2012 Olympic Men's Basketball Preview:
Group A Scouting Reports
• Also see: Group B Scouting Reports
The crown jewel of international hoops has arrived, as the Olympic men's basketball tournament tips off Sunday in London. The field of 12 teams is 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 12.
Group A features Argentina, France, Lithuania, Nigeria, Tunisia and the USA. USA is the clear favorite to take Group A and the gold. After that, tough to predict the order of how Argentina, Lithuania and France finish. Not much separates the three teams and second place could be had by any of the three. Expect all three to make the knockout round.
Will be tough for Nigeria to sneak into the knockout phase, but there's enough raw athletic talent to challenge every team besides USA. Tunisia's chance of winning a game are slim-to-none. First Olympic appearance for both African nations.
Let's take a closer look at each team below:
Key Players: Everyone
Team USA remains a prohibitive favorite to win the gold medal in London after its pre-Olympic tour, which was illuminating in spotlighting the team's (many) strengths and (few) weaknesses, as well as the dynamics of how rotations and roles are rounding into form.
Roughly speaking, the equation for the United States is Talent + Turnovers = Gold. The main starting lineup includes the top four players in the 2011-12 NBA MVP voting - LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant - with the Defensive Player of the Year, Tyson Chandler, at center. The core rotation also features Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams, plus a little bit of Andre Iguodala and Kevin Love.
The combination of athleticism, length and intensity forced a ridiculous amount of turnovers (22.0 per game, in 40-minute games), barely less than the average number of field goals allowed (24.8). It's been a full group effort - the defensive pressure has been ferocious everywhere, with guys like Westbrook and Bryant able to be notably more aggressive on D, given that they carry sharply less offensive responsibility than on their NBA teams.
Whereas the 2008 Redeem Team was a fairly egalitarian band of brothers, in 2012, the double-decker bus seems more decisively driven by James and Durant. LeBron was a major piece in Beijing, but often seemed to fit in as needed, whereas this time around, he looks more assertive. He led Team USA in scoring (18.6 ppg) and assists (4.0 apg), and was second in rebounding (4.8 rpg) in 25.8 mpg on the tour. Durant, meanwhile, has picked up where he left off on his tour de force run at the 2010 Worlds. He was second in scoring (17.6 ppg) and first in rebounding (5.0 rpg) on the tour while shooting a blistering 16-29 (.552) on his chip shots from behind the international arc.
The most-used Team USA lineup (especially in key moments in their pre-Olympic games) was a Paul-Bryant-Durant-Anthony-James unit. Sure, KD, Melo and LeBron have often been effective small-ball 4s, but these guys are still wings at heart, making this a fairly stunning core lineup consisting of nothing but points and wings. No posts.
It really can't be overstated that this is boldest experiment yet in basketball's positional revolution. Are Team USA's lineups of all
points and wings - with overwhelming athleticism meant to compensate for traditional interior play - a glimpse into basketball's future, or are they a folly of positional revolution gone too far, which ends up backfiring spectacularly on a global stage?
Most teams will have no chance against the Americans' overwhelming athleticism and talent. There shouldn't be any tests until well into the London fortnight. The U.S. should cruise through group play, and we expect the real crucible for the super-small lineups to come against Spain and Brazil in the medal round. In pre-Olympic games vs. those teams, the Americans' ability to force beaucoup TO's overrode the many times their defense was completely broken down when Chandler was not on the floor (and they also shot the lights out vs. Spain).
One thing that's surprised us with the small lineups has been sticking with Melo when his defensive matchups have seemed like glaring mismatches down low, against a Scola or a Gasol. It's one thing when he's going great offensively, as against Spain, but when he's cold (as he was vs. Argentina), we're surprised that Coach K hasn't turned to more Andre Iguodala in his small lineups, for a guy who can compete better defensively on the interior, especially since the U.S. has plenty of options offensively.
Team USA is still unquestionably our pick for gold, but after seeing how often they were shaky with no bigs on the court, we think the chances for a monumental upset are a little higher than we originally thought.
-- M. Haubs
Key Players: L. Scola; M. Ginobili; C. Delfino; P. Prigioni
This could be the swan song for the core of the "golden generation", so enjoy the unselfish teamwork over the next two weeks.
There are a bunch of factors that give you pause about this squad: age, lack of size, lack of depth and declining speed.
But the aforementioned negatives are tempered by positives like chemistry, superb offensive execution, passing, high bball IQ and experience.
The veteran team definitely looked like they were dragging during the second week of the 2011 FIBA Americas (Olympic qualifying tournament). Brazil beat them in the second round, Puerto Rico pushed them to the brink in the semis and Brazil made it close in the finals.
Though it does need to be factored in that the FIBA Americas schedule is brutal: 10 games in 13 days, six games in seven days during the second week. The Olympic schedule is more forgiving with a day off between every game.
For a team that was never particularly deep or big, losing the services of Fab Oberto and Pepe Sanchez does not help their fortunes.
Some positive news for the Argentines is Carlos Delfino (recovering from surgery for a sports hernia) played well vs. Team USA in prep phase and seemed to moving alright.
Few FIBA teams ever have been better passing units as a whole than Argentina. Expect stretches of beautiful play. Have multiple options on each play, and seemingly counterplays for their counterplays. They cut and move off the ball very well.
Luis Scola had a slightly off year in the NBA, but expect big things from him as he's always a beast in FIBA play. Scola was dominant at the FIBA Americas (21 ppg on 57%), and earned his third FIBA Americas MVP in a row.
Scola will draw extra defenders, draw fouls and shoot a high pct. Loves working the pick/roll, where he will peel off to hit jumpers from the foul line area or work his way to the baseline for jumpers. And he will score in the post in a variety of ways and off of flex cut/screens.
35-year-old Knicks rookie PG Pablo Prigioni, who's always been reluctant to look for his shot, went berserk from the perimeter last summer--buried 61% behind the arc. His shooting is a bonus, but his main strength is his passing--one of the best pure passers in London. Master of the bounce pass. The Prigioni-Scola pick/roll combo is one of the deadliest in the tourney. Pablo always plays under control and rarely makes mistakes.
Manu Ginobili doesn't move quite as well as he uses to, and there were a few instances last summer where he struggled. But for the most part, he played fairly well at the FIBA Americas (16 ppg, 4.1 apg, 1.5 spg, 46% on 3PA). Manu can still do damage with the ball in his hands and Argentina will have him run nearly as much pick-n-roll as Prigioni. Manu and Prigioni are two of the best passers at their positions on this planet.
Carlos Delfino had another fine all-around FIBA performance at the Americas. Expect quality passing, defense, rebounding and finishing from 'Los. Will also act as the tertiary ball-handler and will be run off screens.
Andres Nocioni has been slowed by injuries the last few years but he pitched in last summer, knocking down his jumpers and grabbing boards. Chapu will have to spend most of his time at the PF spot with Scola sliding over to the 5-spot in Fab Oberto's absence and they will need Noce to focus on rebounding.
Reserve forwards Hernan Jasen and Painted Area fave Federico Kammerichs are both high-energy types who provide boards and aggressive defense.
Forward Leo Gutierrez can hit standstill jumpers, and that's about it. Reserve big Juan Gutierrez will see some time at center but doesn't offer much.
No one over 6-9 will see serious minutes, but then they've always lacked size. Their rebounding was decent last summer, but could see it being an issue in London.
Generally a solid defensive team and did a good job last year, though they didn't exactly guard the post well. Forced plenty of steals last summer which helped them thrive in transition.
The starting five will likely have to play heavy minutes. Ginobili and Delfino might see some time at PG as reserve Facundo Campazzo is untested at this level.
Getting to the finals is unlikely as even when they were in their prime they had trouble beating Spain. But believe there is just enough left in the tank to compete for a bronze.
Key Players: L. Kleiza; J. Valanciunas; J. Maciulis
After being upset by (FYR)Macedonia in the Euro quarterfinals at home, Lithuania had to go to Caracas earlier this month to qualify for London.
They played pretty solid ball at the pre-Olympic tourney, but they exactly didn't cruise through the week.
Nearly lost to Puerto Rico in the quarters and lost to Nigeria in the first round (though, not sure what to make of that game as Lithuania just needed to keep the game close to advance).
At the pre-Olympic tourney, Lithuania showed its still one of the most potent offensive units in FIBA play. They were awesome offensively last summer--81 ppg (#2 at Euro) on 51% shooting (#1 at Euro)--and they look to be even better at the Olympics this year with Linas Kleiza back in the mix.
Kleiza led Lithuania with 19.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 50% shooting (50% on 3PA) at the qualifying tourney. Lithuania got Kleiza back into the groove with the post-up/iso action that worked well in 2010 (LTU likes to screen him across the lane into his post-ups).
SF Jonas Maciulis (11.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg in Caracas) returns to the team after being injured last year. The athletic Maciulis is vital to Lithuania's fortunes as he's their best defender. And he was tough on both ends of the floor in Caracas, like he was at the 2010 Worlds.
Lithuania is known for its exacting offense of crisp ball movement, off-the-ball player movement and lots of dribble handoff action. The ball does not stick and they tend to always make the extra pass. Similar to Argentina.
Always one of the top perimeter shooting teams in national-team play. No surprise they drilled their 3pt. attempts in Caracas just like they did last summer (40%, #1 at Euro).
Great depth (virtually two-deep at every position) and plenty of experience playing together.
Few worries about the offense, but definitely some concerns about their defense overall. Lithuania did a fairly good job on the pick-n-roll coverage last summer, but were not great defending pick-n-roll in Caracas. Also did a poor job getting back in transition (which plagued them last summer).
The frontline rotation, which is usually a strength for this team, has some serious question marks. Dealt a blow when veteran center Robertas Javtokas was diagnosed with a stress fracture recently. This will likely hurt Lithuania defensively.
In theory, this means more responsibilities and minutes for Jonas Valanciunas. We say in theory because the big question for Jonas (and Lithuania), is how long he can stay on the floor? One of the main flaws to Jonas' game at this stage is foul trouble. Jonas was in constant foul trouble during the pre-Olympic tourney--fouled out of the Puerto Rico game in six minutes.
Jonas (8.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 70% FG pct. in 16 mpg) was highly productive in Caracas and played solid ball in limited minutes last summer. His post game has improved over the last year (reliable hook) and expect more post touches this summer. Also, Jonas is dangerous cutting and rolling to the rim. He actually guarded the post well last summer, which is promising for Lithuania's fortunes.
Darius Songaila can still knock down some mid-range jumpers, but he's on the decline and a defensive liability.
Rugged PF Paulius Jankunas gives Lithuania boards, a bit of post scoring and some shooting (awkward, but effective). But most importantly they need Jankunas to provide a physical presence defensively in place of Javtokas.
The two-headed PG combo of Saras Jasikevicius and Mantas Kalnietis orchestrated the Lithuanian offense fairly well in Caracas. They combined for 20.6 ppg, 11.5 apg and 55% shooting. Both points played well last summer (both shot very well) and 36-year-old Saras can still make the offense hum for extended stretches.
Lithuania can be very dangerous in the pick-n-roll, especially when Saras is orchestrating--dangerous at pull-ups and a terrific passer. As roll men, Songaila is a pick-n-pop threat while Valanciunas is an alley-oop threat.
Run a ton of ball-screen action--a third of their offensive possessions at EuroBasket (according to Synergy Sports)--though that percentage should go down with more Kleiza post-up action.
The Lithuanian guards do have a tendency to be careless with the ball (a perennial problem), and they struggled with turnovers last year. Could see them struggling with the extended pressure of Team USA.
Ex-Dukie Martynas Pocius kept his strong play from last summer going in Caracas by burying jumpers and flying around the court. Likes to aggressively attack the rim and can draw fouls.
Veteran guard Rimas Kaukenas shot the ball very well last year (11 ppg on 62% overall) and will also do a bit of ball-handling where he's a dangerous pull-up threat.
Looks like Lithuania will have SF Simas Jasaitis back in the lineup after missing the pre-Olympic tourney with injury. Jasaitis played well at EuroBasket and might be the best shooter on a team littered with shooters.
Lithuania won't be able to hang with the U.S., but they should be able to fight it out with Argentina and France for second place in Group A. A bronze medal is definitely a realistic goal, but won't be easy.
Key Players: T. Parker; N. Batum; B. Diaw; K. Seraphin
France earned a trip to London by playing the best ball they've played in a decade at EuroBasket last year. Though, they might not be as formidable as last year with Joakim Noah out due to injury.
After years being held back by a perennially ragged half-court offense, France was as good offensively as they've ever been.
Tony Parker was one of the most dominant players at EuroBasket--22 ppg, 4.4 apg, 1.6 spg, 2.4 TOpg, 45% shooting (33% on 3PA) and nearly seven FTA per game. Constantly shredded defenses with pull-ups or finishes.
But not exactly sure what to expect from Tony. His freak eye injury is still healing and he's supposedly uncomfortable wearing goggles. Stating the obvious, but if Tony can't go full force, France will struggle offensively.
Expect a heavy diet of Parker pick-n-roll. The ball-handler in France's pick-n-roll action (primarily Parker) was effective scoring points all tournament last year, though France's roll game has been a non-factor.
Nic Batum was a valuable second option for France last summer, averaging 14 ppg on 53.5% (41% on 3PA). Batum did a good job knocking down shots in the half-court and in transition. Watch fof France curling Nic into the lane off of down screens on the left side. This action worked well last year.
Actually, France's overall defense was a little subpar at EuroBasket. In the '00s, this was always the strength that usually made up for their subpar offense.
Their pick-n-roll coverage was nothing special last summer--allowed .98 points-per-possession in p/n/r, according to Synergy Sports.
France guarded the post very well last summer thanks in large part to Noah, who held his man to 28% shooting, according to Synergy Sports. With Noah unavailable, we wonder about their interior defense, particularly guarding bigs.
Both Ronny Turiaf and Kevin Seraphin will alter shots, but both usually have issues with fouls. While Turiaf missed EuroBasket with injury, Seraphin played sparingly last summer.
Seraphin played solid ball this year with both the Wizards (and Caja Laboral), and we really think Seraphin could be an X-factor for France. They need him to step up to fill the void left by Noah by providing some solid interior defense and rebounds.
Expect plenty of post-up opportunities for Boris Diaw, where his deft footwork and passing skills are put to good use. Diaw did a great job working out of the post last summer.
France got a lot mileage out of a set in which Diaw would screen for a wing (usually Batum) and the wing would wrap around another screen at the high post to get a pass on the opposite wing. Then Diaw would get a cross-screen into his post-up.
Diaw's biggest problem in FIBA play, as in the NBA, has been inconsistent effort; expect a "one game on, next game off" pattern from Boris. He had plenty of no-shows last summer.
Besides Diaw, center Ali Traore is another capable post option who's quite effective turning over his right shoulder--turnaround jumper and loves to go with a lefty hook. Traore is not much of a defender.
Nando De Colo began Euro '11 poorly but really came on strong over the last five games. De Colo will handle the ball some and is a capable pull-up shooter. Nando play alongside Parker sometimes and back him up at PG.
Ex-Sonic wing Mickael Gelabale is an underrated factor for France as he's Les Bleus' most consistent spot-up threat (shot 63.6% on 3PA) and a strong defender at multiple positions.
Even though they did a good job in transition last summer, would like to see them get out in transition even more. At Eurobasket, roughly 11% of the offense came on the fast break (according to Synergy), they should get that up to around 13-15%. They've got the personnel to thrive in transition and their defense can generate turnovers (7.5 spg last year).
Yannick Bokolo, Yahkouba Diawara and Florent Pietrus are all limited offensively, but do cause problems on defense thanks to their athleticism.
Historically, France has struggled in the half-court offensively over the last decade primarily because they couldn't space the floor. But they have shot close to 38% from behind the arc the last few years after perennially being in the low-30% range.
France can easily finish second in this group and compete for a bronze. But they need Parker at full strength and consistent play from their frontline on both ends of the floor. Both question marks right now.
Key Players: Ike Diogu; Al-Farouq Aminu; Tony Skinn
Nigeria comes into London flying high after they worked some magic at the Pre-Olympic tourney. Greece was expected to grab the last qualifying bid but Nigeria stole their spot by beating them 80-79 in the quarters, then beating Dom. Republic in the 3rd-Place game.
Wasn't sure what to expect from Nigeria at the pre-Olympic tourney since they had very little experience playing together as a whole unit.
Nine new members were added to the team this summer with only Derrick Obasohan, Olumide Oyedeji and Ejike Ugoboaja returning from last year.
The additions of Ike Diogu and Al-Farouq Aminu to this summer's roster were key to Nigeria's fortunes in Caracas, especially vs. Dom. Republic.
Diogu (25 pts on 71% FG, 10 rbs) was terrific scoring the ball inside all game long, but really hurt the Dominicans in crucial spots by burying long jumpers (3-of-4 3PA). Diogu was an inside-out force in Caracas (16.6 ppg & 10.8 rpg) and Nigeria will lean on Ike heavily to create offense, primarily down low.
Nigeria will need Al-Farouq to replicate his strong all-around Pre-Olympic play (13.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.8 bpg) if they want any chance of sneaking into the quarters. They also will allow Al-Farouq to isolate quite a bit. This action worked alright in Caracas, but wonder how well it works in London considering Al-Farouq is generally not a good shooter.
If you're a fan of 6-9 athletic rebounders, this is the team for you. They have an endless supply. Were tough on the glass at Afrobasket and in Caracas.
ACC alumni Ekene Ibekwe (Maryland) and Alade Aminu (Ga Tech) are two bouncy 6-9 forwards who can board, block shots and finish. Big men Ejike Ugboaja (Cavs '06 2nd-round draftee) and former SuperSonic Olumide Oyedeji are two other athletic rebounders who played well at Afrobasket.
The problem is that most of the bigs are not particularly skilled on offense besides Diogu. They're pretty much just good for dunks or lay-ins.
Offensively weren't great during the Pre-Olympic tourney, but they were nowhere near as ragged as expected. But we still have major reservations about how their half-court offense will fare vs. better comp at the Olympics.
They hit 35% of their 3PA in Caracas, but in general, not a good outside shooting team. Not filled with much passing talent either.
Tony Skinn (starter on George Mason's '06 Final Four team) will be called upon to run the point. Skinn is nothing special as a facilitator and Ade Dagunduro is a shooting guard forced into the reserve PG role because there is no one else. Former Nebraska guard Dagunduro gave Nigeria very good minutes in Caracas using his great speed to attack the lane and disrupt defensively. Both PGs are erratic shooters.
SG Derrick Obasohan didn't shoot well in Caracas, but would still consider him Nigeria's best shooter and perimeter scoring threat. SG Chamberlin Oguchi (Ex-Oregon) is a spot-up threat off the bench.
Nigeria really needs to focus on using its elite athleticism to get out in transition and try to lessen the time it's in the half-court.
Nigeria did upset Lithuania in group play at the Pre-Olympic tourney but do have to take that result with a grain of salt. Lithuania went into that game knowing they only needed to not lose by more than 10 points to secure the group win.
Nigeria has enough physical talent to be competitive with teams like France, Argentina and Lithuania. They could outrebound any of these teams and defend them alright. But their overall low offensive skill level should hold them back from pulling an upset and the knockout round is a longshot.
Key Players: Sslah Mejri; Amine Rzig; Macram Romdhane
Weakest team in the field and the only possibility for a competitive game will be the tournament opener vs. Nigeria. Probably wouldn't be in London if Nigeria had had its current roster intact for last summer's Afrobasket.
Tunisia is a surprise to be in London as they ended Angola's monopoly on representing Africa in the Olympics. Tunisia finished Afrobasket 7-0 and upset Angola, 67-56, in the finals.
The most intriguing Tunisian player is 7-1 center Salah Mejri, who recently played a few games for the Jazz at the Orlando Summer League. Salah's isn't too polished offensively, but is a high-volume rebounder and a major defensive presence. Mejri is the reigning Defensive MVP of the Belgium League where he led the league in blocks (led Afrobasket 2011 in blocks).
Diminutive PG Marouan Kechrid is a nice jump shooter and will dart around dropping nifty bounce passes. Mourad Mabrouk (6-2) is their designated sharpshooter.
SF Amine Rzig (6-6) didn't really perform well at Afrobasket, but he's probably Tunisia's most complete player. Solid shooter who will post and isolate sometimes.
6-8 forward Macram Ben Romdhane is an active, productive player, who led Tunisia in scoring (12.7) last summer in only 20 minutes/game. Not much of a shooter, but dives to rim well and crashes the glass.
Mohamed Hadidane and Radhouane Slimane are two other active 6-8 forwards who help on the glass. Plus, Slimane is Trey Kerby's favorite FIBA baller, which counts for something.