Wednesday, August 06, 2008

2008 Olympic Men's Basketball Preview:
Group A Scouting Reports

Also: 2008 Olympic Men's Basketball Preview: Group B

The big daddy of international hoops has arrived, as the Olympic men's basketball tournament tips off Sunday in Beijing (Saturday evening in the U.S.), with unprecedented depth of talent in the 12-team field.

Links: Wikipedia | FIBA | U.S. TV schedule

The tournament is wide-open: nine teams have a shot at a medal, five of those teams have a shot at gold, and two of those teams are juggernauts on paper. Yes, the U.S. is a clear favorite with four first-team All-NBA players, but this field is too good to think they can't be beaten in a one-and-done knockout scenario.

Here's how we rank 'em overall:

1) USA

Team USA is the clear favorite, but any of these five teams has a legit shot at the Gold. Not much separates Gre, Arg, & Lith, and you could juggle those teams in any order, but we gave Greece the slight edge because of uncertain health status of Arg. (Manu & Oberto) & Lith. (Songaila & Kleiza). Two months ago, we might have considered Lith for #3, but there's no Big Z and it looks as if Songaila ain't going to China, so that's a minor blow to Lith.


Russia is kinda straddling the line between Tier I & II in our minds, but they don't have enough offensive firepower & shooting to put them with the Tier I group. Wouldn't be stunned if they snuck their way to a Bronze. Not much separates Cro, Germ, & Aust, and can juggle them in any order. Germany should secure the 4th spot in Group B. Croatia & Australia should fight it out for the 4th spot in Group A, and it's really a toss-up between them.

12) IRAN
Let's get this straight: China is not a serious medal contender what-so-ever. They're barely a contender to even make the 8-team playoff portion of the Olympics. Some have been overhyping China, and even promoting the US-China game like it will be interesting--USA-China is one of the least intriguing games of a packed Day 1. Angola is not to be taken lightly, and can cause problems for any team besides Team USA. Iran should just be happy if they can stay within 15 points of any opponent.

How It Works
The 12 teams are split into two groups of six. Group play consists of five round-robin games. The top four teams in each group move into an 8-team knockout tournament, culminating with the gold- and bronze-medal games on August 24, all to be held at Wukesong Indoor Stadium in Beijing.

Here's what the two groups look like, with our power rankings in parentheses:

Argentina (4)
Lithuania (5)
Russia (6)
Croatia (7)
Australia (9)
Iran (12)

USA (1)
Spain (2)
Greece (3)
Germany (8)
China (10)
Angola (11)

As you can see, Group B is, in our estimation, the much more challenging group. Below are in-depth capsules of each team in Group A. Group B capsules come later today.

GROUP A: (Listed in predicted order of finish)

(Overall Rank: 4)
A little older, a little bit more banged up, a little less depth, but still an extremely potent club because of their tremendous chemistry & raw talent. No team has more talent on the wings besides Team USA.

The retirement of longtime point guard Pepe Sanchez and the decision of scorer Walter Herrmann to skip the games has really hurt the Argentina depth. They will need to rely on their top 6 of Manu/Nocioni/Scola/Oberto/Delfino/Prigioni, though Argentina did play surprisingly well in finishing second in Las Vegas last year with only Scola, Delfino and Prigioni.

We worry about the depth on the frontline. Argentina has never been a very big unit or had much depth up front, but this year it's even shakier because of no Ruben Wolkowisky or Walter Herrmann. It's compounded by the fact that Scola & Oberto are foul machines. Nocioni & Freddy Kammerichs have to see some minutes at the 4--Coach Sergio Hernandez has been reluctant to move Noce down there much in the past, but we think he has no choice this year. Big lug Roman Gonzalez is the only other servicable big.

Pablo Prigioni is a very good PG in Europe, and played very well in Vegas last year, but he does have some issues dealing with bigger points, who can disrupt his playmaking ability. Still a great passer, but a spotty jumpshooter. Ginobili & Delfino handle the ball very well, and can provide pressure releases for Prigioni. So PG depth might not too much of an issue.

Oberto, Scola, & Nocioni are very crafty at getting lost on the baseline & using the flex screens to get quick seals. Though Delfino could be inconsistent in the NBA, he has played very well in FIBA the last few years. He's an underrated ball-handler & passer who's done a good job as a playmaker for Team Argentina. Nice passer on the move.

Kammerichs gives them a poor man's Nocioni off the bench with frenetic energy at the forward slot. SG Paolo Quinteros can provide deep shooting off the bench.

Should consider throwing some zone at Argentina because it can really mess up their offensive rhythm & continuity. A zone is very effective vs. flex-type or continuity offenses, which is somewhat similar to what they run. It can limit the cuts, passing lanes, back picks & backdoor cuts. Argentina is a solid 3pt. shooting team, but we'd rather have them do that sometimes because when they get that offense rolling, they get a tremendous rhythm that permeates the rest of their game. Definitely mix up the defenses to try to ruin their flow.

In one-game playoff scenario, this team can still beat anyone in the world, even the US. Their offense can still be a thing of beauty when they are clicking. Argentina has to hope that Manu has regained some of his verve, because he needs to have more explosion than he had in the Lakers series if Arg. wants a shot at Gold.

2. LITHUANIA (Overall Rank: 5)
Lithuania finished 4th in 2004 after three straight Olympic bronzes since regaining independence in 1991, and we expect them to fall in that range once again.

About two months ago we were thinking Lithuania had the best chance at beating Team USA (even better chance than Spain) because of its frontcourt depth. We figured they could outrebound USA & take fouls at will, but injuries & no-shows (Ilgauksas, sharpshooter Arvydas Macijauskas, Songaila) have put some kinks in this perennial juggernaut.

Still a very dangerous veteran ballclub, which returns most of the core of last year's Eurobasket Bronze medal team that was cruising thru the tourney until Saras Jasikevicius was felled with a bum hammy. Be careful in judging Lithuania by its subpar exhibition play--they are notorious for laying low in the pre-tournament friendly stage, they did it last year & have done it in the past.

They have the ability to just out-shoot the competition from deep, sort of like a Suns philosophy (well, what *used* to be the Suns philosophy, at least). Lithuania, at its best, plays the prototypical 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.

This deadly offense is usually orchestrated masterfully by Jasikevicius. Runs the high pick/roll to perfection, either opening shots for his teammates with precision passes or burying jumpers. Lithuania was tearing it up in the early rounds last year thanks a lot to Saras' playmaking & quarterbacking. If not for a untimely hamstring injury late in the prelims, Lith. ends up in the title game instead of Russia.

Euroleague MVP Ramunas Siskauskas is one of the best all-around players in Europe, and could be at least a nice NBA bench player. The versatile wing can drill from deep, but will also bull his way into the lane & draw fouls. Reminds me a little of another Lithuanian, Sarunas Marciulionis, with his tenacity to put his head down to attack the rim. Probably Lith's most determined defender as well.

Italian League star Rimas Kaukenas, back from a knee injury suffered earlier this year, starts alongside Saras to provide Lith with another shooter, and an underrated defender. Simas Jasaitis is another shooter for Lith to turn to off the bench.

Even without Songaila, they still have a solid frontline who can hit the glass hard. The Lavrinovic twins (Krystof & Darjus) are both active, athletic 7-footers who can float out to the perimeter & will hit the glass. Linas Kleiza gives them an athletic forward to go inside & out. Robertas Javtokas is a big, strong athlete who will hit the glass & defend, but gives nothing much on offense besides some dunks.

They can have some issues with extended defensive pressure. Not just Team USA's pressure, but they have had issues in the past vs. other squads. Saras can be careless with the ball (TOs are his weakness), and they really don't have an adequate back-up for him.

Saras is the motor that makes this team rumble, and his fiery leadership--not to mention his superb skill set in the international game--is invaluable. Their offense is always so good it can cover up for their defensive shortcomings--though I thought their defense was solid last summer. They can play an effective zone, and will likely employ packed-in looks if they run into Team USA.

3. RUSSIA (Overall Rank: 6)
Coming off a surprising run thru the '07 Eurobasket, in which they shocked Spain at home in the Gold Medal game. In David Blatt, they have the best coach in this competition besides maybe Greece's Yannakis. Blatt's willing to try all types of things, especially on the defensive end. And he's a great bench coach, who's adept at in-game adjustments (kinda the opposite of Coach K in FIBA).

The Russian defense is simply superb. They guarded the interior wonderfully at the Euros last year. Their help & recovery is tight. They will play different types of zones, and even have looks where it's hard to decipher what the hell they're in--hybrid, amoeba-type looks.

Andrei Kirilenko will often be given free reign to float around on defense inside & out. They have the ability to force TOs--which paid off huge vs. Spain in the Gold Medal game.

The uncertain health status of Vik Khryapa (ankle) could be a big blow. He was huge for Team Russia last year (we thought he was first-team All-Eurobasket) as their 2nd best player--Teller to AK47's Penn. (Even to the point that Viktor is a mute). Viktor was a poor man's AK47 last summer--passing, rebounding, defending, and even knocking down his outside looks as the tourney progressed. At the '07 Euros, Vik was 2nd in steals, 4th in rebs & 5th in assts overall.

Run nice offensive sets with nice ball movement--some Princeton-style stuff presumably influenced from Blatt's college days. Will also look for post-ups for Kirilenko, who was effective down low last summer.

But Russia is just not that explosive of an offensive team--they are prone to extended dry spells, probably due to not really having many natural shooters. JR Holden is a solid player, but he's more of a mid-range pull-up jumpshooter than a consistent deep threat. He is a proven performer in the clutch, as he hit the last-second, game-winning shot to beat Spain in the Euro final last year, and he has often come up big in the Euroleague Final Four for CSKA Moscow, as he did this year. Overall, Russia is really not that great of an outside shooting team--Z. Pashutin is their only true shooting threat.

7-footer Andrei Savrasenko helps as a nice interior defensive presence, and does a sneaky job slipping the high pick/roll. Nikita Morgunov did a great job backing up Savrasenko last year, and also did damage sneaking to open spots. Victor Keyru gives Blatt another long, active defender who could somewhat make up for the possible loss of Khyrapa.

Just don't think Russia has enough offensive firepower to be put in the title contender category. They did just enough on the offensive end to win last year, and don't think they can pull off the same magic this year. Russia really needs Khryapa, and Blatt is saying that Vik could suit up by the weekend. But with Blatt at the helm, they can't be totally counted out of an appearance in the medal round.

Six players on the Russian roster play for Euroleague champion CSKA Moscow as their club team.

4. CROATIA (Overall Rank: 7)
Got here via strong play in the pre-Olympic qualifying tourney last month, especially impressive on the defensive end. Defense has steadily improved over the last few years, and was tremendous in their semifinal victory vs. Germany. Their help & recovery was top-notch, as they closed out & contested great on Germany's array of shooters.

No NBA notables on this team, but many of their players are standouts in the European leagues, including a great collection of guards who are versatile & solid athletes. Croatia looks to generate most of its offense on the perimeter, trying to free their guards to drive-n-kick and unleash their shooting acumen.

Marko Popovic & Davor Kus are combo guards who can both drill from deep, and also handle some ball-handling duties. Former NJ Net Zoran Planinic is the primary point who can get into the teeth of defense & create for himself or teammates, though Zoran is still having issues with his foul shooting. New Toronto Rap Roko Ukic played very well off the pine in Athens last month and is great at penetrating, but is a spotty shooter. Marko Tomas was one of the best players in Athens, and showed why he was once considered a 1st-round NBA prospect. The 6-7 wing is a deft shooter, but is also a solid athlete who can put the ball on the deck & finish in the lane.

Grizzled vet Nikola Prkacin provides Croatia with a burly big who will look to back down his man on the block, and will hit the glass. Marko Banic gives Croatia another banger who throws his weight around on defense & the glass. K. Loncar gives Croatia another big who can hit elbow jumpers & rebound off the bench. Stanko Barac & Sandro Nicevic bring similar things as well.

Young big Damir Makota, formerly of the Bucks, is out with an injury, and longtime Euroleague star Nikola Vujcic is retired from international play.

At the '07 Euros, Croatia beat Spain, played Lith tough, and lost to Greece on a 30-footer buzzer-beater from Spanoulis to win, so this team can definitely hang with the big boys. They can beat any team in their group, and have a great shot at making the knockout playoff round.

5. AUSTRALIA (Overall Rank: 9)
The strength of the field should be evident by the fact that we have Australia, which just played Team USA tough without Andrew Bogut, rated so low in its group.

The Boomers have played really well so far this summer after looking really good last summer in thrashing New Zealand for the Oceania crown. The Aussies have tightened up their defense the last few years under the guidance of Coach Brian Goorijan, and have made it a priority.

Nice collection of bigs in Bogut, solid Euroleaguers Dave Andersen and Matt Nielsen, and Australian NBL MVP Chris Antsey. Each big can face up and draw defenders away from the painted area. Andersen is a great face-up threat who is a highly efficient baseline shooter.

CJ Bruton is a battle-tested veteran PG who can hit jumpers off the bounce, and was a solid contributor at the '06 Worlds. They also have the services of young PG Patrick Mills, who was great in NCAA for St. Mary's (CA) this year & really caused problems for Team USA in the friendly game with his speed. He's also dangerous with his jumper.

Really like to set up their perimeter shooters. Love to look for 3pters, and have the players to drill it: Brad Newley, Barlow, Bruton, Mills & M. Worthington can all hit. Thought their offense would click better when they ran their sets thru Bogut during the '06 Worlds, utilizing his passing skills. But did not go thru Bogut enough for my liking. Also, seem be taking better care of the ball this summer--turnovers were a major issue in '06, when they averaged nearly 20 per game.

This team can really shoot the ball up & down the lineup, and have shown a stout defense. Think they could challenge any team in Group A, and beat any team on a given night, even give Argentina game because of their size advantage.

6. IRAN (Overall Rank: 12)
Iran has been playing surprisingly well thru the summer (including a startling friendly win over Serbia), but have been snakebitten with injuries to some of their key players. It looks like two of their best players could be sidelined for the Olympics.

7-footer Hamed Hadadi, who is drawing some cursory looks from NBA teams, is likely out of the tourney. Meanwhile, guard Mehdi Kamrani has a bum leg that should keep him out of Beijing. This is on top of the devastating death via car accident in December of Aidin Bahrami, a contributor on last year's Asian champions.

For a team that was already clearly the weakest in Beijing, not having their best could make some of their games ugly. Their go-to-guy now is Samad Nikkah, who is a dangerous shooter. Really have no chance to win a game.

Also: 2008 Olympic Men's Basketball Preview: Group B


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