Spain, Not Team USA, Should Be Considered Favorites To Win 2010 FIBA Worlds
An early look at the odds for the 2010 FIBA World Championships, which will be contested in Turkey from Aug. 28-Sept. 12, show that the United States is roughly a 1-3 consensus favorite to win the tournament, while Spain has the next-best odds at around 6-1.
I feel like these odds reflect the reputation of USA Basketball rather than the team I see being put together in 2010 (the U.S. Men's National Team is conducting its training camp in Las Vegas this week).
As of now, I believe that Spain, the defending FIBA world champion from 2006, should be considered the favorites to win the 2010 FIBA Worlds, ahead of the U.S. Certainly, the idea that Team USA is still a heavy favorite to win, based on the odds cited above, is somewhat ridiculous.
I'll explain my reasoning about Team USA below, and we'll certainly have more in-depth previews closer to the tournament, once rosters fully take shape and pre-tournament friendlies help sort out power-ranking pecking order. For now, here's a quick capsule look at the teams (other than the U.S.) which we consider to be top medal contenders at this early date:
SPAIN: Will be without Pau Gasol, who is taking time off after three straight long NBA playoff runs plus several years of service to his national team, but all of the other Spanish players should be available. Without Pau, brother Marc will step into the lead big-man role, and in Fran Vazquez, the Spaniards have another quality big to add to the roster.
This is a talented and experienced club in its prime, with golds at the 2006 Worlds and 2009 EuroBasket, and silvers at the 2008 Olympics and 2007 EuroBasket, under its belt.
GREECE: Experienced, deep side should have everyone other than veteran playmaker/catalyst Theo Papalouakas.
ARGENTINA: No Manu Ginobili, and getting a bit long in the tooth without too much young talent in reserve, but Argentina should still have enough wily veterans to be formidable.
As far as sleepers, we like....
BRAZIL: With Nene, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter scheduled to play, Brazil might well have the most talented collection of bigs in the tournament. Poor coaching has been the biggest problem for this ballclub in years past, so the addition of coach Ruben Magnano - under whom, Argentina not only won 2004 Olympic gold and 2002 World silver, but also played some of prettiest team basketball seen anywhere last decade - might be the most underrated personnel move of the tourney.
SERBIA: After hitting rock bottom in missing the 2008 Olympics, traditional power Serbia overhauled its roster and won a surprise silver at the 2009 EuroBasket with a young squad led by 2009-10 Euroleague MVP Milos Teodosic.
FRANCE: Plenty of NBA talent to draw from even with Tony Parker, Mickael Pietrus, and Rony Turiaf out for Turkey. Boris Diaw, Nic Batum and Roddy Beaubois should all make the team, but Joakim Noah is an uncertainty who could be a key X-factor. Poor shooting and lack of team cohesion have sunk the French in recent years despite the talent, and could do so again.
OK, on to Team USA....
After the 2008 Olympics, we wrote a post-mortem examining the key reasons why the U.S. had won gold after stumbling in major international competitions in 2002, 2004 and 2006.
Let's take a look at how the prospective 2010 version of Team USA stacks up in the key areas we identified back in 2008:
1. EXPERIENCED ALL-STAR TALENT
After USA Basketball's struggles, hoop pundits often derided their teams as a mere collection of stars thrown together, with a need for additional role players to fill out a team. But, even considering everything that Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski did to turn Team USA into a true team, the single most-important factor in winning gold in Beijing was that the U.S. brought overwhelming talent in a way it had not done so since 1996. More stars, not more role players, made the decisive difference - having a big talent edge is vital for Team USA given all of the disadvantages these NBA players face in FIBA competition.
Excerpted from our 2008 post, here's a breakdown of the number of players on the USA roster who were All-NBA players or All-Stars in the seasons leading into their international summers, including projected numbers for the 2010 team:
92 94 96 00 02 04 06 08 10[* - includes players who made All-NBA teams but not the All-Star Game: Ben Wallace in '02, Deron Williams in '08.]
All-NBA 1st 5 0 4 3 0 1 1 4 1
All-NBA 2nd 4 2 4 1 0 0 2 1 0
All-NBA 3rd 0 4 4 1 3 0 1 1 0
All-Stars* 11 7 12 7 5 2 5 10 6
The 2010 U.S. Men's National Team projects to rival the 2002 and 2004 editions as the least-talented U.S. teams of the NBA era. While the potential total of 6 All-Stars doesn't seem so bad, consider that:
• Three of those players are point guards - Chauncey Billups, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo - with Rondo hardly a lock to make the team.
• Gerald Wallace is another - he played in perhaps the only All-Star Game of his career in 2010, and his spot is not guaranteed, either.
• David Lee was an injury-replacement All-Star, whose availability is now in question following a finger injury on the first day of practice.
This is simply not an overwhelmingly talented team. It is well-stocked at the point-guard position (especially with Russell Westbrook in the mix in addition to the three players listed above), but particularly thin in terms of big men, especially with bigs dropping like flies as Amar'e Stoudemire and Robin Lopez have dropped out and now Lee has been injured.
In looking at the chart above, you might say, well, that 1994 team was able to win gold without overwhelming talent, but that was a different world of hoops. The talent level around the globe has increased drastically since then - teams like Brazil (with Nene, Varejao and Splitter) may have a more talented contingent of bigs than the group the U.S. fields, which is likely to be some combination of three out of Brook Lopez, David Lee, Kevin Love and Tyson Chandler.
One thing working in Team USA's favor is that several top players such as Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, Tony Parker and Andrew Bogut are sitting out the Worlds.
Still, a team like Spain can field a roster loaded with NBA-caliber talent including Marc Gasol, Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navarro, Jorge Garbajosa, Sergio Llull and Victor Claver. Is this Spain lineup as talented as the USA roster? No way. But with the other advantages they have (discussed below), they don't have to be. They just need to be talented enough to bridge the gap, and Spain certainly fills that bill.
Another area in which Team USA has taken a step back is in terms of big-game playoff experience:
• The 2004 team had just 1 player who'd won a championship (Duncan), 2 who'd been to the Finals (Iverson, Jefferson) and no one else who'd made it to even a conference finals.
• The 2006 team had just 1 player who'd won a championship (Wade) and no one else who'd been to even a conference finals.
• The 2008 team picked up much more playoff experience along the way, with 3 champions (Bryant, Wade, Prince), 2 who'd been to the Finals (Kidd, James) and 2 more who'd played in the conference finals (Williams, Boozer) - more closely resembling the '92 and '96 teams which were laden with players who'd made deep runs.
Now, the 2010 team is taking a big step back in terms of big-game experience. They will have a maximum of 3 champions (Billups, Odom, Rondo), but beyond that, not a single player has played in even a second-round NBA playoff game other than Tyson Chandler in 2008 and Gerald Wallace's rare and scattered minutes as a young King.
2. TEAM COHESION
As we've written many times, Colangelo and Krzyzewski deserve an immense amount of credit for building a cohesive sense of team over the course of the 2006-08 cycle. But now we are back at the beginning of a team-building cycle for Team USA.
Despite all the efforts of Coach K and Big JC, roster turnover is still a major factor in affecting team cohesion. Teams like Spain and Argentina and Greece have a huge advantage because they have so much more roster consistency.
Back in 2006, we ran a post titled "How can Argentina and Spain compete with the USA?"
We offered this breakdown of minutes per game at the 2002 Worlds, 2004 Olympics, and 2006 Worlds, with players who played in all 3 events in bold, showing how deficient the U.S. was in roster consistency:
I Rodriguez 22
F Reyes 15
A Reyes 12
de la Fuentes 19.9
F Reyes 14.0
M Gasol 11.9
B Rodriguez 11.1
F Reyes 9.5
S. Rodriguez 9.0
B Wallace 22
A. Miller 22
B. Davis 21
J O'Neal 19
A Davis 18
R Miller 17
J Williams 6
After having 6 U.S. players carry over from 2006 to 2008, this issue is rearing its head for Team USA again in 2010, as they do not have any players who played for the National Team in either 2006 or 2008, though Billups and Chandler were with the team in 2007, and several players have been in training camps over the past few years. Widening the roster and adding a training-camp model has certainly been a smart Colangelo innovation - now it'll be interesting to see if it can help mitigate massive roster turnover.
Spain, meanwhile, could have as many as 8 players who played on its 2008 Olympic team, as many as 9 players who played on its 2009 EuroBasket champions, and even as many as 6 players who played on its 2006 World champions. They have years and years of experience playing together - in many big games - and it's a hugely underrated reason why teams like Spain get an advantage over more-talented USA teams.
3. RESPECT FOR OPPONENTS
This was a major issue during USA Basketball's slide - U.S. teams would have no respect for the opposition and get themselves into huge holes against teams like Argentina at the 2002 Worlds and Puerto Rico at the 2004 Olympics, and frantic rallies were too little, too late.
The Colangelo-Krzyzewski era has seemed to reverse this trend, and I don't expect it to be a problem for this 2010 group.
4. SCOUTING KNOWLEDGE OF OPPOSING PLAYERS/TEAMS
This was a major problem in many games such as the 2006 loss to Greece - the Team USA coaches and players had absolutely no idea about the strengths and weaknesses of the individual Greek players (none of whom had spent meaningful time in the NBA), and were absolutely shredded by Theo Papaloukas & friends on the pick-and-roll.
Hiring the well-regarded Tony Ronzone to overhaul the USA Basketball scouting department was a significant move which improved Team USA's preparation in 2008. It will be interesting to see if these scouting improvements can carry over effectively in 2010.
Think about it: night after night in the NBA, players are going up against opponents who have been scouted thoroughly. Over time, players gradually learn other players' moves and tendencies and strengths and weaknesses to the point where plans of attack become second nature.
Then, in FIBA play, NBA players are often thrown into competition against Euroleague guys they've never seen before, and have no idea about their playing styles or tendencies. It's been a major advantage for the Euroleague players over the years.
I'm confident that the 2010 U.S. team will get quality information about their opponents - and plenty of video on opposition players will be available to distribute to the Team USA guys. It'll be interesting to see if the U.S. players - so inexperienced in FIBA play - will be able to apply their scouting information in their first matchups against the world's best non-NBA players.
5. INTERNATIONAL RULES & REFS
I would estimate that the U.S. loses an average of 4-5 net points per game just by being unfamiliar with the way FIBA referees call games, and with foreign rules such as offensive goaltending being legal. Again, Colangelo and Coach K have done a much better job of educating their teams on FIBA rules & refs compared to their predecessors. It's just tough for players to adjust habits and instincts after playing in scores of NBA games.
I'd also note that I think the most underrated rule difference in FIBA basketball is that unlimited zone defenses are allowed. Despite the fact that zones are allowed in the NBA, the existence of a defensive three-second rule really opens up driving lanes in the league which generally do not exist in the international game.
This rule really makes it tough for U.S. teams to exploit their advantages in athleticism in the halfcourt, and makes it imperative that the U.S. get out and press and run, and play a full-court game. It's a strategy Coach K has successfully employed in his tenure, and will certainly need to do in 2010, when the team's strengths lie in outstanding athleticism on the perimeter, and weaknesses will be a dearth of quality bigs.
[Note: Many casual observers always seem to blame a perceived lack of shooting for every USA Basketball loss. I've always found that to be an overrated factor. If you care to read my argument why, it can be found at the bottom of my 2008 post.]
I found the USA Basketball pre-tournament game schedule to be interesting: they'll play France, Lithuania, Spain and Greece. That is one tough schedule of tuneups, including perhaps Team USA's two toughest challengers. I sense that Colangelo and Krzyzewski know that they'll need to get this group battle-tested in a hurry. I'm guessing Coach K is viewing the pre-tourney schedule like he does a tough non-conference schedule at Duke: maybe they'll take a loss prior to Turkey, but if it gets them prepared to cut down the nets at the Big Dance, I'm sure he'll take it.
I'm certainly not counting out the U.S., but to me as of today, the signs point to Spain being the favorites to win gold, and extend a remarkable national sporting run including Rafael Nadal's Grand Slam titles, Pau Gasol's NBA championships, FIBA gold medals at the 2006 Worlds and 2009 EuroBasket plus silvers at the 2007 EuroBasket and 2008 Olympics, and football championships at the 2008 Euro and 2010 FIFA World Cup.