Also see: 2008 FIBA Qualifying Tournament Preview (July '08)
With the conclusion of the Eurobasket, the qualifying season for the 2008 Olympic men's basketball competition has ended for this year. We thought it would be a good time to take an early look at sizing up the 21 countries which are still alive in the race for Olympic gold - both the nine countries that have qualified for the 12-team field in Beijing, and the 12 nations which will compete at the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament that will determine the final three spots.
So, here we go with some early handicapping of the 2008 Olympic field, with some FIBA Power Rankings:
Qualified for Beijing (9)1. USA
(Qualified as: FIBA Americas Champion)
The utterly premature comparisons of the current Team USA to the Dream Team are laughable, just because this team hasn't done anything yet, and also considering that nearly every team in the Olympic field is better than any team the U.S. faced in the FIBA Americas tournament (and they won't have the extra advantage of playing in the home comforts of Vegas).
That said, everything in Jerry Colangelo's plan appears to be coming together beautifully. As much as poor shooting has been perceived to be the universal cause for Team USA's international losses in recent years (though a significant problem in '04), the real problems have been a lack of team cohesion, a lack of respect for opponents, and a lack of knowledge of the opposing players and their strengths and weaknesses, plus subpar point guard play.
All of these problems appear to be getting fixed. And then on top of that, if you have Kobe focusing like a man possessed - actually playing D like a man worthy of the All-Defense 1st Team nods he inexplicably continues to receive in the league - then man, this looks like a good ballclub.
This year's team looked remarkably comfortable with the international game - if they can keep the core of the 2007 roster, bring back D-Wade and add a couple more quality bigs, they should be legitimate favorites to bring home the gold in 2008, as opposed to the paper tigers that the U.S. has fielded in recent FIBA competitions.
But if you think Team USA is a lock in a single-elimination medal round, just ask team no. 2 on our list....2. SPAIN
(Qualified as: 2006 FIBA World Champion)
The men of Espana are undoubtedly still smarting (as Hubie would say) from the shocking loss to Russia in the Eurobasket final a week ago. But make no mistake, Spain is still the best European team out there: they are loaded with legit NBA talent, they play well together and understand their roles, and they are generally well-coached.
Spain gets the nod over Argentina for no. 2 narrowly because its core players are just coming into the heart of their primes (ages as of summer '08) - Gasol (28), Calderon (26), Navarro (28), for ex. - while Argentina will be starting to get a bit long in the tooth. These longtime starters will all be over 30 once plays tips in Beijing: Ginobili (31), Sanchez (31), Oberto (33).3. ARGENTINA
(Qualified as: FIBA Americas 2nd Place)
Don't get me wrong, I'm not burying the Argentinians, they remain a threat to upset Team USA and win gold. And, if anything, the strength of their national basketball program was proven this summer, as they were able to grab one of the two spots from the FIBA Americas even though six of their top nine players skipped the qualifying tournament.
They're still a legit contender to repeat as Olympic champions because, beyond their talent level (six players should be rotation players in the league this season), they still play together with incredible cohesion and a high basketball IQ on both ends of the floor.4. LITHUANIA
(Qualified as: Eurobasket 3rd Place)
What a difference a year makes. Or, more specifically, what a difference Sarunas Jasikevicious and Ramunas Siskauskas make. Those two players skipped the 2006 World Championships, and Lithuania struggled. They returned to the national team for Eurobasket, and the Runnin' Sabonises recaptured their mojo.
They appeared to be headed for a showdown in the final with Spain until the Russians knocked them off in the semis after some bad breaks -- notably, a Jasikevicious injury plus some tough scheduling (they played their semi on 24 hours rest while Russia had had 48 hours off). As long as their two stars return next summer, Lithuania should be a medal contender in Beijing.5. RUSSIA
(Qualified as: Eurobasket Champion)
You really can't say enough about how the Russians maximized their potential at Eurobasket under the leadership of coach David Blatt, who exploited the talents of Andrei Kirilenko and Viktor Khryapa brilliantly. Our hats are off to them, but we've gotta call a spade a spade: we still think that Spain and Lithuania are better teams overall. Certainly, though, no one will look forward to matching up against Coach Blatt's constantly morphing defenses in Beijing.
Couple last things on Eurobasket... as I was looking up whether Blatt is under contract for Beijing (he is), I found this story from a Russian news agency
and I just liked how they described Kirilenko's impact at the Eurobasket:
And the fourth factor was the team's unquestionable leader, NBA player Andrei Kirilenko, who was named the best forward and best player of the European championship. Without acting like a star, he had complete psychological contact with other players, who respect Kirilenko for his talent, smooth relations with coaches, and dedicated play subordinated to the team game.
And then I also found a good Q&A with Kirilenko
from Johnny Hareas at NBA.com. Here's an excerpt:
Russia outscored Spain 26-10 in the post during the final game. How were you so effective in the paint?
Kirilenko: It is not that we are effective in the paint, we are very effective defensively in the paint. We don’t let other teams score. Have you ever heard the Brazilian slogan in soccer? They say: You’re going to score as many as you can, we’re going to score as many as we want.’ We play anti-Brazilian soccer, which means, we are going to score some on you, but you’re not going to score at all. That is the slogan of our team. We are supposed to play great defense, which we did for the whole tournament. Spain scored only 59 points in the final game, and they are a world championship team. They have such great shooters and we were able to hold them under 60 points. That is a huge compliment to all of our players.
[Note: the 3 teams which qualify at the pre-Olympic tournament (see below) will probably all ultimately slot in at around this 6-8 range, and push the rest of the field down, but for now....]6. AUSTRALIA
(Qualified as: FIBA Oceania Champion)
The "Boomers" are developing some nice young talent to integrate in with some of their national team vets. Their overall talent level is less than that of the European teams, but they do play well together. Andrew Bogut is their most notable player.7. CHINA
(Qualified as: Host Nation)
China will be hard pressed to match its performance in Athens under coach Del Harris, when they qualified for the second round and ended up finishing eighth after an upset of Serbia.
Of course, they should be buoyed by the home crowds, and should be able to count on two constants: Yao's dominance inside and crappy guard play outside. The X factor really may be how the development of Yi Jianlian progresses and how much he is able to contribute by next summer.8. ANGOLA
(Qualified as: Afrobasket Champion)
The class of African basketball, Angola was a joy to watch at the 2006 Worlds, but the field is a bit too stacked for them to make too much noise in Beijing. That said, don't be surprised if Angola is able to pull off an upset or two: they unquestionably have the talent and potential to do so.9. IRAN
(Qualified as: FIBA Asia Champion)
Just qualifying was a huge accomplishment for Iran, as they surprisingly won the FIBA Asia tournament. Iran will clearly be the worst team in Beijing, and it'll be surprising if they so much as win a game. If the draw pits Iran vs. the U.S., however, it could be a mildly dramatic matchup, depending upon what the geopolitical landscape looks like next summer....
In the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament (Again, 12 teams for 3 spots)1. GREECE
(Qualified as: Eurobasket 4th Place)
The Greeks should be the odds-on favorite to win the tournament, although they did not look nearly as good in the 2007 Eurobasket as they had in either the 2006 Worlds (silver medal) or the 2005 Eurobasket (gold medal).
While Greece should qualify, if they are going to make any noise in Beijing, they really need Antonis Fotsis (missed Eurobasket due to injury) and Sofoklis Schortsanitis (missed Eurobasket due to being fat) to return as contributors next year, and they also need leader Theo Papaloukas to return to form after a subpar Eurobasket.2. SLOVENIA
(Qualified as: Eurobasket 7th Place)
Narrowly missed making the semifinals at the Eurobasket due to a heartbreaking loss to Greece in the quarters. Still, Slovenia had an impressive tournament, and have definite upside potential, considering that NBA players Beno Udrih, Sasha Vujacic, Boki Nachbar and Primoz Brezec, plus a good Euroleague guard, Sani Becirovic, did not suit up in Spain.
These guys could end up with one of the more talented rosters in Beijing, though sometimes mo' talent = mo' problems, as it's often not as easy as it looks to just parachute talented players into the middle of an established team. Often, the chemistry just doesn't work; just ask Turkey, who crashed out of Eurobasket despite adding Hedo Turkoglu and Memo Okur to its squad this summer. 3. GERMANY
(Qualified as: Eurobasket 5th Place)
It should be a dogfight for the third and final Olympic spot granted at the qualifying tournament. We'll give the slight edge to Germany because they'll have the best player in the tournament in Dirk, even though they don't have much else. 4. CROATIA
(Qualified as: Eurobasket 6th Place)
While Croatia doesn't really have much in the way of notable NBA players these days, it does have a nice collection of Euroleague talent, and they played well overall at Eurobasket '07, en route to a sixth place finish. Definite contender for an Olympic spot.
(Qualified as: FIBA Americas 4th Place)
While Serbia, France, Italy and Turkey have to be high on the list of this summer's most disappointing teams, special mention needs to be reserved for Brazil just because they blew such a golden opportunity. All the Selecao had to do was defeat an Argentina team playing without most of its top talent, and they would qualify.
But Brazil was horribly disorganized and mismanaged at key moments of the FIBA Americas tournament, relegating them to the qualifying tournament, where they'll have an uphill battle trying to claim an Olympic spot that was once in their grasp. Coach Lula Ferreira has deservedly been dismissed, but it is likely too little, too late.6. PUERTO RICO
(Qualified as: FIBA Americas 3rd Place)
P.R. still has a nice collection of backcourt players in Arroyo, Berea, and Ayuso, but they are not nearly as dangerous on the international scene as they've been in recent years due to a depleted frontcourt following the international retirements of big men Daniel Santiago and Jose Ortiz.7. CANADA
(Qualified as: FIBA Americas 5th Place)
If they had Steve Nash, I'd probably move the Canadians straight up to the number 3 spot, and eagerly await a potential Nash-Dirk showdown with one last Olympic spot on the line. But considering that Nash's career has taken off to new levels since he's opted to rest during the summer, and that'll he be 34 next summer, I just don't see it happening. I'm sure that Nashy, great Canadian patriot that he is, would love to make another run at the Olympics, but I think his head will ultimately overrule his big red maple leaf of a heart.8. NEW ZEALAND
(Qualified as: FIBA Oceania 2nd Place)
After a surprising 4th place finish in the '02 Worlds, the Kiwis have fallen on rough times the last two years. They backed into the playoff portion of the '06 Worlds, and really did not deserve a playoff spot, but lucked out because they were placed in the weakest opening round group. And this year, they got absolutely dismantled (twice) by the Aussies in the Oceania Zone best-of-three tourney. The Kiwis definitely have decent talent - Mark Dickel, Craig Bradshaw, Kirk Penney - and should have played better than they have the last few years. They do have the requisite talent to make a run at the final qualifying spot, but their margin of error is very slim. 9. LEBANON
(Qualified as: FIBA Asia 2nd Place)
File Lebanon under the same category as Brazil: they blew their golden opportunity this summer. Lebanon actually played pretty well at the 2006 Worlds, even scoring an upset of France, and appeared to be the odds-on favorite to capture the one available spot at the FIBA Asia Championships. But they were upset by Iran in the championship game, and now they have a mountain to climb to even get near Beijing.10. KOREA
(Qualified as: FIBA Asia 3rd Place)
If Ha Seung Jin becomes both an NBA All-Star and People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive by next summer, then I would give Korea a chance to get an Olympic spot.11. CAMEROON
(Qualified as: Afrobasket 2nd Place)
It was a great accomplishment for Cameroon, with UCLA's Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, to advance further than Nigeria, Senegal and Egypt, and reach the finals of the Afrobasket tourney, which got them into the qualifying tournament.
12. CAPE VERDE
(Qualified as: Afrobasket 3rd Place)
If Cameroon finishing 2nd in Africa was a great accomplishment, then Cape Verde finishing 3rd was a truly amazing accomplishment. I mean, look at this place
- it's just 1557 square miles, with a population of 420,000, even Puerto Rico is about ten times that. Really, really an incredible achievement that they are standing among the final 21 nations.
This pre-Olympic qualifying tournament is really somewhat ridiculous, by the way. With more and more international players in the NBA, and finding it hard to commit to a summer of basketball because it's so taxing on their bodies after the grueling 82-game season, FIBA's answer is to add an extra
tournament on top of the Olympics? Just seems unnecessary, especially when several teams in the qualifying tournament have no realistic chance of making the top three.
Chris Sheridan did throw in this note at the end of one of his Eurobasket reports:
And regarding that pre-Olympic qualifying tourney early next July, an impeccably-placed FIBA source told me there was quite a bit of griping from the European federations about the timing of that tournament, many believing it is coming too soon after the NBA and European League seasons end. I was also told by the same source that FIBA is toying with the idea of splitting it into two tournaments, with two teams qualifying for Beijing out of one tournament and one team from the other.
One last note: looking far ahead, to the 2008-09 NBA season, the Spurs really dodged a bullet in this summer's qualifying process. When the summer started, it sure looked like Argentina and France were both headed to the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament, which possibly meant extremely long 2008 summers for three of their starters - Parker, Ginobili and Oberto. S.A. must be thrilled that Argentina was able to qualify this summer, and can't really be too displeased that France finished 8th at the Eurobasket, just missing the last spot in the qualifying tournament. I'm guessing that Pop may have a bottle of his favorite Malbec on the way to Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez for his fine work in getting his club to Beijing this summer.
On the flip side, the Mavs cannot be too pleased that Dirk may face an extended summer of carrying Team Germany on his back, especially because I'm sure they're hoping and expecting that his 2008 summer vacation won't start nearly as early as it did in 2007.
Also see: 2008 FIBA Qualifying Tournament Preview (July '08)