Monday, July 30, 2012

2012 Olympics: Brazil Holds Off Australia & Other Sunday Game Analysis


No surprise Australia was able to take Brazil down to the wire. Solid veteran team with a quality frontline that could matchup fairly well with Brazil' size.

Both teams did not shoot the ball well, but that was somewhat a byproduct of two quality defensive teams squaring off. Both teams were horrid from deep. The Aussies did a nice job crowding Brazilian sharpshooter Marcelo Machado.

But the refs (as FIBA refs are wont to do) helped make this game a slog. Just like nearly every other game on Sunday, foul trouble ruined the flow and messed with the minute distribution of each team. Aussie big man Aleks Maric picked up four fouls in eight minutes.

Leandro Barbosa (16 pts) was in attack mode most of the game--sometimes this led to good things, other times, not so good. Barbosa converted some nice finishes in transition, but tempered that with his usual handful of forced plays in transition (probably had 2-3 TOs in trans.)

Marcelo Huertas (15 pts, 10 assts) didn't shoot the ball great, but did knock down some off-balance shots. Hit a few of his patented floaters/runners and even threw in a nifty one-legged fadeaway off a spin move. His penetration got him to the FT line nine times and opened up shots for his teammates.

He's so tough to contain because he changes direction with the dribble so well. One play in particular where he used a hesitation/fake spin move of the left side that led to sweet pass to a cutting Barbosa.

Like he did last year, Tiago Splitter had difficulty with his touch--2-for-10 shooting. But he did provide his usual sound defense and rebounding. With Nene and Varejao, Tiago did a nice job defending ball screens and when getting switched onto guards.

Andy Varejao (12 pts, 7 rebs) was his usual Johnny-on-the-spot self (not sure how to say in Portuguese) sneaking to open spots for scores. Made a nice flash cut to hit a foul-line jumper with three minutes remaining. Then he snuck in for a big put-back 40 seconds later that gave Brazil a 71-64 lead (Andy had four off. rebs).

Both teams looked to push in transition, and the Aussies were successful getting out on the fast break early in the game. Brazil has success on baseline cuts (flex screen/cut action) during the game.

Patty Mills (20 pts, 7 rebs, 4 assts) was a force in the open floor and did a great job attacking all game. There were couple times where he just blew-by defenders who were ahead of him in transition. But Patty was not reliable with his jumper (1-for-9 on 3PA).

Joe Ingles was clutch in the 4th, scoring 11 of 15 pts in the last five minutes of the game. Had two nice drives off of isolation in the 4th quarter and made a terrific read going backdoor for a lay-in that cut the lead to two with 30 secs left.

Dave Andersen flashed his sweet stroke with jumpers inside and out. Dave was big in the 2nd half (all 14 pts came in 2nd) with turnaround jumpers over both shoulders and two big 3pt. makes in the 4th.

Argentina 102, Lithuania 79: Didn't expect this outcome. Thought this match would be tighter, but Argentina's offense was in vintage mode. The ball movement and spacing were on point, plus Carlos Delfino couldn't miss from deep (6-for-9 from 3pt. line).

Argentina hit nearly 51% of their shots and 40.7% on 3PA. These are numbers similar to last summer.

Luis Scola was in his usual FIBA-beast form on the offensive end--32 pts on 12-of-19. Did damage on the blocks with a couple righty hooks, popping to the FT line and slipping/rolling to the rim. Threw in a couple of his patented scoop shots and drew fouls (13 FTA) as usual.

Manu did a bunch of ball-handling as ueual and slithered his way to rim multiple times to finish off some high-difficulty shots. Manu was off with his jumper (1-for-7 on 3PA), but was terrific in every other aspect of the game contributing 10 rebs, six assts and four steals.

We mentioned in our Sunday preview of games that Argentina's ability to gets steals combined with Lithuania's perennial problems with turnovers would be a factor. Argentina generated 12 steals which often led to easy buckets the other way. Jumped passing lanes well.

NY Knick Pablo Prigioni dropped a few perfect bounce passes and knocked down two 3pt. shots up against the shot clock; two things he has a knack for.

Wondered about Lithuania's defensive integrity in our preview and Sunday performance's can't make the passionate Lithuania's fans happy. Their pick-n-roll coverage was dicey at the Pre-Olympic tourney, and it was hurting vs. Argentina.

Actually, Lithuania was not that bad on the offensive end. Yes, they did turn the ball over 16 times (which is about normal for them), but they did shoot 46.7%.

The one area that was peculiar was the 3pt. shooting. It's not so much that they only shot 30%, it was they only attempted 10 shots from behind the arc. The sweet-shooting Lithuania are usually not shy about getting up their deep shots.

Lithuania got solid play from their frontline. Linas Kleiza (20 pts on 7-for-11) did a nice job scoring on his post-ups and hit mid-range jumpers and runners throughout the game. Veterans Darius Songaila (11 pts) and Paulius Jankunas (14 pts) scored around the rim.

Lithuania backcourt let them down. The PG combo of Saras Jasikevicius and Mantas Kalinietis combined for seven TOs and 4-of-17 shooting. Martynas Pocius was going way too fast which led to six TOs.


USA 98, France 71: Team USA didn't look amazing but really had little trouble with the French. Ragged offensively--USA only shot 43% from the field and 32% from deep. But they did get to the FT line 38 times.

On the flip side, the defense tighten the screws in the 2nd quarter (as they usually do) after leaving some gaps for easy French scores in the 1st. The US held France to 39% shooting and 2-for-22 on 3PA, while forcing 18 TOs.

Obviously their defensive pressure helped them take over the game in the 2nd quarter, but thought their offensive effort in the quarter was just as impressive. They looked kind of Euro-y in spots with some nice player movement in their sets.

Still, Team USA stopped the ball a bit too much (14 iso plays for the game). USA hurt the French in transition, getting out on the fast break 24 times.

Kevin Durant led the way with 22 pts while Kevin Love stepped up with 14 pts. Lebron and Kobe did a nice job filling in the gaps around them.

Team USA basically has three days off in row as they play Tunisia on Tuesday.

Other Sunday results:
Spain 97, China 81; Russia 95, Great Britain 75; Nigeria 60, Tunisia 56:

Tuesday Games of the Day:
*-(Times are London Time, five hours ahead of EST)

France vs. Argentina (8pm):
Easily the most interesting game of the day. Winner likely secures 2nd-place in Group A. Argentina looked sensational vs. Lithuania while it's tough to gauge France as they had to play the US.

On a positive note, Tony Parker looked alright in the US game and didn't seemed to bothered by the goggles. Parker is bad matchup for Pablo Prigioni, who has trouble keeping average PGs in front of him.

France does have capable wing defenders that could do a decent job on Manu and Delfino. Nic Batum and Mickael Gelabale could matchup well vs. the Argentine wings. This issue is Scola could cause problems as he draws fouls at a high clip while the French centers, Ronny Turiaf and Kevin Seraphin, tend to foul too much.

Lithuania vs. Nigeria (2:30 pm): This game could factor into who gets the final knockout bid from Group A. Lithuania has revenge on their mind as Nigeria upset them in group play, 86-80, at the Pre-Olympic tourney a month ago.

Though, it's up for debate how serious Lithuania took that game since they just needed to keep the game within 10 points to advance to the quarterfinals in Caracas.

Not sure how Lithuania's collective psyche is doing after being thrashed by Argentina. They had issues with turnovers, and one area where Nigeria is dangerous, is causing TOs.

Nigeria clearly has the advantage athletically and they are great rebounding team. Nigeria's main issue is their half-court offense is usually not pretty. Lithuania really should aim to slow the pace and keep this a half-court type of affair because Lithuania is the polar opposite of Nigeria in the half-court.

Lithuania should also pack the painted area as Nigeria will usually only have one quality shooter (Derrick Obasohan or Chamberlin Oguchi) on the floor at once.

Have to imagine Lithuania will right the ship and payback Nigeria.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

2012 Olympic Basketball: Final Power Rankings & Sunday Games Preview

Group play tips off on Sunday at 9 a.m. London time (yikes) and runs until August 6th (games every other day). The top four teams in each group advance to the single-elimination playoff phase that starts on Aug. 8th. Semis follow on Friday, Aug. 10 and the gold-medal game is on Sunday, Aug. 12.

Wouldn't mind if the Olympic basketball committee switched to three games a day to make sure teams are not playing games before noon. Maybe play the women's and men's games in separate venues.

Here's our rankings of the Olympic field:

Final Power Rankings:
1) USA
2) Spain
3) Brazil
4) Russia
5) Argentina
6) Lithuania
7) France
8) Australia
9) Great Britain
10) Nigeria
11) China
12) Tunisia
USA is the clear favorite and is expected to meet Spain in the finals on Aug. 12th. Right now, Spain is by no means a lock for the silver.

Brazil has a legit shot of beating Spain in group play with Juan Navarro and Marc Gasol ailing. Don't sleep on Russia just because they have only three NBA players, they're a legit medal contender and closely-matched with Brazil.

Second place in Group A is up for grabs with not much separating Argentina, Lithuania and France. We give Argentina a slight edge over Lithuania because Carlos Delfino looked to be moving well in prep phase and Luis Scola can get Jonas Valanciunas in foul trouble.

Starting to cool on France's chances of competing for a bronze. Tony Parker's uncomfortableness with his goggles is an underrated factor. If they can't full-force Tony, they will struggle offensively.

Australia should get the last knockout-round spot in Group B and their experienced, physical team can compete vs. Brazil and Russia.

The Brits and Nigeria have a slight chance of sneaking into the knockout round, but they will need catch a lot of breaks and drill their shots at a higher-than-normal clip.

China is not a pushover, there is some talent here to challenge Britain. Tunisia has Jack Rebel Slims (hat tip to Trey Kerby), so that's one reason to get excited about watching them.

*-(To get a deeper analysis of each team, take a look at our group previews: Group A & Group B


Let's take a quick look at some of Sunday's top games:

Sunday Games of the Day:
*--(Times are London time (five hours ahead of EST))

Argentina vs. Lithuania (10:15 pm):
Most intriguing game of the day between two closely-matched teams. Both teams are known for their exacting offensive execution and crisp ball-movement. Both teams tend to make the extra pass. Both teams have counterplays and multiple options in their sets. Both teams can drill from deep--on 3pt. attempts, Argentina shot 43% at Americas, Lithuania shot 40% at Euroasket.

We give the slight edge to Argentina because Jonas Valanciunas will likely have to guard Luis Scola much of the time, which is a dangerous proposition for Lithuania. Here's why: Jonas has trouble staying out of foul trouble and Scola is one of the best players in FIBA at drawing fouls.

Won't be surprised if Argentina pounds the ball into Scola on the blocks early. Expect Scola to do damage as a popper in ball-screen action and on cuts.

Linas Kleiza is the main option for Lithuania and they like to screen him across the lane into post-ups/isos. Andres Nocioni will likely have to guard Kleiza, which could work out alright for Argentina.

Another interesting matchup is at PG between Pablo Prigioni and Saras Jasikevicius. Two old PGs who are masterful at running the pick-n-roll--both great passers. The difference is Prigioni rarely makes mistakes while Saras has a tendency to be careless. Lithuania usually has some issues with turnovers and Argentina did a great job forcing TOs last year, which they often turned into easy buckets.

Like Argentina's defense somewhat more than Lithuania's, but Lithuania could have the advantage on the glass.

Brazil vs. Australia (11:15 am): The best Group B game of the day. Australia has a frontline that can matchup fairly well with Brazil's trio of Nene, A. Varejao and T. Splitter.

Dave Andersen, Aleks Maric and Matt Nielsen give the Aussies three veterans around 6-11 who have proven themselves at the highest levels of European club ball.

All three can make plays out of the post, while Andersen and Nielsen can float out to the perimeter. The Aussies generally defend well and rebound well enough to possibly neutralize Brazil on the boards.

SA Spur Patty Mills usually hurts the opposition with his speed advantage, but not so sure he can overwhelm Brazil's backcourt, which has speed of its own. Brazil's Marcelo Huertas and Leandro Barbosa should neutralize the influence of Mills.

USA vs. France (2:30 pm): The game might have been a bit more interesting if Joakim Noah were active and Tony Parker weren't having issues with his eye/eyewear.

We know Team USA will try to overwhelm Les Bleus with aggressive defense. France does have one of the more athletic teams in the field and might be able to guard Team USA decently for stretches of the game.

France's primary line of attack will be running Parker in ball-screen action. Also watch for Nic Batum coming off of down screens (usually on left side).

They also like to set up Boris Diaw in the post quite a bit, and they will usually screen across the lane for him after he sets a down pick for a wing (usually Batum).

Ali Traore and Kevin Seraphin might get some post touches as well. France needs Seraphin to step up to fill the void left by Noah.

Friday, July 27, 2012

2012 Olympic Men's Basketball Preview:
Group B Scouting Reports

• Also see: Group A 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 B features Spain, Brazil, Russia, Australia, Great Britain, and China. Spain is the lead dog in the group but not an overwhelming favorite because of injuries. Brazil and Russia are closely-matched and legit bronze candidates. Their Aug. 2nd matchup should determine 2nd place in the group.

Australia is a solid, veteran club that will fight with Great Britain for the last knockout round bid. China rounds out the group and has enough talent such that they should not get steamrolled in every game. They could challenge the Brits.

Let's take a deeper look at the Group B teams:

Key Players: Gasol Bros; J. Navarro; J. Calderon; R. Fernandez; S. Ibaka

After underachieving wildly in 2010, Spain got back to business last summer and rolled through EuroBasket. Spain outscored its opponents by an average of 13.5 ppg and won eight of its 11 games by double figures.

Like Team USA, Spain's roster is 12-deep and has an endless array of options. Also, Spain really likes to push the tempo like the U.S.

Some NBA fans might assume the loss of Ricky Rubio would be a significant blow to Spain, but it's really not. Ricky isn't used to his fullest potential by Spain as they have too many players who need the ball in their hands.

The bigger injury concern right now for Spain are the statuses of Juan Navarro and Marc Gasol. Marc has been sitting out some prep games because of a bum shoulder, but not sure the severity.

La Bomba has been battling plantar fasciitis all year and had a slightly off-year in Barcelona. Possibly not having La Bomba at full strength is the most worrisome thing for Spain. He's Spain’s top perimeter threat and has been one of the top FIBA scorers over the last decade.

Rudy Fernandez is still working his way back from back surgery, but he's looked solid in the prep phase. Rudy's NBA career was a bit disappointing, but he usually shines when he plays for the national team. Spain allows him to play the free-wheeling style he craves.

Navarro and Fernandez will be run through their fair share of off-ball screens--La Bomba hit 56% (66% adjusted for 3PA) of his off-ball screen shots at Eurobasket, according to Synergy Sports Technolgy.

Navarro and Rudy also will run plenty of pick/rolls. Navarro generates a lot of points in ball-screen action either by scores or passes. Jose Calderon is back again, and is another savvy playmaker in ball-screen action.

At EuroBasket, Pau Gasol was awesome once again for Team España --20 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.7 bpg, 54% overall. Scored on post-ups, jumpers, cuts and put-backs (11-for-15 on put-back attempts, says Synergy Sports). Pau's defensive presence in FIBA play has always been an underrated factor.

We know the Gasols can do serious work on the blocks and Spain will feed them plenty. Often set up their post-ups with high-lo action that comes out of double-high post sets. Both bros pass well from the high post.

Maybe the most impressive aspect of Marc's play during Euro '11 was his passing, particularly his passing as the roll man. Marc averaged 13.3 ppg, 7.3 rebs and 2 apg.

Serge Ibaka has added a much-needed dose of athleticism to the frontline and was a factor in 17 mpg last summer. Ibaka will get his points on cuts and help the Gasols protect the rim.

This will be PF Felipe Reyes’ last go-round with the national team. Reyes is on the decline but can still score a bit around the rim and provide toughness in limited minutes.

Recently-signed Blazer Victor Claver can play both forward spots, but it's unclear how much floor time he will get. The athletic stretch-4 has not played much in the past for Spain, but Felipe Reyes is older now, so Claver might get some of his minutes.

Combo guard Sergio Llull (Rockets hold rights) will primarily back up Navarro but will get to handle the ball some. Llull's speed makes him dangerous in transition and effective with ball pressure. But his jumper is inconsistent.

Sergio Rodriguez will fill the void left by Rubio and has improved his shot over the years. Still a flashy passer, but still a turnover machine.

It's not a given Spain rolls through this group. Brazil has a legit shot of knocking them off because of the injury issues. Russia won't be a cakewalk either. If Spain has any hopes of upsetting the U.S., they have to have Marc and La Bomba at full force.

Key Players: Nene; A. Varejao, T. Splitter; M. Huertas; L. Barbosa

This projects to be the best Brazilian team in about 20 years--have all their key guys together and have a terrific coach, Ruben Magnano, to organize them.

Won the silver at the 2011 Americas tourney without the services of Nene, Varejao and Barbosa, who all return this year.

It will be interesting to see how Magnano integrates Nene, Barbosa and Varejao back into the offense. Nene is going to expect touches in the post and Barbosa likes to get up shots.

Next to Spain, Brazil has the best frontline rotation in the Olympics. Expect the interior defense to be stout with Nene and Varejao back.

Brazil hopes they can get a little bit better play from Tiago Splitter in London. Last summer, he struggled on the offensive end, continuing to have issues with his touch. But Tiago did help Brazil with his usual sound defense, passing and rebounding.

Brazil really likes to space the floor on offense. They like to start offense way up high and bombard the opponent with pick-n-roll. Their roll game should be tough to stop with Nene and Varejao back.

Marcelo Huertas is one of the best PGs outside the NBA and has played great ball for Brazil over the last few years. The speedy Huertas can penetrate and finish with variety of floaters.

He's very hard to contain in pick-n-roll as he will dribble off the screen or can go away from ball screens. Can get out of control sometimes, which leads to some forced passes (leaves his feet to pass sometimes) and forced shots.

One minor concern is the depth in the backcourt, particularly who spells Huertas. The backup PG minutes will be split by Larry Taylor and Raul Neto, both inexperienced at this level of national-team competition.

One player who might be overlooked, but who we feel could take this team to another level if he's consistent, is forward Marcus Vinicius. Think Vinicius could be the X-factor if Brazil wants to somehow upset Team USA in a possible semifinal match. The 6-9 forward has the length to be effective defensively.

Thought Vinicius gave Durant some issues in spots in 2010 and probably matches up with Durant as well as anyone in the tournament outside of Kirilenko. Vinicius has played well over the last two summers and is a capable pull-up shooter, particularly going left.

37-year-old SF Marcelo Machado is a lethal shooter and only needs a sliver of space to get his shot up. Often hits jumpers in rapid succession. A danger spotting or off screens. Not on the floor for his defense.

SG Alex Garcia usually gives up three-to-four inches when playing SF, but makes up for it by using his strong build to be an extremely aggressive on-ball defender. Can attack the rim in the half-court and in transition. Inconsistent shooter because of awkward release.

Combo forward Guilherme Giovannoni is their designated stretch-4 option off the bench. Giovannoni is slow, but defends better than expected.

Brazil has the ability to wreak havoc with defensive pressure and force an up-tempo game. This team is dangerous in transition thanks to great speed across the board.

Though, Brazil can force the issue too much in transition (particularly Garcia & Barbosa), which can often lead to the opponent getting easy scores back the other way.

They have the size, speed and skills to hang with any team in this field. With Spain not totally healthy, Brazil has a legit shot of winning this group. Brazil's our favorite for bronze, and maybe could sneak into the finals instead of Spain. Right now, they might match up better with Team USA than Spain does.

Key Players: A. Kirilenko; A. Shved; Vik Khryapa; T. Mozgov

Very closely-matched with Brazil and a bronze medal is a realistic goal. Had very little trouble navigating through the pre-Olympic tourney--they were the best team in Caracas.

Russia has a deep, athletic squad with good size at every position (both PGs are 6-6). And they're directed by one of the finest FIBA coaches around, David Blatt.

Led by their trio of versatile 6-9 forwards Andrei Kirilenko, Vik Khryapa and Sergei Monya. All three guys defend, rebound and pass well.

Kirilenko is coming off a Euroleague MVP season and, he was the best all-around player in Caracas (16.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.1 apg, 3.25 spg). AK was terrific last summer at EuroBasket as well, averaging 15 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.3 apg, 2.6 spg, 49% overall and 41% on 3PA.

Just think of Khryapa as the poor man's version of Kirilenko. Monya is a terrific help defender and the best shooter of the forwards.

Known for their great defensive play and should be one of the best defenses in London. Led EuroBasket in points allowed (65.7) and overall defensive FG pct. (41.4%). Their defense didn't fail to impress at the pre-Olympic qualifier as well

They swarm to the ball down low, deny on the perimeter (especially Khryapa) and challenge nearly everything.

Coach Blatt mixes up his alignments adroitly and causes confusion for opposing offenses. Expect Blatt to implement different types of zones, sometimes it's hard to decipher what the hell they're in--amoeba-type matchup zones. Lets Kirilenko and Khryapa roam around.

Their offense is built to get mileage off of cuts and off-ball screens. Not a ton of attacking off the dribble (besides Shved) or many post-ups.

Their ball movement tends to be good. In Caracas, 84% of their field goals were assisted, which is killer.

Very disciplined with their spacing and tend to keep the basket area open. Princeton-style sets that start out high and all five guys up near the free throw line extended.

Won't have the services of Andrey Vorontsevich, but shouldn't be too big a deal with the other 6-9 forwards on the roster. Also, combo guard Sergey Bykov is out with injury as well.

Athletic combo guard Alexey Shved is the key man in the backcourt rotation. New T-wolves signee is a rangy athlete who has an advanced understanding how to run pick/roll. Combines a nice handle (crossovers & hesitation dribbles) with good passing skills.

Shved played alright in Caracas (10.5 ppg, 5.0 apg), but he forced up too many questionable shots (especially haphazard runners) which led to 34% shooting. His decision making can be dicey at times.

Anton Ponkrashov (6-6) is another big PG at Blatt's disposal. He's nowhere near as dynamic/athletic as Shved, but he's nifty passer who plays a methodical style.

Starting SG Vitali Fridzon is the best pure shooter on the team, tore things up in Caracas--14.5 ppg on 68%, 11-for-14 on 3PA. Russia runs him off a lot of down screens.

Timo Mozgov didn't contribute much in Caracas because he sprained his ankle, but he should be ready to go this week. Mozgov has played well for Russia over the last few years and he's effective as a roll man. But he still has issues with fouls, so only expect 20-22 minutes of floor time.

Luckily, Russia added Sasha Kaun back to mix after missing EuroBasket with injury. In Caracas, Kaun(12.5 ppg on 75% shooting) gave them good minutes by running the floor well and finishing on rolls. Neither Kaun nor Moz post-up too much.

In general, not really that great of an outside shooting team. Fridzon needs to be marked and Monya is solid, but after that they're kind of erratic.

Teams maybe shouldn't respect their spacing as much as they do. Should slough off around the paint, keep the backline integrity to discourage the cuts.

Another minor concern was that their FT shooting was not very good last year (65%). Something to keep an eye on.

Russia's tough defense (with off-kilter zone looks), crisp ball movement and masterful coaching (and preparation) makes them a serious contender for a bronze.

Key Players: Patty Mills; Aleks Maric; Dave Andersen; Joe Ingles

This is Australia's 11th-straight appearance in the Olympics, the current record since the U.S. boycotted in 1980. But then again, Australia basically got another free pass to the Olympics thanks to being in the Oceania zone. But that does not mean this team is not a solid team; just means FIBA needs to rework its zone format.

Relatively deep team, with experience playing together--pretty much the same roster that advanced to the 2010 Worlds quarters (seven players remain from the '08 Olympic team)

Coached by San Antonio assistant Brett Brown. In 2010, the Aussies were good at nearly every facet on defense--must be a Spurs thing. The Aussies also hit the glass well.

Even without Andrew Bogut (and Nathan Jawai), the Boomers have a good rotation of veteran big bodies (four guys 6-10 or bigger). Coach Brown has the luxury of having three good back-to-basket 6-11 players in Matt Nielsen, David Andersen and Aleks Maric. All three have proven themselves at the highest levels of European ball.

Nielsen and Andersen give the Boomers two multi-skilled bigs who can move inside & out. Dave Andersen has 3-pt. range on his jumper but also works well in the post, where he can unleash his effective turnaround jumper over either shoulder.

Nielsen can float out like Andersen. Nielsen is a factor in the post because of nice passing and nifty moves. Nielsen can put the ball on the deck as well.

Aleks Maric is a bull in the painted area who shoots a high pct. and commands the boards. Uses his strong hind quarters to carve out post position and guard the post well. The downside of his physical play is a propensity to pick up fouls.

Ex-Wazzu Cougar Aron Baynes is another banger Coach Brown can call on to give five hard fouls. Combo forward Mark Worthington is a savvy, jack-of-all-trades veteran forward, who will post-up a bit.

S.A. Spur Patty Mills is their main perimeter threat and causes problems with his speed. Mills led Australia in scoring at the last Olympics and at the 2010 Worlds. Opponents should be going underneath Mills' ball screens as he's an unreliable shooter. Mills is not the best decision maker and needs to limit his TOs.

Coach Brown will turn to another St. Mary's (CA) product, Matt Dellavedova, to spell Mills, and also play alongside Mills sometimes. The senior-to-be at St. Mary's is nothing special of an athlete, but makes up for it with toughness and a shifty handle. Good deep shooter and very adept with runners.

6-8 Joe Ingles is a lanky, multi-skilled talent at the SF. Ingles' strong handle allows him to run some pick/rolls and create plays off of isos. Good passer but will force the action sometimes. Ingles is a decent shooter spotting or off the bounce.

6-7 Brad Newley (Rockets own rights) is another good athlete on the wings, who can bury shots on the perimeter. 6-9 Dave Barlow is a bouncy athlete who can knock down open shots and rebounds well at SF.

The Boomers will push the ball when given the opportunity and Mills makes them effective in the open floor.

Australia has the ability to hang with Russia and Brazil. Maybe even Spain, if they're not tuned in. The Aussies have good depth, they play solid defense, they should rebound well, they've got experience and they’re physical.

Key Players: Luol Deng; Joel Freeland; Pops Mensah-Bonsu

At last summer’s EuroBasket, Britain finished 2-3 in a tough Group A that featured Spain, Lithuania and Turkey. Much the same roster is back this summer but Pops Mensah-Bonsu is added to the mix. This is an important upgrade as Pops is a dynamic player in FIBA ball.

But the Brits are dealing with some injuries to some of key rotation guys. Reserve big Dan Clark and starting SG Mike Lenzly are ailing and might not suit up.

Compound this with the Brits not being able to coax Ben Gordon to join the squad and there’s some uncertainty for the home team. Really could have used Gordon to give their backcourt a major upgrade in talent.

Luol Deng is the marquee name, and he carried the Brits at EuroBasket, averaging 24.6 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 3.6 apg and eight FTA/game. But Deng has to carry such a heavy load offensively for Britain.

Deng will isolate quite a bit on the perimeter and in extended post-ups. Britain will also run Luol off some screens and run some pick-n-roll looking for switches.

Simply, Britain was not real good on the offensive end last summer. At EuroBasket, shot just 42.4% overall and 30% from behind the arc. Add to that, 15.2 TOpg and only 12 apg. Also averaged 15 TOpg in 2010. A major concern.

Not surprising that the assist totals are low as this team lacks much player and ball movement. Too much standing around by players off the ball. Takes too long for them to initiate their offense, byproduct of having subpar guards.

Compared to other teams, don't tend to run too much pick/roll. Deng is really the only consistent dribble-penetration threat. Their guards are pretty much devoid of playmaking ability.

To put it nicely, the backcourt rotation is rather unimpressive. Basically have guys starting who aren't high-level European guards. More like 2nd-3rd division types.

38-year-old Nate Reinking will be called on to start at point simply because they have no better options at this time. Reinking (Kent St.) is a capable pull-upper, but that's pretty much all he does. Does not create scoring opportunities for his teammates and struggles defensively.

6-3 SG Mike Lenzly hit some shots last year, but in general, is a poor shooter and is mostly on the floor for his defense.

Reserve wings Kyle Johnson (ex-LIU Brooklyn) and Andrew Sullivan (ex-Villanova) are tough defenders who rebound well for their size. Johnson might have to start in place of Lenzly.

Might need to give current College of Charleston PG, Andrew Lawrence, more burn this year. Lawrence is the one guard who can be somewhat effective off the dribble. He's a pretty solid shooter and probably the best passer on the team.

The frontcourt rotation is pretty solid and should be able to hold its own vs. the strong frontlines of Brazil and Russia. Led by new Blazer Joel Freeland and Pops Mensah-Bonsu.

Freeland was Britain’s second-leading scorer last summer (11 ppg, 52.4%) and is an inside-out threat who can step out to 20 feet. Britain will post Joel often and he can score well with a hook or turnaround. Proficient on rolls or cuts--strong finisher.

Pops doesn't have much in the way of refined skills, but his uber-athleticism causes problems for the opposition. Pops is coming off a nice club season in Turkey where was named Euro Challenge MVP. Pops is a finishing (lotsa dunks) and rebounding machine (dangerous on off. glass).

Potential loss of PF/C Dan Clark is an underrated blow. The sweet-shooting big gave Britain quality minutes last year (8.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg in 24 mpg) and he can score a bit in the post. Think of Clark as a slower version of Freeland.

Veteran center Rob Archibald (ex-Fightin' Illini) is on the decline but is still a savvy, physical presence.

Britain's roster has not yet been finalized but two former PAC-10 bigs, Eric Boateng and Matthew Bryan-Amaning, could play roles off the bench.

Former Arizona St. center Boateng can score around the rim and is solid on the boards while Bryan-Amaning's combo of long arms and explosiveness make him an exciting finisher and shot challenger.

Defense was solid last summer, just like it was in Euro qualifying in 2010, which makes up somewhat for the lackluster offense.

They rebounded well last summer and should be even tougher on the glass with Pops back. The perimeter players tend to rebound well for their size.

Not sure how much of a chance the Brits have vs. Australia for 4th-place considering their injuries. Having Deng, Pops, Freeland and home court should just be enough to make things interesting. But give the Aussies the edge because their far superior backcourt.

Key Players: Yi Jianlian; Sun Yue; Wang ZhiZhi

China wrested back the Asian crown from Iran to make their eighth-straight Olympic appearance. Went undefeated at last year's Asian zone tourney, but barely squeaked by Jordan in the finals, 70-69.

Yi Jianlian might not be much of a NBA player but when on the FIBA stage, he tends to shine. Proven himself at the highest level of national-team play by putting up 20 ppg ang 10 rpg at the 2010 Worlds. Yi was a force last summer leading China with 16.6 ppg, 11 rpg and 1.4 bpg.

China will run Yi in the post often, run him off some screens, let him iso and put him in plenty of pick-n-pops.

The Dodger, Wang ZhiZhi, returns to help Jianlian on the frontline. ZhiZhi will post-up a little and can still knock down jumpers.

China has plenty of shooting talent and can spread the floor well when Jianlian and ZhiZhi are on the frontline together.

6-9 Sun Yue played well over the last few summers for Team China. Sun is a multi-skilled point forward who can pass and shoot. Sun uses his length well to be a strong rebounder at his position and a disruptive defender.

Wang Shipeng and Zhu Fangyu are both nice shooters on the wings. Shipeng was injured last summer but played well at the 2010 Worlds and can create quick-dribble jumpers for himself.

The guards have gotten better over the years, but still wonder how they will handle the aggressive ball-pressure that a team like Russia, Brazil or Spain will implement.

Just think the decision-making on the perimeter is sketchy. It seems like the guards will take off with the dribble without any clear objective. PG Liu Wei is the main culprit of ponderous perimeter playmaking.

Chen Jianghua and Guo Ailun will back-up Wei and both are Nike Hoop Summit alums. Both are very quick and shifty with the dribble. But like with Wei, both PGs don't make the best decisions.

Forward Zhou Feng possesses an inside-out game that causes matchup problems for the opposition. He can create pull-ups and hit turnaround jumpers on the block. Reserve forward Yi Li is an active presence on the glass and on defense.

There is decent talent here that has experience playing in major FIBA competitions. China has a legit shot of knocking off Britain, especially with their health issues. Could they upend Australia and sneak into the knockout stage? Not implausible, but unlikely.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

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:

1) USA
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.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Alexey Shved Scouting Report

Alexey Shved
6'6 PG/SG
CSKA Moscow
DOB: 12/16/88

Now that the Nic Batum situation is squared away and he gets to keep enjoying his Stumptown coffee at Albina Press for the next few years, Minnesota fans can focus their attention on another Euro, Alexey Shved.

Shved was one of the top NBA free agents prospect in Europe. For the second year in a row, Minnesota brings over one of the top young playmakers from Europe.

Many teams made the mistake of passing on him two years ago in the 2010 draft, but then it worked out better for Shved since he got to pick his preferred team.

Shved is a rangy combo guard (with a dash of flash) who spent the last two years playing for arguably the most talented team outside the NBA, CSKA Moscow.

Shved was a key contributor on CSKA, and the 23-year-old found a way to be the third-best scorer (behind A. Kirilenko & N. Krstic) on a loaded roster.

Shved possesses good athleticism that should help his game translate well to the NBA. Great size for a PG and can slide over to the 2-guard in a pinch.

Definitely needs to bulk up. Listed in the 180-190 lb. range. Though not sure he has the frame to handle much more weight.

In 21 Euroleague games, Alexey averaged 10.6 ppg, 3.1 apg, 2.6 rpg, 1.7 TOpg and 48.7% shooting in 21 minutes per game. His numbers were similar in Russian and United League (VTB) play.

He shot a terrific 49% from behind the arc in EL play (39% in Russia, 34% in VTB). H'se definitely improved his jumper over the last few years, but think these numbers might overstate his shooting prowess.

Hit only 32% of his 3PA in Russian League play in '10-'11. In general, he's a solid shooter, but don't think he's a great as this year's numbers suggest.

Would not call his shooting mechanics ideal. He tends to drift too much and his legs often splay out (right leg kicks out).

This past season, Shved would often play in the backcourt with Milos Teodosic, one of the best PGs in Europe. They would split ballhandling duties and Shved was given a lot of responsibilities on the offensive end.

Shved is a handful in pick-n-roll, where he can hit pull-ups going both ways, get all the way to rim or drop sweet dishes to his teammates. Simply a great pick-n-roll player.

A terrific passer with impeccable timing and accuracy. Not quite as masterful as his new teammate, Ricky Rubio, but he's close.

Shows good patience by sucking extra defenders toward him and letting better passing angles develop. Fast with the ball and can really push the ball in transition.

Very good handle and keeps his dribble low. Very shifty--his use of hesitation and crossover moves is superb. Has the ability to stop on a dime with his dribble and change direction.

He's very adept at going away from ball screens as well. Doesn't always need a ball screen to get into the lane and thanks to his ball skills should fare decently in iso action in the NBA.

Handles well with both hands. Can drive the ball both ways, but seems to prefer to drive the ball left. Adept at hitting floaters or runners.

Pretty good finisher with both hands, but not great. Uses jump-stop at the rim well, which fakes out defenders to create space. Could do a better job getting a bit more air under the ball on some of his close-in attempts.

When looking to score in pick-n-roll, heavily preferred pulling-up as opposed to taking it to the rim. Of Shved's 187 scoring attempts in pick/roll action recorded by Synergy Sports Technology, he attempted 119 jumpers.

Has an element of carelessness to his game. His sometimes casual approach reminds you of Vince Carter--it seems like he's playing pickup basketball. It appears sometimes he's not too concerned with his mistakes.

Will fling up some dubious runners or off-balance jumpers haphazardly. His shot selection is questionable sometimes. Also expect some forced passes into traffic on occasion.

Rightfully so, there are some questions about how he will fare defensively in the NBA.

For what it's worth, he did grade out very well in iso situations. According to Synergy Sports, held his opponent to 17.6% shooting and forced turnovers on 15% of the iso possessions.

But these numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt as he was often aided by the timely backline help of the likes of Kirilenko, Khryapa, Krstic or Kaun. There were enough instances where he got blown-by to give you pause. Just tends to react slowly.

Though, his defensive stance is not bad and contests shots well. He does tend to do a nice job of shading his man toward help.

Shved will be running the point for Team Russia at the Olympics and played solid ball at the recent Pre-Olympic tourney. Averaged 10.5 ppg, 5 apg over four games, and kept his TOs to a minimum. But he threw up a fair amount of dicey shots which played a part in him shooting 34% overall.

Imagine the TWolves see him as a reserve combo guard this season. But will be interesting to see how much ball-handling he does with Ridnour and Barea currently on the roster.

Shved's talents allow for flexible lineups. Could play him next to Rubio, which makes for an intriguing combo. Could play him with Barea or Ridnour. Could play him with Brandon Roy in the backcourt.

Given Shved's mix of size, athleticism, ball-handling ability, deft passing and solid shooting, would not surprise if he becomes a solid starter in the NBA in the future.

At worst, Minnesota acquired a nice rotation player with great versatility and some flash to excite the crowd.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

London 2012 Olympic Basketball Power Rankings

With the completion of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament on July 8, the field of 12 nations was set for the men's basketball competition at the 2012 London Olympics, which tips off on Sunday, July 29. Last year, we offered an early take at 2012 Olympic basketball power rankings; here is our update with the Games less than two weeks away.

Here is how the 12 countries have been broken down into groups (with our power rankings in parens):

Group A
USA (1)
Lithuania (5)
Argentina (6)
France (7)
Nigeria (10)
Tunisia (12)
Group B
Spain (2)
Brazil (3)
Russia (4)
Australia (8)
Great Britain (9)
China (11)

More details below:

1. USA
(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."
Four years later, not much has changed. Argentina is reliant on the same core, except it's now down to five with Oberto retired, and no significant reinforcements. Further, Ginobili and Prigioni are both 35, Nocioni is a shell of himself, Scola (who has been the team's go-to guy ahead of even Manu in recent years) is coming off the worst of his five NBA seasons, and Delfino (who stepped up with 20 ppg at the 2010 Worlds) is struggling to return from a sports-hernia operation in May.

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.

(Group B: Qualified as FIBA Oceania Champion)
(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.

(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.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Musings on Team USA's Lone Deficiency: Interior-Defense Depth

Let's make this clear from the outset: Team USA is deservedly a heavy favorite to win the men's basketball gold medal at the upcoming 2012 London Olympics. The U.S. is certainly The Painted Area's pick to win the basketball tournament.

Yet this team's roster, now somewhat depleted by injury, does have one distinct weakness: lack of interior-defense depth. Tyson Chandler, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin are the team's only bigs, with Defensive Player of the Year Chandler the only plus defender among the three.

In response to these facts, most observers suggest that the Americans "will be fine," and that is likely true, but let's also remain cognizant of the following:
    1. This is an NCAA Tournament-style knockout competition once it reaches the quarterfinals. It only takes one crazy night for the breaks (and the make-or-miss shooting gods) to conspire against the heavy favorites, and send Goliath crashing down, as we see happen each March.

    2. It only takes five fouls to be disqualified from the 40-minute FIBA game.

    3. "FIBA sucks." That was Tim Duncan's infamous comment following the 2004 Olympics, in which he seemed to spend the whole tournament in foul trouble thanks to some classically dubious FIBA officiating throughout, a major underrated factor in Team USA's bronze-medal debacle there, as that team had little experienced depth up front.

    FIBA officiating has improved since then, most notably because they (mercifully... finally...) added a third official in 2006, but the calls can still be erratic, especially so to NBA players not in the habit of how the FIBA whistles interpret the rules.

    It can take just two quick fouls (as Duncan seemed to be saddled with when he went out for the opening tip in Athens) on the wrong guy to change the dynamic of an entire game.
If Team USA is to lose in London, it will probably stem from Chandler foul trouble against the wrong team. Again, they'll likely be fine, as the U.S. will simply overwhelm most opponents with talent regardless of foul trouble, and even against medal contenders like Russia and Lithuania, it probably won't matter because those teams are fueled by wings who might well be swallowed whole by the devastating collection of American wings.

But against top contenders like Spain and Brazil, Chandler foul trouble could open up a can of worms. The NBA combos of bigs for Spain (the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka), and Brazil (Nene, Andy Varejao and Tiago Splitter), could end up having a field day scoring down low matched up against Griffin and Love.

Certainly, one would expect the U.S. to counter in such a situation with small lineups featuring the likes of LeBron James or Kevin Durant at the 4, so it'd be incumbent upon the opposition to control the tempo and limit turnovers, but both Spain and Brazil have experienced, steady point guards in ESP's Jose Calderon and BRA's Marcelo Huertas (who nearly engineered an upset of Team USA at the 2010 World Championships), who could plausibly hold up.

Given the state of depletion of the U.S. bigs, I would have opted against adding James Harden, whose ample skills are well duplicated on the perimeter, and instead chosen to address the lack of depth in interior defense, the roster's only deficiency.

I actually would have favored the unorthodox move of reaching down to the USA Select Team and tabbing reserve Chicago Bull Taj Gibson as the 12th man. Gibson has simply been a defensive beast off the bench for the Bulls. In 2011-12, Chicago allowed 90.47 points per 100 possessions with Taj on the floor, as opposed to 102.42 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench, a defensive differential of -11.95 which led the NBA.

As a further measure of his value, Gibson also led the entire NBA in adjusted plus-minus in 2011-12, and ranks in the top 10 in this category over the past two years combined, amidst names like James, Howard, Paul, Nowitzki, Nash, Garnett and Gasol.

(I should also note that I would've favored Gibson even if Anthony Davis had been healthy. Davis has KG potential, but at this point, I don't think he's strong enough to match up in the post against veteran pros like the Gasols, and that Gibson is a better interior defender today.)

Listen, we're talking about a 12th man here, so we may well be grasping at straws in looking for a weakness, but Team USA may wish they had a player like Gibson to plug the lane in case of an emergency of red-hot Gasols going nuts on the blocks while Chandler is forced to watch from the sidelines.

While we don't see anyone beating the U.S. in London, an upset isn't unimaginable, and in the unlikely event that Team USA loses, we suspect it'll all start with Tyson Chandler getting in foul trouble against a team that can score inside.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Russia, Lithuania & Nigeria Qualify for London

The Olympic basketball field of 12 is now officially set with Russia, Lithuania and Nigeria grabbing the top three spots at the FIBA Pre-Olympic Qualifying Tourney in Venezuela.

The field of 12 will be split into two opening round groups of six. Lithuania and Nigeria join Argentina, France, Tunisia and USA in Group A, while Group B has Australia, Brazil, China, Great Britain, Spain and now, Russia. Fairly good balance between the groups.

Here's our analysis of the key teams from the just-completed qualifying tourney:


No surprise that the two prohibitive favorites in the Pre-Olympic field, Russia and Lithuania, found their way to London. But upstart Nigeria ruined the predicted European sweep by upsetting Greece and then knocking off Americas contender Dominican Republic, 88-73, in the 3rd-Place game on Sunday.

It looked like Nigeria's Olympic chances were over after the first day, when they lost by two to Venezuela. But they took advantage of an unfocused Lithuania team (which only had to avoid losing by more than 10 points) and snuck into the quarters thanks to point differential. There they stunned Greece, 80-79, which at least assured two shots at getting to London.

Nigeria were forced into the 3rd-Place game after a 85-77 loss to Russia. Then in Sunday's game vs. Dom. Republic, Nigeria took advantage of a flurry of TOs in the first quarter to take the lead, which lasted for much of the game.

Nigeria's superior depth (especially on the frontline) was a factor vs. the Dominicans. It helped a ton that Nigeria has eight guys 6-8-6-9 (who are athletic rebounders) that they could shuffle in & out of the lineup.

We noted in our preview that this might have been the most talented Nigerian team ever assembled, at least on paper. But the issue was that 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.

Ike 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 knocked down many long looks all week and averaged 16.6 ppg & 10.8 rpg over the week

Al-Farouq Aminu was vital defensively (five blocks) and aided Diogu with 14 pts, seven rebs & four assts.

We knew Nigeria would be athletic and an elite rebounding club, but were not sure how they would function in the half-court offensively. They weren't great during the tourney, but they were nowhere near as ragged as expected.

Coach Calipari maybe wishes he'd kept Charlie Villanueva on the roster as Al Horford and JM Martinez looked gassed in this game. Five games in seven days will do that to you when there are no serviceable back-ups.

Jack Martinez (16 pts, 9 rbs) was in his usual FIBA beast mode early for Dom. Republic but did most of his damage in the first half. Thought they might have gone to Martinez a little too much and possibly wore him down in the 1st half.

Al Horford (12 pts) was saddled with foul trouble and never found any rhythm. Would have liked to seen more touches for Al when he was on the floor.

They also failed to get the ball to Francisco Garcia (17 pts, 5-for-11 3PA) for extended stretches in the middle of the game after he buried a couple early jumpers.

Dominicans once again got spotty play from their ball-handlers. This has been a recurring problem for many years.

Juan Coronado and Elpidio Fortuna can make some plays because of their speed, but it's outweighed by their terrible decision-making. Fortuna had a couple steals and Coronado hit a couple jumpers on Sunday but we understand why these guys have never gotten consistent minutes in the past.

Not having Edgar Sosa healthy didn't help, but he's no great shakes himself. Maybe Calipari and the D.R. federation should think about naturalizing a point guard in the future to help solve this problem.

This is Nigeria's first Olympic appearance and they won't have an easy time advancing to knockout stage with Argentina, France, Lithuania and USA in Group A.


RUSSIA: Russia came into the tourney as the best team and they went 4-0 and were never seriously challenged throughout the week.

And they did this without some key rotation guys. Andrey Vorontsevich and Sergey Bykov were absent while Timo Mozgov only played a total of 24 minutes all week because of an ankle injury. Mozgov should be fine for London, but not sure if Vorontsevich and Bykov will be added to the Olympic roster.

Their trio of versatile 6-9 forwards, Andrei Kirilenko, Viktor Khryapa & Sergey Monya, were potent once again. Kirilenko (16.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.1 apg, 3.25 spg) was the best all-around player in the tourney while Khryapa (8.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.0 spg) once again did his poor man's impersonation of Kirilenko. Monya drilled jumpers and all three played nice defense.

Their offensive execution was pretty solid, minus some small stretches of dicey shot selection. Their usual disciplined spacing and crisp passing was on display.

Their offense is built to get mileage off of cuts and off-ball screens. Not a ton of attacking off the dribble (besides Alexei Shved) or many post-ups. And 84% of their field goals were assisted, which is killer.

Sharpshooter Vitali Fridzon (14.5 ppg on 68%) did a lot of damage coming off screens and made 11 of his 14 3PA. Sasha Kahn (12.5 ppg on 75% shooting) gave them good minutes by running the floor well and finishing on rolls.

Alexey Shved (10.5 ppg, 5.0 apg) made some terrific passes off of pick/roll and kept his TOs low, but he forced up too many questionable shots (especially haphazard runners) which led to 34% shooting.

Defensively, Russia was up to its old tricks. No surprise Coach Blatt mixed up his alignments adroitly and caused confusion for opposing offenses. They swarmed to the ball down low, denied on the perimeter (especially Khyrapa) and challenged nearly everything. Though only a four-game sample size vs. some lackluster offenses, the defensive numbers were stellar--35% Def. FG pct., 27% Def. 3pt. pct.

Russia should challenge Brazil for second place in Group B and definitely have a chance of competing for bronze.

LITHUANIA: Lithuania didn't exactly cruise through this tourney like Russia did, though they probably played a few more tougher teams. 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).

Whatever the case, Lithuania showed they're still one of the most potent offensive units in FIBA play. They were awesome offensively last summer and they looked to be even better at the Olympics this year with Linas Kleiza back in the mix.

Lithuania got Kleiza back into the groove with post-up/iso action that worked well in 2010. Kleiza led Lithuania with 19.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 50% shooting (50% on 3PA). Linas was good for double figures every game.

Jonas Maciulis (11.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg) returned to the team after being injured last year and he was nice on both ends of the floor like he was at the 2010 Worlds.

The PGs were solid running the exacting Lithuania offense. Jonas Valanciunas (8.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 70% FG pct. in 16 mpg) was highly productive when he could manage to stay on the floor. Still has issues with overaggressive play and was in foul trouble every game--fouled out in six minutes vs. Puerto Rico.

The two-headed PG combo of Saras Jasikevicius and Mantas Kalnietis orchestrated the exacting Lithuanian offense fairly well. They combined for 20.6 ppg, 11.5 apg and 55% shooting. Martynas Pocius kept his strong play from last summer going this week by burying jumpers and flying around the court.

Very closely-matched with Argentina and France in Group A, and like Russia, are a legit contender for bronze.