mirotic, Navarro and Llull. They have good, versatile size anchored by Pau Gasol. They've got steady play and good playmaking at the point guard position in Rubio, Calderon and Rodriguez. Nine of their players have played or will play in the NBA. Llull could be No. 10 if he wanted to. Spain shouldn't be taken lightly.
Weaknesses: They need one more guy inside to provide interior defense. That's where Marc Gasol would've come in handy. Or if they could've gone with Ibaka instead of Mirotic as their naturalized player. Then they'd have some good rim protection that doesn't rely too much on Pau. They can get by with what they have, but that's really the only weakness they have right now.
Players to Watch: It'll be interesting to see if Pau can still be a go-to scorer. It'll be interesting to see if Navarro can still get free to cause havoc from the perimeter. It'll be interesting to see if Mirotic can light up opposing forwards. And it'll be interesting to see if Rubio can hound the best point guards in this tournament on defense.
Prediction if they play Team USA: Another close game but they won't have enough. If Team USA had LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul and Anthony Davis, it wouldn't be close without Marc Gasol in Rio. With enough of these big names out, Spain can make the U.S. sweat a little before they take home the silver again.
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