2008 Olympic Men's Basketball Preview:
Group B Scouting Reports
Also: 2008 Olympic Men's Basketball Preview: Overall Ranks/Group A
Here we go with the in-depth breakdowns for Group B, which has the 3 best teams in the tourney in our estimation, definitely the two best in USA & Spain. A great team is going to be stuck with a 3rd place finish. We see Gold, Silver, and Bronze overall coming from the first three teams below.
GROUP B (Listed in predicted order of finish)
1. USA (Overall Rank: 1)
No news is good news for Team USA. Think back to this time four years ago. The list of players who dropped off the roster between the dominant 2003 qualifying team and the disastrous 2004 Olympic team included the following: Kidd, R. Allen, McGrady, J. O'Neal, Bibby, K. Malone, Brand, V. Carter, Collison. Several others declined invitations as USA Basketball had to scramble to cobble together a roster at the last minute.
Now the waters are smooth. Out of the 12 players on the 2008 roster, 3 (James, Anthony, Howard) have played each of the past two summers, and the other 9 have played one summer. In 2004, 4 players had played *one* of the previous two summers, while the other 8 were making their international debuts at the senior level.
Kudos to Jerry Colangelo for that, as the only main roster question is whether the choice of Prince instead of Chandler will leave Team USA too thin up front, with only three traditional bigs (Howard, Boozer, Bosh).
This year's team includes four All-NBA first teamers (Paul, Bryant, James, Howard) from the previous season. No USA Olympics or Worlds team has had that many All-NBA players since the 1996 Olympics, the last dominant Team USA on the world stage. The bronze-winning 2004 and 2006 clubs had just one first-teamer apiece, while the 2002 disaster had none.
Pressure defense seems to be the Team USA calling card, which will trigger their potent transition game. It will work vs. most teams, but not so sure how effective it will be against Spain & Greece specifically. Both teams have the guards who will not be overwhelmed by the ball pressure. Also, Team USA needs to pick its spots to overplay passing lanes because a team like Argentina will kill you with back-door action & players getting lost behind the defense.
We wrote a piece last summer which touched on these issues, noting that Team USA's defensive issues were not just about pick-and-roll D; they were about team D as a whole. We think the piece still stands.
In '06 a lot people forget Team USA actually played pretty solid defense in the prior playoff games vs. Aust. & Germ (defended Slovenia very well in the prelims). To us, not understanding Greece's tendencies was a problem as much as strictly the technical aspect of bad pick/roll coverage that has been buried into the ground. And Team USA seems to be making a concerted effort to be thoroughly prepared for each opponent with int'l scouting guru Tony Ronzone running the show & packaged video clips via Synergy Sports.
One minor weakness could be the lack of size and we've seen some instances where Team USA can have issues on the boards. Also, Coach K still needs to prove himself as a game coach on the professional level after the 2006 Greece pick-n-roll parade, and foul shooting seems to be shaky in spots. This was an underrated problem in '06, and something to keep an eye on.
Despite the small weaknesses, the strengths are still formidable: we're picking the U.S. to bring home Gold for the first time in a major competition in 8 years, and think they are a clear favorite. But in a one-game scenario, the US could go cold from the outside, cold from the free-throw line, the forced TOs could dry up, and the opposing team could just be red-hot from the perimeter. Spain & Greece are the likely teams to do it, with Lithuania & Argentina having a legit shot as well. This is not a done deal, so let's hold off on the Dream Team comparisons for a couple weeks.
2. SPAIN (Overall Rank: 2)
We'll see how they recover from the devastating collapse at home at last year's Eurobasket. Have been rolling thru their exhibitions, but they always take their friendly games seriously. Have great balance with one of the best offenses in FIBA & one of the best defenses. Also, probably have the most raw talent outside the US, and are extremely deep this year with NBA-caliber players--most in their prime or approaching it--in Calderon, JC Navarro, Rudy Fernandez, P. Gasol, M. Gasol, Garbajosa plus 17-year-old sensation Ricky Rubio and several solid Spanish League veterans.
There was a brief moment this spring when Spain's summer prospects were in jeopardy, following the sudden sacking of Coach Pepu Hernandez. However, the players supported the hiring of new coach Aito Garcia Reneses, and the transition appears to be seamless, as they've continued to bring their varied defenses. Like Russia, Spain does a great job of mixing up their defensive looks, play probably the best zone in FIBA, and sometimes employ def. sets that are hard to figure out.
One of the keys to Spain's emergence as a top dog the last few years has been their improved outside shooting. They were the worst perimeter shooting team at the last Olympics (even worse than Team USA). But Calderon & Navarro have worked on their shooting, and have turned into reliable 3-pt threats, especially Juan Carlos. And Rudy can drill as well.
Pau is much more effective as a FIBA defender than in the NBA. He can just sit in the lane, and is an effective anchor for Spain's stellar zone looks.
Pau might feel the need to redeem himself not only for a lackluster NBA Finals, but also remember that he struggled badly down the stretch of Spain's shocking 59-58 loss at home to Russia in the 2007 Eurobasket final. Pau was just 3-8 at the FT line, with 3 TOs, in the fourth quarter of that game. He missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer, and committed a costly TO with his team up one in the final 30 seconds. Though that one nightmare quarter should not cloud the fact that Pau was a stud at the Euros overall.
Pretty scary when you can bring Rudy Fernandez & Ricky Rubio off the bench. Rudy probably should be starting over Navarro. Marc Gasol has really improved over the last few years, and is one of the best players in the ACB (Spanish League). They will look to push in transition with Calderon & Rubio looking to set guys up. And Rudy, a dangerous finisher, is always looking to run the floor.
Felipe Reyes is a combo forward who can go inside & out. Has very good footwork in the painted area. We'll see if Garbo is fully recovered from his brutal leg injury this year. Last summer, he was obviously not himself, and Spain needs him close to full strength, because Jorge is huge for their defense. He's one of the best help defenders in the world, and he's allowed to float around like Kirilenko does for Russia.
This might be the best Spanish team in their recent vintage, thanks to emergence & growth of guys like Marc Gasol, Rudy & Rubio. Expect to see them in the Gold Medal game, and think they have goods to push Team USA to the limit, and possibly upset them.
3. GREECE (Overall Rank: 3)
We think this might actually be the best Greek team of their current golden era--even better than the '05 Euro Champs or '06 Worlds Runner-up. They looked stunningly good in the pre-Olympic qualifying tourney, where they smacked every team they played. And the offense that really struggled in spots last year looked the best we've seen it from this era of Team Hellas.
What's encouraging about this squad is how successful they have been the last few years with an average offense. They would do just enough on offense to supplement their great defense and pull games out. But this year, the offense has turned it up a notch. They have better shooting, which creates better spacing for the creativity of Euroleague superstars Theo Papaloukas & Dimitris Diamantidis. Their ball movement looks great, and they are even looking to run out a little more.
Having Antonis Fotsis back in the fold this summer is huge. Really feel like his absence due to injury was a big factor in their early lackluster play last September. The 6-9 forward is the best natural offensive talent Greece has. The former Memphis Grizzly can play inside & out, can put the ball on the deck, and is an underrated athletic finisher. Sometimes is just too reticent to assert himself.
Greece also has Sofocles "Baby Shaq" Schortsianitis back this year after spending last summer at fat camp. His size of course gave the U.S. all kinds of problems in the 2006 upset, and could do so again, given Team USA's limited number of bigs. Team Hellas was looking to set up Big Sofo in the painted area more at the qualifying tourney. He had some issues finishing early on, but got better as the tourney went on, and still drew fouls aplenty. He still struggled with free throws & TOs, though.
Outside shooting has been a Greek bugaboo in the past, and really affected their spacing last year. But they look to be solid with Fotsis back this year, and a healthy Nikos Zisis back too. Diamantidis is a solid shooter (very clutch actually) but he's reluctant to shoot sometimes. Vassilis Spanoulis has slowly improved his outside set shooting, though he is much more dangerous as a pull-up shooter.
Still, everything starts with defense for Coach Panagiotis Yannakis' well-drilled club, as Greece has one of the best half-court defenses in the tourney. They force a boatload of turnovers, get tons of deflections because of length and active hands, & rotate nicely--total team affair. They play a tight, controlled pace at both ends of the court and are more than happy playing games in the 60s & 70s.
They have been looking to run out in transition more with Papaloukas usually creating on the fly--makes sense with all the turnovers their defense can force. The Greeks will look to extend pressure up the floor & their traps are effective--they can cause a string of TOs in a hurry. Long-armed Diamantidis (aka "Octopus Man") is a demon, Spanoulis is great at shuffling his feet laterally to stay in front of guards, and Papaloukas is underrated with great anticipation & quick hands.
Panagiotas Vasilopoulos will likely start at the SF slot, and gives Hellas another strong defender with a decent shooting touch in the starting unit.
Contrary to some reports, Greece has actually been a subpar rebounding team the last few years. Though this year they look to be solid with more playing time for Bouroussis, Sofocles, and a healthy Fotsis. Also, Vasilopoulos rebounds very well for a SF.
Kostas Tsartarsis will probably start alongside Fotsis on the frontline and is a solid role-playing forward who provides solid rebounding & defending.
This team is a smart, tough, cohesive unit which makes very few mistakes. This team just finds ways to win because of their collective mental toughness. And now their offense is catching up to their rock-solid defense, which gives them a legit shot to knock off Spain or even repeat their upset of the U.S.
4. GERMANY (Overall Rank: 8)
Got here by dispatching Puerto Rico in the 3rd place game in Athens a few weeks ago for the final spot in Beijing. Played solid ball, and did a nice job of incorporating new Deutschman Chris Kaman into the mix.
The offense revolves around a heavy diet of either Dirk or Kaman on the low blocks, plus the requisite isos for Dirk scattered around the floor. Dirk was a stud in the qualifying tourney, and was very aggressive every game, which is a good sign. Kaman was very effective in only about 20 mins per game, especially on the glass, and helped protect the rim.
Dirk & Kaman did a pretty good job of moving the ball out of the post when they drew extra attention. And Germany shoots the ball well as a team: besides Dirk, D. Greene, Roller, Garrett, & Schultze can all hit from deep.
Would like to see a few more high pick/rolls involving Steffen Hamann to get him in the lane. Hamann is not the best playmaker around, and has issues with TOs, but he is a big, athletic PG who is a good finisher in the lane. Pascal Roller will back-up Hamann, and brings a sweet shooting touch & the ability to pull up off the dribble or coming off screens.
Germany was already a very strong rebounding team before Kaman arrived, and it's definitely a big strength. Very big team with six guys over 6-10. Starting SF Konrad Wysocki even rebounds well which helps fill some of the void left from injured Ademola Okulaja, who unfortunately has been diagnosed with a broken vertebra caused by a tumor.
Thought Bauermann should have given Jan Jagla some more floor time in the pre-Olympic tourney. He brings great energy off the pine, especially crashing the glass, and is an underrated passer. Former UW Husky Pat Femerling is not the most graceful big around, but he still gives Germany some serviceable minutes on the defensive end.
Defense is pretty solid under Coach Dirk Bauermann, and was especially stout on the interior last month in Athens. Their zone in the 2006 Worlds was the most effective I've seen vs. Team USA in the last few years. They can put two 7-footers on the backline to protect the rim.
How consistent can the role players be is the main question for Team Deutschland. SG Demond Greene needs to show up every night in my estimation if Germany wants to make a deep run. He can get streaky hot from the outside, and was a nice 2nd option to Dirk at the '06 Worlds.
Germany should slide into the last quarterfinal playoff spot in Group B, but needs to be alert vs. Angola & China, because both teams can knock them off in a one-game scenario.
5. CHINA (Overall Rank: 10)
Let's just clear something up: China has no shot at a medal. I understand there are a lot of promotion angles at work that would benefit from China being a contender, but don't let Nike or NBC fool you--China is likely done after the prelims. It would be a shock if they even got to the Semis, and will be lucky to even make the 8-team playoff portion of the tourney.
The bulk of responsibilities of course fall on Yao, who will likely do his part once again as one of the best players--delivering some of the best stats--in the tourney, as he did in Athens in 2004 and Japan in 2006.
Still, it won't be enough against the brutal lineup in the talented Group B. China's guards are decidedly subpar, and have extreme difficulties bringing the ball up the floor vs. even token pressure. Just getting Yao enough or good touches will be a constant chore. This team just turns the ball over way too much; it's not just the guards, the bigs lose the ball too much as well. China's perimeter defense is nothing special either, and that puts even more pressure on Yao to clean up their mistakes.
Yi Jianlian could be an X-factor in determining China's success, though he tends to disappear for long stretches. Fans of "Big Dodger" Wang Zhizhi will be happy to see him in action; he currently plays for the Bayi Rockets of the Chinese Basketball Association.
The one thing that China does do well is shoot the perimeter jumper. We know Yi & ZhiZhi are bigs who can face-up, but SF Wang Shipeng is another shooter, who was China's 2nd best player in '06 & a secondary scoring option after Yao.
Liu Wei should get the nod at PG, and is a solid playmaker when he can get into the half-court set. Other players of interest include guards Chen Jianghua, a youngster who provides more And 1 flash than production, and Sun Yue, a Laker draftee.
Beyond the curiosity factor and all the hoopla, you don't need to waste your time with the USA-China game on Day 1 from a basketball standpoint. You can save your energy for a couple huge games that are way more interesting: Spain-Greece and Lithuania-Argentina, four of the top five teams matching up on opening day.
6. ANGOLA (Overall Rank: 11)
Fans who saw this entertaining, up-tempo club play at the 2006 Worlds know that they have the ability to put a scare into any team. Angola actually beat China by a point to win the Stankovic Cup in China last month. Sorry to get all cliche-y, but the best word I can think of to describe this squad is scrappy. Have good overall athleticism, and they're a very active bunch.
They are very small--no one over 6-8 sees serious minutes. The other problem is they don't shoot the ball all that well. Still not sure why more teams do not consider more zone vs. this team.
On offense, they are always looking to attack the basket, mostly attacking off the dribble. SG/SF Olimpio Cipriano is probably their top-dog and the best perimeter shooter. Joaquim Gomes & Ed Mingus are the inside duo that is relentless going against bigger opponents. Gomes & Mingus are each about 6-8, but are still capable rebounders & are the secondary scorers next to Cipriano. Milton Barnes comes off the bench to cause problems with his great speed--he really speeds up the pace & wreaks havoc at both ends of the floor.
As we said before, Angola is a tough out for any team in Group B besides maybe Team USA. Angola had great chances to knock off Germany in their epic 3-OT battle at the '06 Worlds, and they stayed within 10 points of Spain in '06 when Spain was crushing other teams. Would not be stunned if Angola beat Germany & China and snuck into the playoffs--they're that dangerous.
Also: 2008 Olympic Men's Basketball Preview: Overall Ranks/Group A