Here is how the 12 countries have been broken down into groups (with our power rankings in parens):
Great Britain (9)
More details below:
(Group A: Qualified as FIBA World Champion)
Winning the 2010 world championship was the most impressive Team USA achievement of the Jerry Colangelo/Mike Krzyzewski era, in our opinion. The type of roster which the U.S. brought to Worlds - inexperienced in the international game and in playing with each other - was similar to the American teams which had faced the most adversity in the NBA era, but the 2010 group won gold impressively, powered by the unconscious scoring of Kevin Durant.
More than anything, it was a testament to the quality of the national-team program created by Colangelo and Coach K, which has fostered a strong sense of continuity despite significant roster turnover, through regular summer training camps and the continual integration of new players via the U.S. Select Team.
Now, with overwhelming perimeter talent - headlined by the two best players in the world, LeBron James and Kevin Durant - Team USA is deservedly a heavy favorite to win gold. We'll be surprised if the U.S. loses in London, though last week we outlined how an upset might happen, by exploiting the Americans' lack of defensive depth on the interior beyond Tyson Chandler.
Actually, it's been fascinating to watch how Coach K's addressed his team's lack of traditional bigs in the early warmups, often going with lineups featuring only points and wings - it's been almost like watching basketball from the future, and we're very much looking forward to seeing these units in action in London.
On the popular topic of how the 2012 edition compares to the 1992 Dream Team, our two cents is that we think it would've been a good matchup if the 2012 squad had been closer to full health, but since they've lost the likes of Howard, Wade, Rose, and Bosh, we don't think it's a contest. The decisive factors are in the quality of the bigs - huge advantage to '92 Ewing and Robinson there - and also, 29-year-old Jordan would dominate 33-year-old Kobe, in our opinion.
(Group B: Qualified as EuroBasket Champion)
After following up its 2008 Olympic silver medal with dominant performances at the 2009 and 2011 EuroBaskets, Spain remains a formidable world basketball power. Most notably for 2012, Team España will have the best collection of bigs in London, with the combination of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.
Stateside, the most celebrated injury for Team España has been Ricky Rubio's torn ACL, but we actually think that won't really hurt Spain, mainly because they generally don't take advantage of Ricky's strengths, too often asking him to merely initiate the halfcourt offense and then stand in the corner as a spot-up shooter. Also, the Spaniards should still get solid point-guard play from Jose Calderon, whose steadiness might be better suited for a matchup vs. Team USA.
Rather, we think the serious Spanish injury concerns revolve around Juan Carlos Navarro, who had an up-and-down 2011-12 season while battling injuries throughout, and Rudy Fernandez, who is recovering from back surgery in March, because Spain can't really adequately replace what those two provide. Navarro is a point machine whose scoring bursts won him the 2011 EuroBasket MVP and nearly put Team USA on the ropes in 2008. Fernandez plays with a more attacking style for Spain than he did in the NBA.
In our opinion, the health of these two players will determine Spain's fate in London. If they're close to their normal selves, Spain should be a lock for the silver, with an outside chance to pull the mega-upset vs. Team USA. If they're not, Team España runs the risk of falling off the medal podium entirely, as they did at the 2010 Worlds.
While the U.S. and Spain are clearly slotted in as heavy favorites for gold and silver, respectively, it gets a bit murkier from there, as the bronze medal position is really up for grabs - not much separates these five teams.
(Group B: Qualified as FIBA Americas 2nd Place)
In the 2000s, Brazil's national team sometimes underachieved due to horrendous coaching. So it was a solid upgrade in 2010 for Brazil to hire Ruben Magnano, the architect of Argentina teams which won an historic gold at the 2004 Olympics and silver at the 2002 World Championship.
Under Magnano, Brazil advanced to the final 16 at the 2010 World Championship, losing a heartbreaker to Argentina (after nearly knocking off Team USA in group play), and then lost another tight one to their continental rivals in the final of the 2011 FIBA Americas tournament.
With Argentina's golden generation nearing the end of the line, Brazil is poised for a South American changing of the guard in 2012, especially because they have finally corralled their full complement of NBA players - Nene, Anderson Varejao, Leandro Barbosa and Tiago Splitter - onto the national team at the same time. With Nene, Varejao and Splitter, Brazil has one of the best combinations of bigs in the tournament.
And, as seen in Monday's exhibition vs. Team USA, Marcelo Huertas is unquestionably an NBA-caliber point guard. Brazil outscored the Americans by three in the 30 minutes Huertas was on the floor as the maestro of the offense. All in all, Brazil's competitive performance vs. the U.S. on the road in D.C. should have left no doubt that this is a major medal contender in 2012.
(Group B: Qualified via Qualifying Tourney + EuroBasket 3rd)
The Russians are powered by three men: the uber-versatile two-way forward combo of Andrei Kirilenko, coming off a 2011-12 Euroleague MVP season, and Viktor Khryapa, who fills up the box score playing as a Kirilenko Jr., plus coach David Blatt, as good a coach as any in the tournament, probably the best with the X-and-O's.
Russia has been known for its exceptional defense in the Blatt era. They have good team size (only one player under 6-5), and good depth of talent, including six players from this year's outstanding CSKA Moscow team. Also, as opposed to most ballclubs on the list, who are dealing with significant injury absences and/or questions, Russia is in better shape with a mostly healthy roster.
NBA fans will get a look at Alexey Shved, a flashy 6-5 point guard who is likely to join the Timberwolves this season.
(Group A: Qualified via Qualifying Tourney + EuroBasket 5th)
Lithuania looks to bounce back following its disappointing 2011 EuroBasket, in which they were knocked out in the quarterfinals in front of their boisterous, faithful fan base at home. They'll come to London with two key additions - Linas Kleiza and Jonas Maciulis - who both missed the EuroBasket due to injury.
Kleiza in particular is a game-changer - a FIBA beast who gives Lietuva a player who can create his own offense, whether in the post or via isos. Linas led Lithuania to bronze at the 2010 Worlds, averaging 19 points and seven rebounds per game. With Kleiza back in tow, the green-and-gold's offense looked sharp at the qualifying tourney - definitely expect them to have one of the most potent offenses in London.
Lithuania's frontcourt depth is questionable, especially with the late scratch of Robertas Javtokas due to a stress fracture. Darius Songaila is getting too old, while promising 2011 Raptors lottery pick Jonas Valanciunas is still a bit too green - he's quite a foul magnet in his young career. Sarunas Jasikevicius is nearing the end at age 36, but he can still knock down big shots, such as one which clinched LTU's Olympic bid at the qualifying tourney.
Regardless of whether they medal, Lithuania is sure to retain the title of greatest per-capita basketball nation on the planet, with a population of just over 3 million, easily the smallest in the Olympic field - no one else in our top 7 here is under 40M.
(Group A: Qualified as FIBA Americas Champion)
Four years ago, Draft Express wrote this in previewing Argentina's chances at the 2008 Beijing Olympics:
- "Age is catching up with Argentina, as there are no talented young generations to infuse alongside the veterans. Still featuring an outstanding six-man core with Pablo Prigioni, Manu Ginobili, Carlos Delfino, Andres Nocioni, Luis Scola and Fabricio Oberto, this team severely lacks depth, especially at the point guard position and inside."
Remember that Argentina barely survived the FIBA Americas tournament last year, at home, or it would have had to go to the FIBA qualifying tournament, which it would have been challenged to survive. Argentina edged Brazil in the final of that FIBA Americas tournament; the Brazilians are adding Nene, Varejao and Barbosa to their team, while the Argentines merely got older.
To be fair, the FIBA Americas had a punishing schedule of 10 games in 13 days; Argentina will get more rest with the every-other-day schedule in London. But, still, it's hard to find objective evidence to support the continued conventional wisdom that Argentina is a stronger medal contender than Brazil.
The Golden Generation of Argentina basketball has created some of the most beautiful FIBA basketball ever seen, but things change, and Argentina's time as a world basketball power appears to be waning. We'll see if Manu & co. can pull one more medal-winning performance out of their Albicelestes.
(Group A: Qualified as EuroBasket 2nd Place)
With more NBA players than any country other than the U.S., France certainly doesn't lack for talent, and they put it all together in 2011, winning the EuroBasket silver medal to earn their first Olympic berth since 2000.
However, Joakim Noah - new to the national team in 2011 - was a critical cog in France's run last year, and now he's out due to the severe ankle injury suffered in the NBA Playoffs. Ian Mahinmi, who also played well last year, is also out. Ronny Turiaf and Kevin Seraphin will have to pick up the slack on the interior.
Fortunately for Les Bleus, Tony Parker escaped the Drake-Chris Brown nightclub fight intact enough to remain active for London. He was as good for France last summer as he was for the Spurs in 2011-12, driving the engine of the team's offense. Without him, who knows how far France would've slid in these rankings. As it is, Les Bleus still has a solid core of talent, with the likes of Parker, Nic Batum and Boris Diaw, who hopefully doesn't like Stilton as much as Brie. Don't forget: there's not much separating 3rd from 7th in these rankings. We wouldn't be at all surprised if France played its way to a bronze.
KNOCKOUT ROUND TIER
(Group B: Qualified as FIBA Oceania Champion)
9. GREAT BRITAIN
(Group B: Qualified as Host Country)
On August 4, Australia and Great Britain will play not only to determine the unofficial Commonwealth champion, but also likely to determine which nation will finish fourth in Group B, and advance out of group play to be sacrificed to the Americans in the quarterfinals.
Australia, playing in its 13th Olympics (including three 4th-place finishes), certainly has the better pedigree, though they are missing their anchor in Andrew Bogut due to injury. But the Boomers should still be favored to make the quarters thanks to a collection of seasoned veterans from top European clubs, plus Spurs backup Patty Mills running the show from the point. Spurs assistant Brett Brown is the Aussies' coach.
Meanwhile, Great Britain, making its first appearance in Olympic basketball since the 1948 London games, will of course have the home-court advantage, and are led by Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng. Team G.B. was more competitive than expected at both the 2009 and 2011 EuroBaskets, and perhaps the home crowd can carry them to the quarters.
Great Britain's roster includes recent Blazer signee Joel Freeland and fan favorite Pops Mensah-Bonsu on their solid frontline, but the Brits took a hit by being unable to land the services of either Ben Gordon or Byron Mullins, who both have family ties to England. GB is severely lacking in the backcourt, a main reason why we ultimately favor the Aussies.
Also note that the Brits have a forward named Andrew Sullivan, but it's not this guy, and their coach is named Chris Finch, but it's (sadly) not this guy.
(Group A: Qualified via Qualifying Tourney + Afrobasket 3rd)
We are certainly eating crow after we flippantly wrote this last fall in ranking Nigeria 11th out the 12 teams in FIBA qualifying tournament: "If Nigeria can get Hakeem Olajuwon circa 1994-95 to play, they might have a chance to grab a qualifying spot. Might."
As it turned out, all Nigeria needed were the additions of Ike Diogu and Al-Farouq Aminu, who transformed the overhauled national team (Nigeria had nine new players this year), and carried "D'Tigers" to the final Olympic bid.
Truth be told, Nigeria has little chance of making it into the knockout round, but we'll give them the benefit of the doubt this time around, as they are a much-improved side loaded with tall, athletic rebounders, and certainly have the friskiness to pull off an upset or two.
ENJOY THE FORTNIGHT TIER
(Group B: Qualified as FIBA Asia Champion)
It's the harsh reality of the first post-Yao Olympics for Team China. After two straight trips to the Olympic quarterfinals on Yao's broad shoulders, it's unlikely that Yi Jianlian can carry China out of group play again.
We're happy to note that The Dodger, Wang Zhizhi, will be back for his fourth Olympic Games, 16 years after making his debut in Atlanta.
(Group A: Qualified as Afrobasket Champion)
The Tunisians should be thrilled just to be in London, as it was a monumental accomplishment to earn their first Olympic basketball bid by knocking off African power Angola - a nation which had won six consecutive Afrobaskets, and 10 of the last 11 dating back to 1989 - in the 2011 Afrobasket final.