Thursday, August 17, 2006

2006 FIBA World Champs--Preview (Part II-The Contenders)

In Part I of my FIBA Worlds preview, I reviewed the group set-ups & gave quick hitting breakdowns of the second tier of teams that can make the Round of 16 but don't have much of a chance of getting too far. Here In Part II, I am going to give more detailed reviews of the medal contenders.

In my power rankings of my top 11, I have 5 teams who I feel can win a game or two in the elimination rounds & 6 teams who I feel have a legit shot at the Gold medal. Here is my Top 11 FIBA power rankings in descending order:

11) Italy: Italy plays very similar to Lithuania: ball movement, player movement, a lot of 3-point attempts & big guys who float out. Also, they like to utilize the drive & kick game with their guards penetrating a lot & other players popping out to perimeter for jumpers. After two good years (bronze in '03, silver in '04), Italy struggled last year and did not initially qualify for the Worlds, and needed to get in on a Wild Card nod. Somewhat in rebuilding mode but still have some good veteran leftovers, especially Gianluca Basile. Basile is basically the Italian version of Macijauskas--6-5 SG, who is one of the deadliest shooters in Europe. Italy can just get hot & strictly out-shoot you for victory like Lithuania, which makes them equally dangerous. Solid defensive unit, which differs from Lithuania's sometimes indifference on the defensive end. Another player to watch out for is promising 20-year old NBA prospect, Marco Belinelli. The wing has legit NBA athleticism & has a pretty good shooting stroke to compliment it. They get a good veteran presence in the paint with Denis Marconato. This year's #1 NBA draftee Andrea Bargnani decided to sit this tourney out--although it might have been more a Raptor organization decision.

10) Slovenia: Have a lot of raw talent on the roster, but have a history of underachieving. A handful of NBA players litter their roster: Rasho Nesterovic, Beno Udrih, Bostjan Nachbar, Uros Slokar & Primo Brezec. Rasho has been looking pretty solid in the warm-up stage after rotting on the Spurs' bench at the end of the season. This team also gets a defensive boost from explosive athlete Marko Milic. Jaka Lakovic will split minutes with Udrih at the PG, and is known as a heady point who can drill it from deep. Have the talent, they need to put it together properly this year. Have a good chance of finishing in 2nd place behind the US in Group D.

9) Lithuania: Missing some of their big guns (Jasikevicius, Stombergas, Siskauskas, & E. Zukauskas were 4 of their starting five in '04), but still are somewhat dangerous because of their style of play-- they have the ability to just out-shoot the competition from deep, sort of like a Suns' philosophy. They play the stereotypical Euro-style system of crisp ball-movement & off-the-ball player movement with plenty of 3-point attempts as the scoring weapon of choice. And they always have multiple guys who can flat-out bury jumpers, including some bigs who can pop out & cause problems for opposing defending bigs. Former NO Hornet Arvydas Macijauskas is their main scoring option--although he barely played this year, just think of a Lithuanian JJ Redick, if you did not see Arvydas play much this year. They have a very talented, big frontline. Daruis Songaila is a name that is familar, but Robert Javtokas & the 6-11 Lavrinovic twins might be just as important as Darius. Javtokas (Spurs property) is a big, well-built center with NBA-type athleticism who is known for his rebounding & shot-blocking, but little in the way of offense. Both Lavrinovics (Ksystof & Darjus) give some more offensive punch to the frontline--both guys are dangerous from the perimeter. While the Nuggets' Linas Kleiza should see action at both forward spots. The one glaring hole holding this team back is their point guard spot. They will really miss Jasikevicius's fiery leadership, timely shooting, passing & all-around court savvy this year.

8) Brazil: Has the ability to make some noise and make a run to at least the semis. They pushed the US to the brink in the exhibition stage, and possess one of the more athletic squads in the tourney. Brazil loves to play up-tempo and it helps that they are led by Leandro Barbosa, who might be the fastest guy in whole competition. Their frontcourt can also hold their own vs. any team even without Nene, thanks to the athletic tandem of Anderson Varejao & Tiago Splitter. Most people know about the energetic Varejao, but Splitter is one of the best young bigs playing in Europe, & if he kept his name in this year's draft he would have been a lottery pick. Splitter brings defense & rebounding much like Sideshow Andy. Veteran Marcelo Machado (Marcelinho) is the main shooting threat for Brazil, but don't confuse him with the other Marcelinho (Marcelo Huertas), who is a fast-paced PG for Brazil.

7) Serbia: This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Serbs after two straight years of massive underachievement in int'l play. But they have played somewhat surprisingly well in the ramp-up to the tourney. I have to imagine there is less dissension & much more clearly designated roles on this year's squad after Serbia was basically Team USA-lite with too many "stars" fighting for minutes & touches. This team seems to have a clear pecking order starting with veteran PG Igor Rakocevic & Darko Milicic, the only NBA player on the roster. Rakocevic is a combo guard who is one of the quickest players over in Europe and has NBA ability (he did briefly play with Minnesota a couple years ago). His shooting is not great, but has improved lately to complement his slashing. Darko has looked very good in the exhibition stage & he could be Serbia's go-to-guy in the post. Serbia also has the usual collection of shooters on the perimeter: Bojan Popovic, Luka Boganovic & Uros Tripkovic are all young NBA propects that bring shooting & refined fundamentals to the table. Tripkovic is one of the best young prospects in Europe & is definitely on NBA GMs' radar.


6) France: A consensus title contender, but I feel they are a little overrated. They have as much athleticism as any team outside the US, but have a major weakness--poor outside shooting. There is no doubt I would be throwing tons of sagging zone looks at the French, even more than the US should see. This team needs to prove it can hit their outside shots every game. France has been known to underachieve somewhat in the last couple years--they did not qualify for the last World Champs. or the '04 Olympics. And even last year when they made a run to the Euro semis, they really struggled in the early rounds and just happened to turn things around at the exact last instant by escaping with an upset of Serbia. They went on a mini-run after that all the way to the semis where they absolutely blew the game to Greece in the final minute. They made this run after deciding to move Tony Parker to a bench role. France has been somewhat inconsistent in exhibition play, but do have victories over Greece & Brazil. They are still an enticing team because they do have guys like Parker, Boris Diaw, Mickeal Pietrus (Golden St.), Ronny Turiaf, & Johan Petro (Seattle). Former Knick draftee & Vince Carter prop, Fred Weis anchors the middle for France; I am not sure if that's good or bad. Recent Sonic signee Mickeal Gelabale is a good athlete off-the-bench who's not known as a good shooter but has shot the ball fairly well the last year or so. Back-up wing Laurent Foirest is the only guy on the team that has a reputation as an outside shooter & they might need him to come to rescue. But if this team does find a way to consistently hit their outside shots then they are extremely dangerous & could beat any team in the tourney.

5) Germany: My sleeper pick for a medal & has a chance of sneaking into the Gold-Medal game. They are basically a one-man gang, but that one man happens to arguably be the best player in the tourney. Germany rode on Dirk's back last year to the Euro finals, & in the '02 FIBA Worlds they captured a bronze. Former UNC Tarheel standout Ademoka Okulaja is their second-best player who does a nice job playing off Dirk. They get a decent effort from center Patrick Femerling--who you might remember as Robin to Todd MacCullogh's Batman when they combined powers to form the tantalizing, Vanilla Thunder frontline for the U of Wash. in the mid-90s. Also, recent West Virg. grad Joe Herber provides a big, heady combo guard off the bench. Stefan Hamann returns this year after missing the '05 Euros because of injury to man the point spot. Demond Greene gives the Germans another scoring option on the perimeter to relieve some pressure of Dirk. Simply, if Dirk is hot this team can go far, if not they could be eliminated in the Round of 16.

4) Greece: This team still seems to be overlooked by a lot of people. I had them ranked #4 ahead of France before the exhibitions started, and now after their superb play in the warm-up phase, I feel even more confident about that pick. To me they are a legit title contender with the US, Argentina, & Spain. Their main calling card is their defense, which is suffocating. Probably have the best half-court defense in the tourney, even better than the US. They play a tight, controlled pace at both ends of the court and are more than happy playing games in the 60s & 70s (they just crushed Germany & held them to 47 points). They have great overall size, especially on the perimeter where they have 3 guys who play PG 6-4 or bigger. Probably why some people are underrating them (Hello, SI's Ian Thomsen) is they have no current NBA players. Lazaros Papadopoulas, a skilled 7-footer with decent post skills, could be a solid back-up in the NBA & is one of Greece's main offensive options. Theo Papaloukas, a heady 6-7 combo guard--who was both the Euro '05 MVP last year & Euroleague Final 4 MVP this year--is a sturdy defender & a savvy PG option for Greece. Also, recent Houston signee Vasilis Spanoulis gives Greece a nice athletic punch off the bench in the backcourt. Another good option for Greece is Antonios Fotsis, a 6-9 inside/outside threat who had a cup of coffee with Memphis a few years ago. He might have the most raw talent of any Greek, but is passive sometimes & is known to disappear. Dimitrios Diamantidis, another big combo guard is similar to Papaloukas, but is known as an even better defender--he was the Euroleague Defender of the Year in 2006. Their minor sorespot is their outside shooting--it's not much better than France's shooting prowess.

3) Argentina: Even with a '04 Olympic Gold in tow, the boys in light blue are still probably on a mission after the World Champ. Gold was arguably stolen from their grasp in 2002. No doubt Ginobili is their main man, but this team is well-stocked around Manu. Nocioni, Carlos Delfino, Fab Oberto, & Luis Scola just add more big-time talent to the team & this squad plays together as well as any national team. When their offense in firing on all cylinders there is not a prettier thing to watch in basketball. They run a flex offense that incorporates a lot of back screening, passing, screen-away action & cutting. For this offense to work well, you need all 5 guys to be able pass & handle the ball well, & Argentina has the bigs to pull this off. Argentina also is known for their great team defense. They take a lot of pride in their man2man & are not afraid to use it vs. the US (they used man most of the '02 win & used it for about half the game in '04). If they do play the US, I will not be surprised if they show a decent amount of man2man. One minor concern for Argentina is their thin frontline. Ruben Wolkowisky is their only proven back-up & he's a little past his prime. I think they will have to give Walter Herrmann (recent Charlotte signee) some minutes at the 4 when needed. Like with France, I would consider throwing some zone looks at Argentina to try & disrupt their offensive rhythm they get in the flex. They are alright from outside--Ginobili & Nocioni have improved their shooting the last couple years--but they don't have any real deadeyes (Montecchia, their best pure shooter, retired in '04).

2) Spain: One of the top contenders at the start of the summer and have done everything in their power to back-up that prediction in the exhibitions. Easily the most impressive team in the warm-up phase by going undefeated & beating much stiffer overall competition than the US (Spain has already pounded Argentina twice this summer). Led by one of the best players in the tourney, Pau Gasol. This team (without Pau) got to the semis of the Euros last year where Germany needed a last second shot by Dirk to finish them off. Spain was also impressive in '03 Euros where they lost to Lithuania in the finals. They were undefeated in pool play in the Olympics before succumbing to the US in the quarters, thanks only to the US deciding to have their only good shooting performance of the tourney. They are a great, cohesive unit who understand & accept that Pau is their main option. Have the best backcourt in the tourney (outside the US) in Juan Carlos Navarro & Jose Calderon (Raptors). Both guys are very good athletes & scorers who like to penetrate for a variety of floaters. Although neither guy is a great outside shooter, Navarro has improved his shooting over the last few years. Also, they get a big contribution from Jorge Garbajosa (recent Raptor signing), who is a jack-of-all-trades PF--he likes to float out for 3s, but also is a sneaky slasher who has a knack of drawing fouls. He combines with SF Carlos Jimenez to provide the dirty work around the potent scoring of Gasol, Navarro, & Calderon. They get a nice jolt of athleticism off the bench from Rudy Fernandez, a young wing who is a legit 1st-round draft prospect. Maybe the best asset is their team defense--its right up there with Argentina & Greece's great defensive prowess. As I alluded to before, they are not a great outside shooting team, not as bad as France, but not great. It would be advisable to throw some zone at Spain & see how they are hitting from deep, the zones also take away some of Gasol's effectiveness as well.

1) USA: By now I think we are quite familiar with Team USA & what they can do, so I'll keep this succinct. This year's squad is intent on utilizing its obvious strength of athleticism by looking to push the pace at all times & to up the score to get games out of reach. I think this is the right approach. They are intent on creating tons of turnovers with alot of presses, traps & furious ball pressure which will hopefully lead to tons of easy transition baskets. This formula should work most of the time, but the US has to be more cautious not to overplay too much vs. the likes of Argentina & Spain. The US should command the boards (especially off. boards) like they did in Athens, and should have plenty of second chance opportunities vs. all the zones they should be seeing. The real question remains how they fare in the half-court on offense. They have shot the ball pretty well in the exhibition, and definitely have better shooters than they did in 'O4. But they don't have any real deadeyes, and they really struggled when Brazil went to zone for a long stretch in exhibition play. I expect some definite cold snaps for the US when facing some zones because it just takes guys like Wade, Bron, Paul out of their rhythm & I think this hampers their effectiveness. It only takes one bad shooting night in an elimination game & the US could easily be without a gold medal. Even with that, I think Team USA's shooting is solid enough to get by & paired with their emphasis on swarming defense, I think they will go undefeated (but be prepared for a few tight games) and capture their first World Champ. Gold since 1994.


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