Friday, August 29, 2008

USA Basketball: All-Stars and Role Players

One last post on Team USA to wrap things up before we put this Olympiad to bed, and start on the road to London 2012.

As USA Basketball stumbled on the international stage throughout this decade, many observers, casual and serious alike, have asserted that a perceived lack of role players has a major deficiency for Team USA.

Many have surmised that a big problem for Team USA has been that they've allegedly tried to slap together an All-Star team rather than building a real basketball team. Jerry Colangelo himself was quoted as saying, "Athens showed that All-Star teams can get beat, so we needed something different, a real team."

However, in looking at USA Basketball rosters over time, what's notable about the 2008 roster is that the U.S. actually did bring a team of All-Stars for a change - the roster actually hasn't resembled an All-Star team so much since 1996. Perhaps part of the Team USA struggles this decade can be attributed to the fact that they haven't had enough stars, rather than not enough role players.

Here's a quick analysis of USA Basketball rosters in the Olympics/Worlds since 1992 (skipping the 1998 Worlds team, which used non-NBA players during the lockout), with notations for which players were on All-NBA teams and/or All-Star teams in the NBA season leading into that summer's competition:

All-NBA 1st: 5 (Jordan, K Malone, Mullin, Robinson, Drexler)
All-NBA 2nd: 4 (Pippen, Barkley, Ewing, Stockton)

All-Stars: 11 (add Bird and Magic (not bad))
Non All-Stars: 1 (Laettner)

All-NBA 2nd: 2 (Kemp, K Johnson)
All-NBA 3rd: 4 (Shaq, D Wilkins, Price, Coleman)

All-Stars: 7 (add Mourning)
Non All-Stars: 5 (Majerle, S Smith, L Johnson, Dumars, R Miller)

All-NBA 1st: 4 (K Malone, Pippen, Robinson, A Hardaway)
All-NBA 2nd: 4 (Payton, G Hill, Olajuwon, Stockton)
All-NBA 3rd: 4 (Richmond, R Miller, Shaq, Barkley)

All-Stars: 12
Non All-Stars: 0

All-NBA 1st: 3 (Payton, Garnett, Kidd)
All-NBA 2nd: 1 (Mourning)
All-NBA 3rd: 1 (Carter)

All-Stars: 7 (add Houston, R Allen)
Non All-Stars: 5 (Baker, T Hardaway, S Smith, McDyess, Abdur-Rahim)

All-NBA 3rd: 3 (J O'Neal, Pierce, B Wallace*)

All-Stars/All-NBA: 5 (add Brand, B Davis (both were injury replacements to A-S))
Non All-Star/All-NBA: 7 (A Davis, LaFrentz, Jay Williams, R Miller, Finley, Marion, A Miller)
* B Wallace did not make All-Star team

All-NBA 1st: 1 (Duncan)

All-Stars: 2 (add Iverson)
Non All-Stars: 10 (James, Wade, Anthony, Odom, Jefferson, Stoudemire, Boozer, Marion, Marbury, Okafor)

All-NBA 1st: 1 (James)
All-NBA 2nd: 2 (Wade, Brand)
All-NBA 3rd: 1 (Anthony*)

All-Stars/All-NBA: 5 (add Bosh)
Non-AllStars/All-NBA: 7 (Jamison, Howard, Paul, Hinrich, Battier, B Miller, J Johnson)
* Anthony did not make All-Star team

All-NBA 1st: 4 (Bryant, James, Paul, Howard)
All-NBA 2nd: 1 (D Williams*)
All-NBA 3rd: 1 (Boozer)

All-Stars/All-NBA: 10 (add Wade, Bosh, Anthony, Kidd)
Non All-Stars/All-NBA: 2 (Redd, Prince)
* D Williams did not make All-Star team

Listen, we know this analysis is fairly reductive and simplistic. In terms of international basketball, 1992 is apples and 2008 is oranges, in large part simply because the competition is so much better. We suspect that that 1994 cast of characters would be in big trouble in FIBA play today.

And please don't get us wrong: we actually love the inclusion of guys like Tayshaun Prince, Michael Redd and Shane Battier (2006) in designated role player slots. Tayshaun was pretty much the ideal 10th man -- ready to come off the bench cold and unexpectedly, and contribute in myriad ways; always alert on the sidelines, and engaged with his teammates.

It's just that the perception of what needed to happen was this.... we call on Bill Simmons, in no small part because his voice is so influential to the casual fan and in creating/reinforcing conventional wisdom.

In 2004, Simmons correctly forecasted doom for the Olympic team before the Games even started. However this was his prescription for an alternative:
    [Simmons and his buddy House] see a chance to build a superior basketball team from scratch -- not an All-Star team, a basketball team. Choosing from 300 of the greatest players in the world, we would want one dominant big man; one quality point guard; one great scorer immediately designated for Alpha Dog Status, two other good shooters, two other rebounders, one athletic swingman who can defend the other player's best shooter, a backup point guard, two energy guys, and a 12th man who will hustle in practice and just be happy to be on the team. If we pick the right guys, we know we're winning the tournament and possibly ending up on ESPN Classic. It's just a fact.
This was the roster that he came up with:
Starters: Duncan, Odom, Redd, Hamilton, Wade
Bench guys: Iverson, Prince, Brad Miller, LeBron, Stoudemire
Energy guys: Brian Cardinal, Fred Hoiberg

Even keeping in mind that some of these guys were significantly better in 2004 (Duncan, Iverson, even Brad Miller was an All-Star in '04, if a dodgy one), this team -- replete with role players, including the ever-present Redd in the starting lineup -- would have been a shadow of the star-studded team which just won gold.

The problem for Team USA was not that they didn't have enough role-player types and it certainly wasn't that they had too many All-Stars.

Take a look at that 2002 team. They had Jay Williams, prior to his NBA rookie season; Raef Freakin' LaFrentz, for crying out loud; Ben Wallace, whose lack of skill rendered him useless in the international game; and Antonio Davis. That was the worst team of pros the U.S. has ever fielded, and one of its big problems was that it had no one who created any offense outside of Pierce, who apparently behaved so badly that he was blacklisted for life by USAB.

Rather, the problem was (among other things) that they didn't turn their collection of players into a cohesive team.

(Back on the eve of the 2006 loss, we ran a chart comparing the rosters of Argentina, Spain, and the U.S. from 2002-2006, showing how most of the ARG/ESP key players had been there the whole time, while no Americans were. That has changed, and it's important.)

That's the thing, we agreed 50% with the Colangelo quote -- "Athens showed that All-Star teams can get beat, so we needed something different, a real team." Simmons echoed the same point: "not an All-Star team, a basketball team."

They *did* need to become a real team. They needed roles to be defined, understand and accepted, which happened. It just seemed like the conventional wisdom was that they needed lesser talent to do this, and that's not the case.

We believe the key reasons that the U.S. stumbled between 2002-2006 included the following:
1. Lack of team cohesion
2. Lack of respect for opponents
3. Lack of scouting knowledge of opposition players and teams
4. Trouble with international rules & refs
5. The world has gotten better

The cold, hard truth is that we think there's another simple reason which should be included: the best players haven't played.

Put Shaq and Kobe on that 2002 team, even at the height of their hatred for each other, and there is a likely a different result. The 2003 team looked outstanding in Olympic qualifying, crushing 2004 champ Argentina in the FIBA Americas qualifying final. Then most of the best players withdrew in '04.

Yes, they've had enough talent to win, but not to overcome huge deficiencies in the five factors listed above. The thought was that they needed a basketball team instead of an All-Star team, when in fact they got something better: an All-Star team that was also a cohesive basketball team. The best of both worlds.

Coach K and Jerry Colangelo both deserve an immense amount of credit for building a real team, but don't underestimate the credit that Big JC also deserves for talent evaluation, for foreseeing back in 2005-06 that guys like Paul and Howard would be among the best in the game by 2008.

Before we go, let's also wrap up another scapegoat over the years: outside shooting.

As far as three-point shooting goes, here's what the U.S. has shot in the last four major competitions (Olympics/Worlds):

2002 .392
2004 .314
2006 .369
2008 .377

The dreadful 2002 team was actually quite good from behind the arc. The pathetic 2004 team was horrendous, and shooting actually *was* a big problem for that team, but Argentina had the same .314 mark from three and they won the gold medal. Just saying: there were even bigger problems than shooting which sunk that Athens cruise ship (including the lack of a coherent offense to actually set up good looks from outside).

In 2006, the U.S. was a solid but not spectacular .369, and now they're in about the same place: .377, 6th out of 12 in the tournament.

I guess the point is that, for all the people who thought that outside shooting was such a decisive factor for Team USA... well, this team is leaps and bounds better than the 2002 team, and also significantly better than the very good 2006 team, but on balance, the outside shooting is about the same. They have their good days behind the arc and their bad days, like most teams, though the 2008 team has indeed shot better from distance as the Olympics have gone on.

For all the times I've read about what an important, vital addition Michael Redd was to the ballclub... well, the cat played 10 mpg, mostly garbage time at that, and hit 5-18 on threes. Wasn't a factor whatsoever. And it didn't mattered whatsoever.

For all the talk of how shooters needed to be added after 2004, the best shooters ended up being D-Wade (8-17, .471) and LeBron (13-28, .464), guy who were on the 2004 team in the first place.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Olympic Basketball All-Tournament Team

It is challenging to come up with an All-Tournament team for this year's Olympic basketball competition, especially as we get into the second team, mainly because there were so few players who produced consistently from the start of the tournament all the way through the medal round, whether due to 1) the fact that many teams seemed to distribute minutes widely with deep rotations, 2) injuries or 3) just general inconsistency. Still, we'll give it a go:

2008 Olympic Basketball All-Tournament Team

Dwyane Wade, USA (MVP)
Avgs: 18.8 min, 16 pts, 4 reb, 1.9 ast, 2.3 stl (4), 67.1 FG% (1), 47.1 3PT%

D-Wade seemed to not only change the game but completely disrupt it each time he came off the bench for Team USA. As one Painted Area co-conspirator noted, Wade was not just causing TOs at will, he seemed to be causing TOs which invariably led to an immediate 2 pts.

Insanely productive with 16 ppg in less than 19 min for the tournament, D-Wade capped things off with 27 points and 4 steals in 27 minutes in the gold-medal game, including a gigantic three which made the game 111-104 in the final minutes. Wade's stunning 21 points in 8+ minutes in the first half gave the U.S. a much-needed cushion at the half. D-Wade is back, hallelujah. Stay healthy, young fella.

LeBron James, USA
Avgs: 24.8 min, 15.5 pts, 5.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1 blk, 2.4 stl (3), 60.2 FG% (3), 46.4 3PT%

Played beautiful all-around team basketball from start to finish. For all of LeBron's brilliance in the league, a tournament like this makes you realize how much we still, sadly, *don't* get to see from him on a nightly basis b/c he has to carry so much of the scoring burden. His performance in the gold-medal game (14-6-3, 3 stl) was a microcosm of his work over the fortnight: a huge rebound here, touch pass in the lane there, timely three when needed.

James is forced into the Jordan role in Cleveland, so it was nice to see him sprinkle in a dash of Pip to his game in Beijing. I'm just saying, I hope LeBron someday gets a supporting cast which allows him to average 25-9-12 instead of 30-8-7 both b/c I think it suits him better and it would be hell of a lot of fun to watch. Best team defense we've seen from James overall, also.

Pau Gasol, Spain
Avgs: 27.5 min, 19.6 pts (1), 7 reb (5), 1.8 ast, 65.3 FG% (2)

As usual, Pau was a force on the block in international play for Team ESP, leading the tournament in scoring and finishing second in FG shooting. Averaged 20-7 in the three knockout games. Scored 21 in the gold-medal game, and it's borderline insane that he played just 28 mins, despite having just one foul, b/c Team USA couldn't handle him one-on-one and refused to throw a double-team at him.

Manu Ginobili, Argentina
Avgs: 25.6 mpg, 17.7 pts (4), 2 reb, 3.9 ast (5), 48.7 FG%, 93.9 FT% (2)

Manu makes the team despite the fact that he played just six minutes in the medal round b/c he was just that good in the action leading up to it. Numbers were even better - about 20 ppg and 4.5 apg - if you throw out the 6-minute stint in the semis. Manu's best performance was 24 pts on 6 threes in the ARGies nail-biter over Greece in the quarters. It was good to see him back as the dynamic all-around force we recognize - hopefully the aggravated injury will not linger throughout 2008-09.

Kobe Bryant, USA
Avgs: 23.5 mpg, 15 pts, 2.8 reb, 2.1 ast, 46.2 FG%

A tough call over Scola for the last slot on the 1st Team. Also tough to go with three U.S. players, but they did have a 29 ppg victory margin, after all.

Kobe was enigmatic in the Olympics - he probably took more bad shots than the rest of Team USA combined (he shot 16 more threes than anyone else, even though he hit just 32.1% from downtown) - but he basically makes it for two reasons: 1) for setting the tone defensively and 2) for his world-class closeout in the gold-medal game, with 13 points and 2 assists in the final 8 minutes. He had 20 points and 6 assists overall in the final.

I suppose that some of you will scream at us for not naming him MVP, and some of you will scream at us for putting him on the first team. That's just the way it rolls with this cat.

Luis Scola, Argentina
Avgs: 31.4 min, 18.9 pts (3), 6.6 reb, 1 ast, 58.9 FG%

As usual, Scola was crafty around the goal and characterized Argentina's physical, passionate, never-say-die style in FIBA play. Scored in double figures every game, and really stepped up after Manu went down. Led Argentina with a 28-11 in the semis, when the U.S. couldn't quite ever put them away until the 4th quarter. Followed up with 16 in the bronze-medal game.

Rudy Fernandez, Spain
Avgs: 22.1 min, 13.1 pts, 3.5 reb, 2.1 ast, 47.3 FG%, 40 3PT%

Rudy was inconsistent in group play, but he makes it mainly because he stepped up big in the medal round. Oh boy, did he ever, with 18 points vs. Lithuania in the semis, and then his tour-de-force 22 points in 18 minutes vs. Team USA. His five threes in the gold-medal game included one over a good contest by Tayshaun, and then, that sound you made have heard emanating from the greater Portland area late on Saturday night? Might have occurred the same time as this:

Yao Ming, China
Avgs: 29.7 min, 19 pts (2), 8.2 reb, 2 ast, 1.5 blk (3), 51.5 FG%, 80.8 FT%

Carrying the weight of the entire nation on his back, Yao delivered in leading China to a surprise appearance in the knockout round. The big fella was at his best with his 25-11 in the 59-55 win over Germany, which basically decided the last spot in the knockout round from Group B.

Watching Yao for Team China, I'm reminded of Larry Brown (please forgive me for bringing up his name in an Olympic-related column) talking about Shaq in his prime, saying something to the effect of "I don't know why they don't throw it in to him every time down." I feel the same way about Yao on China. This team basically consists of Yao and a bunch of shooters - I think they should play like the Hakeem-era Rockets and go strictly with either Yao or 3s. I don't know how Yao averaged just 11 FGA for the tourney (though he did average a tournament-high 8.7 FTA as well).

29.7 mpg could not have been good for him. The great and glorious games are done; give Yao a break.

Carlos Delfino, Argentina
Avgs: 26.8 min, 14.1 pts, 5.1 reb, 2 ast, 1.5 stl, 44.2 3PT% (23-52)

Cool Daddy C-los was another Argentine who stepped up in Manu's absence. Delfino was hitting shots from everywhere, and was especially huge in knockout play, averaging 20 pts and 7.7 reb in the three games, while also draining 11-26 threes.

Chris Paul, USA
Avgs: 21.8 min, 8 pts, 3.6 reb, 4.1 ast, 2.3 stl (4), 50 FG%, 91.7 FT% (4)

I've gone back and forth and back again on this last spot, also considering Sarunas Jasikevicious, Vassilis Spanoulis and Chris Bosh, all of whom seem like pretty decent candidates. I decided to go with CP13 narrowly over Saras. Let's look at Jasikevicious's numbers for a comparison:

Avgs: 26.9 min, 13 pts, 2.5 reb, 5.3 ast (1), 1.3 stl, 48.6 FG%, 38.7 3PT%, 87 FT%

I went with Paul basically for these reasons:

1. The two were pretty similar in terms of assists per minute, but CP13 had a sparkling 33-9 A/TO ratio for the Olympics, while Saras was at 42-26 - his 3.3 TO/pg were among the highest in the tournament, and hurt his ballclub.

2. While still a fiery team leader, Saras is starting to slow down a little bit - he is less consistent and increasingly a liability on the defensive end. And I thought that Linas Kleiza, wildly inconsistent in this tournament, was actually Lithuania's key X-factor in this tournament.

In fact, it was a wildly inconsistent Olympics across the board for Lithuania, as different players seemed to appear and disappear each night. Saras himself had a strong 19 points and 6 assists vs. Spain in the semis, followed up with just 9 points, 3 assists, 4 TOs and 0-4 3pters vs. Argentina in the bronze-medal game.

Don't get me wrong, I'm splitting hairs here. If you think it should be Saras in this spot, I can live with that - he still had a good tournament overall, and I have nothing but respect for Lithuania's basketball achievements. LTU is the only country other than USA to make the semis in each Olympics of the NBA era (i.e., since 1992). That's an amazing accomplishment for a nation of ~3 million people, and I'm already looking forward to the 2011 Eurobasket, which will deservedly be hosted by the proud basketball nation of Lithuania. Should be a raucous affair.

Oh wait, back to Chris Paul before we go, just wanted to note that he had a good medal round, averaged 12.5 pts, 3 reb, 3.5 ast and 2.5 stl. Everything seemed to run better for Team USA when he and Deron Williams were on the floor. Would have liked to have seen CP13 be more aggressive on offense at times, but he ran the show well overall.

And I would also say that I'd have no beef if you went with Bosh here. Some days he contributed more, some days Paul. Here were Bosh's numbers overall:

Avgs: 17.3 mpg, 9.1 pts, 6.1 reb, 0.2 ast, 77.4 FG% (!), 86.4 FT%

Against Greece, Bosh was the man, with 18 pts on 7-8 FG, 5 reb, 2 blk, 2 stl and excellent pick-and-roll D, while Paul did little. Meanwhile, in the first Spain game, CP13 exploded for 14 pts, 5 reb, 8 ast and 5 stl, while Bosh was fairly quiet.

Bosh was good in the medal games as well, averaging 9.5. pts, 8.5 reb and nailing 11-11 FT. Po-ta-to, po-tat-o.

Some closing thoughts on Ricky Rubio after seeing him for a few more games. Quite clearly, he has some major deficiencies in terms of scoring - at the moment, he can't shoot and he is quite a poor finisher at the rim.

Still, I thought it was a staggering performance for the kid to hold up as well as he did in the pressure of the gold-medal game, with just 2 turnovers in 29 minutes, directing an attack which put up 107 points while competing and holding his own against some of the best guards in the world at just 17 years of age.

Now is the time to praise Coach K, not to bury him, I know. He did an outstanding job of creating a team - created a sense of camaraderie and cohesiveness, defined roles and rotations well, got players to accept their roles, had the team prepared each night - which was a huge key in why the USA ascending back to the top of the medal podium.

But I must say, I had a sense of "here we go again" in the Spain game. It felt like the Greece game all over, as the U.S. couldn't stop Spain, and worse, seemed to have no answers whatsoever. I don't understand why hard double-teams weren't being thrown at Pau, who averaged almost 3 TOs per game in the Olympics. The U.S. couldn't handle him one-on-one, and he still seems like a guy who needs to prove himself against physical play in a high-stakes setting.

Fortunately for Team USA, Spanish coach Aito Garcia decided to play Pau just 28 minutes b/c he had to get Alex Mumbru's 13 minutes in and Berni Rodriguez's 9, as well.

In any event, great job, Coach K, but let's get a coach with professional game-adjustment experience in there next time.

Finally, can we get a little love for NBA refs after what we witnessed over the past two weeks? The USA-Spain game was a horribly officiated game for both sides, the last of several inconsistently reffed games in Beijing. Yeah, NBA refs don't get em all right, but it's impossible to do so in such a high-speed game. They are, while flawed, the best in the business. Be thankful we don't have to deal with FIBA refs throughout the winter.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

2008 Olympic Gold Medal Preview: USA vs. Spain

We know what Team USA is capable of and if they just play a solid game, they should cruise. So in this piece will focus on what Spain needs to do to challenge the US.

Spain needs a perfect confluence of events to align just right if they want any shot. Hope that Team USA is awful from long-range, while they're are deadly. Hope that the US can't turn them over, while they force a ton on the US. Not to mention a variety of other factors. And having Jose Calderon in his civvies & dress zapatas (or zapatas de dress) makes an upset even more unlikely.

Let's take a look at what Spain has to do to make this game competitive:

- Coach Aito has to throw the whole playbook at the US, especially on the defensive end. Always thought a key to Spain's recent success in int'l play was not only how sound they were defensively, but how they try to confuse the opposition with changing defenses. Probably have had the best zone of any national team the last few years with Pau an effective anchor in the middle. They have also done a good job mixing up their looks in the past, and even showing different zone alignments than just 2x3. But this was always done under the guidance of their old coach, Pepu Hernandez. Will see if Aito will get as creative, really only seen some 2x3 looks so far in the Olympics.

- Mentioned before that opposing teams should look to take fouls vs. Team USA, especially taking them near mid-court when the US is trying to bust out on the break. USA shot 75% vs. Argentina, but still are lousy overall for the tourney, and Wade, Lebron, & Dwight were a combined 6/14 from the stripe in the Semifinal. So make them earn some points from the ft line. Even with Calderon out, Spain is a deep unit that can absorb foul trouble.

-Obviously take care of the ball. I think if Australia can keep their turnovers down, think the Spanish club is capable of minimizing turnovers, even with Rubio & Lopez handling.

- How nice would it be if Spain had Sergio Rodriguez at their disposal now. But Coach Aito decided to take an old favorite Raul Lopez in his place; another curious decision by the Spanish coach.

- Feed Pau early & often. See if you can get Dwight into some early foul trouble & on the bench. Then keep feeding the low blocks to attack Team USA's vulnerabliity guarding the post. Also, a double dose of Gasol brothers on the floor together for limited minutes is advised. Marc Gasol did a nice job drawing fouls in the prelim match (I counted 4-5 drawn fouls) when the US went small. And you can use this Gasol frontline pairing if you decide to play more zone, and it gives you two 7-footers on the backline of your zone defense--Germany's zone was the most effective zone vs. the US in '06 thanks in some part to two 7-footers (Dirk & Femerling) on the backline.

- Have to knock down some outside looks if they want any shot making this contest interesting. Spain has reverted back to 2004 with their outside shooting--right around 30% from 3pt. for the tourney, and it's definitely made them look less impressive than the last few years. Rudy has been their only consistent threat, and Navarro has to step up in this game, and even Garbajosa needs to knock down some jumpers.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

2008 Olympic Quarters Preview (Part II)

Also: Quarters Preview, Part I

In Part II, we'll take a look at the 2nd session of Quarterfinal games--USA-Australia & Argentina-Greece.

Last time these two teams met for an official game was the opening round of the playoffs at the '06 Worlds. Team USA actually played pretty effective defense in this game, where they they turned the screws in the 2nd quarter, and shutdown the Aussies' strong outside shooting game.

Have to imagine that Australia will throw everything in the playbook at Team USA. Imagine a fair amount of zone to force the US to beat them from outside. Try to milk the shot clock on offense, and be as physical on defense as possible to attempt to break up Team USA's flow. Use pass-fakes & backdoor action when you can. Implore your guards to keep their dribble alive as long as possible. Make sure players come meet the ball on passes.

Obviously, taking care of the ball & preventing runaway breaks vs. Team USA is the first priority on offense. At the '06 Worlds, turnovers were a mighty big problem for the Aussies, where they averaged roughly 20 TOs per game. But one thing that has helped their progress this year is that they have found ways to limit the miscues (13 TO/pg in Beijing). And this is vital vs. Team USA.

One thing I think they should consider, that I'm surprised I haven't seen more of from other teams, is freely giving fouls, especially before Team USA can get out in transition. I'm a little surprised because this is a common tactic in European ball. The one consistent flaw for Team USA has been their foul shooting, so make 'em work for their points at the line. Also, think this tactic can possibly muck up the rhythm that Team USA gets when they start breakin' & poppin'.

The "Boomers" have a good rotation of bigs that can all pop out to the perimeter, which could hinder Dwight. Bogut, Matt Nielsen, Anstey, & Andersen all have good range on their jumpers, and even have to be respected behind the arc. And much like in '06, the Aussies are geared toward finding good looks behind the 3pt line. They're shooting the 3 well as a team (44.4%) and have multiple threats besides their bigs, like Brad Newley, Patty Mills, Sam Worthington, & Dave Barlow.

Aussies have played well the last few games (though the Lith game can't be taken at face value), and had a effective gameplan vs. the US in the exhibition stage. But if the Americans keep shooting the perimeter shot like they have the last few games, the opposition has no hope.

This should be the highlight matchup of the quarters. Last met in similar circumstances in 2004, where Argentina held off the Greeks 69-64 in the quarters. this year's version of Argentina might be slightly inferior (certainly less depth), and this year's version of Greece actually looks to be more potent than the '04 squad (though of course, they will not be at home).

Expect to see a similar type of game play out this year, where Greece tries to keep the game in the low 70s/high 60s. Two very good defensive units peppered with versatile athletes. Greece's renowned man2man defense has been fairly solid thru the prelims, but is not causing the vast amount of turnovers that has been one of their calling cards in the past.

Argentina has been looking real good after their one narrow defeat to Lithuania in the opener. The ball-movement, off-ball movement, and spacing we're accustomed to with Arg. have reappeared. Manu looks rather healthy, and has been one of the top players at the Olympics thru the prelims. Nocioni has been a spastic presence all over the floor, and very effective on the boards (8 rebs per).

One concern for Argentina: has Coach Hernandez run his main guys into the ground? Knew depth would be a concern heading into the Olympics with Argentina, and Hernandez has been sticking with his top 6 guys, plus a small dose of biker-bar bouncer Roman Gonzalez. Playing Scola 40 minutes & Nocioni 35 mins vs. Russia in a meaningless game doesn't really make much sense. Greece definitely has the advantage with depth, and we'll see if they try to target the foul-prone duo of Scola & Oberto early.

Speaking of Luis, Scola continues to be a uber-efficient monster in FIBA. After a subpar shooting nite vs Lith., Luis has rebounded to average 19 pts & 6 rebs on 62%. Loves working the pick/roll where he will peel off to hit jumpers at the foul line area or work his way to the baseline for jumpers. Oberto & Luis continue to do a great job "getting lost" in their offense, and finding the open space.

Greece has the length & athleticism to hang with Argentina on the perimeter. Think Spanoulis could give Prigioni issues with his size & strength on both ends of the floor; Prigioni tends to struggle vs. bigger points. And very interested to see if Diamantidis gets the call to check Manu, he has the ability to cause some issues for Manu. SF P. Vasiliopoulos is a versatile defender who's an underrated athlete who could matchup well on Nocioni.

Can this Greece team find ways to get consistent scoring outside of Spanoulis? This continues to be a lingering issue for Team Hellas. Spanoulis has been their primary option looking to attack from up high either off picks or straight penetration. He's extremely dangerous as a pull-up shooter, but less effective when forced to be a standstill shooter.

The Greeks need to find some input from their frontline. The bigs for Greece have been inconsistent in the prelims after providing a nice boost in the Pre-Olympic tourney. 7-footer Bouroussis has shown some signs of life with back2back strong game, and his size could be a factor vs. the undersized Argentines. Not sure you will get much from Big Sofo since he's still not in bball shape. But think it's imperative Antonis Fotsis has strong game. Has to somehow neutralize the production of Scola. The talent is there with Fotsis, it's just a question of how assertive he wants to be.

Expect Greece to keep this game very close. Just need a solid outside shooting nite, Don't have to be great, just solid to keep things close. Think their defense has the goods to give Argentina rough patches. But in the end, have more faith in Argentina generating points when the offensive sets break down as opposed to Greece's ability to the same vs. Argentina's tough man defense.

Also: Quarters Preview, Part I

Monday, August 18, 2008

2008 Olympic Quarters Preview (Part I)

Also: Quarters Preview, Part II

Not a ton of competitive games in the prelims, but hopefully the one-n-done knockout portion of this competition will provide some intrigue this week. Iran & Angola have been eliminated, no surprise, while Germany & Russia have left the proceedings earlier than expected. We're left with eight teams going for three medals, with Team USA well on track to its much-discussed redemption, and defending Olympic champ Argentina still alive and looking to repeat.

Have to say that Argentina-Greece game projects to be the best quarter matchup. Think Greece matches up really well on the perimeter with some good long athletes that all defend very well. M. Haubs & I are both really feeling that Croatia has a great shot vs. Spain. Neither of us has been impressed with Spain's play so far, and realize Croatia can take down Spain with a hot shooting night & strong board work, like they did last year (see below).

Could see China hanging around with Lithuania, but would be stunned if they actually pulled off an upset. And have a hard time seeing Australia making the U.S. sweat. I know their recent exhibition was kinda close without Bogut, but Team USA is rolling on all fronts, and can't see this game being competitive.

Here's the schedule for the quarters starting Wednesday morning: (All times Eastern Daylight Time)
Game 1: Spain vs. Croatia (2:30 am)
Game 2: Lithuania vs. China (4:45 am)
Game 3: USA vs. Australia (8:00 am)
Game 4: Argentina vs. Greece (10:15 am)

Part I will deal with the first session of games.

Last time these two teams met was in the first stage of group play at the '07 Euros where Croatia pulled off a 85-84 stunner thanks to this Marko Tomas 3pt. make:

This was the only blemish for Spain during the opening rounds of Euro '07, where they were crushing all comers. Spain definitely turned the defensive intensity off for Croatia game, and Croatia's stellar outside shooting from Tomas, Kus & Popovic was a huge plus. While Spain could be missing Marc Gasol for this game, Croatia could take a bigger hit by probably missing Marko Popovic, and possibly Planinic.

Have to say, I'm not loving the way Spain is playing so far. We know about the U.S. game, but Spain did not look particularly good vs. China or Germany. Granted, they are still 4-1, but maybe I'm expecting more after they played so well the previous two summers during the early rounds. Think some of the uneven play might have to do with the coaching change, something my partner alluded to earlier. They are clearly not hitting their 3pts., reverting back to their dreadful '04 shooting ways--30% from deep in group play (worst in the Olympics). Their outside shooting has really improved the last few years, and has been a key for their emergence as a top threat.

Coach Aito's distributing of minutes has probably helped his young guns like Rubio, Rudy, & Marc Gasol prosper. But I think it's come at the expense of lackluster play from veterans like Calderon, Navarro, & Garbajosa. Particularly Calderon. You have to remember Calderon was tearing it up last summer at Euros. He was running the Spanish offense to perfection (Coach Pepu was letting him push the pace in transition at his own discretion) & really broke out as an outside shooter--he finished 2nd overall in FG% at 55%, and was 19/38 behind the arc for the Euros, 5th best.

But this year, I really think the substitution pattern has hindered Jose's effectiveness & verve, not to mention the entire team. This Spanish team rolled thru the '06 Worlds, with only the Argentina game being competitive, & last year they cruised thru the Euros besides the hiccup vs. Croatia, and then the shocking loss to Russia. Jose only has five assists total for the Olympics. Yes, five assists. And he's shooting 34% from the floor & 5/19 from 3pt range.

One thing is for sure, Aito has to stop playing Raul Lopez & give his minutes to Calderon--Jose has to be getting close to 30 minutes per. Maybe Coach Aito is playing possum and just messing with the advance scouts of the other nat'l teams, but he also seems to be messing with the heads of some of his players as well. Also, think he needs to get Garbajosa on the floor more, hand him some minutes alloted for Mumbru & Berni. He's still a factor as a help defender.

The one guy who has not been affected by the change in coaching is Pau. Pau is playing nearly as well as he played the two previous summers. The only minus for Pau has been his foul shooting & turnovers--actually two things that cost him down the stretch vs. Russia last year.

Not surprisingly, Croatia's fortunes seem to tilt depending on how well they shoot their 3pts. In their three wins, they are 30/48 from deep, and 8/32 in their two losses. Not a huge sample size, but this team has always been reliant on their outside shooting, and beat Spain last year mostly because of a very strong shooting night & by some nice offensive rebounding.

Croatia's primary plan of attack is to run their guards off screens & play off that action. Roko Ukic & Planinic are more dangerous getting in the lane, and don't always need screens to free themselves. Though, Planinic has been shooting the ball well in the Olympics. Meanwhile Davor Kus & Marko Popovic are much more potent as shooters, and can drill coming off screens.

Swingman Marko Tomas continues his solid play this summer and is a deft shooter, but also is a good athlete that can make his way to the basket on occasion. But the loss of Popovic is a significant blow to the Croatian offense, and if Planinic can't go, it puts a ton of pressure on Ukic & Tomas to produce.

Croatia's frontline players get less pub than their nice collection of guards, but the frontline is actually pretty solid. They won't overwhelm you offensively, but all their bigs give a good effort defensively, especially helping on screens, & will board hard. Actually, Croatia is hitting the glass very well in the Olympics--they've outrebounded each opponent by at least 5 per game. And they're very dangerous on the offensive glass.

Bruising big Nikola Prkacin likes to methodically back-in his defender, a la Barkley, often looking to finish with an old-school lefty hook. He teams with Marko Banic, another physical interior option who is a solid defender & rebounder. Valuable reserve Kresmir Loncar has continued his strong play from the pre-Olympic qualifier by crashing the boards & will look for elbow jumpers much like 7-foot Stanko Barac. S. Nicevic has decent footwork to get some low box points, and is another good help defender.

Spain's main concern has to be to shutdown Croatia's outside shooting. Then to try to keep Croatia off the off. glass. Expect Croatia to bring their physical defense, and anticipate Spain heading to the free throw line quite a lot. My partner feels the Spanish are ripe for an upset, mainly because of Aito's peculiar game management, and I'm seeing Croatia having a great shot in this game. But the Popovic & Planinic injuries are making me feel Spain's chances of moving forward more likely. Though, Croatia could hurt Spain on the glass, especially with Marc Gasol out. Think Spain might be able to get by a depleted Croatia with the herky-jekry lineups, but think Spain will have cut down their rotation if they face Lithuania in the semis.

These teams met in the quarters at the last Olympics when Lithuania was a # 1 seed, and China a #4, and Lithuania rolled by 20. But one factor working in China's favor this time--the '04 game was in Greece, this one is of course in Beijing.

Kleiza has been a stud for the Baltic Bunch, instant offense coming off the bench. Linas is averaging 14 ppg & 6 rpg on 54% in only 20 mins per. Linas put the Croatia game away by burying three 3pts early in the 4th after sitting the entire 3rd quarter. As usual, Lithuania has been shooting the ball well, and the patented ball-movement has been there as well.

Jasikevicius has not been quite as superb as last year, but he's still played pretty well. Running his team's offense as well as any point in this tourney. Still turning the rock over too much, but still a playmaker deluxe in pick/rolls.

K. Lavrinovic & Javtokas have done a solid job protecting the rim & hitting the glass for Lithuania. Javtokas is dangerous working pick/roll with Saras, where he's always capable of dunking on your skull. Not sure you should put much stock in Australia's spanking of Lithuania. Lithuania has a tendency to float thru games that have no meaning.

Think China will have to get their normally reliable outside shooting on track if they want any shot at this upset. Need this aspect to play off Yao in the post. Only shooting 32% thru five games, and this is supposed to be a strength. Though, PG Liu Wei & Zhu Fangyu have shot the ball fairly well.

Just have a feeling China can keep his game competitive. They're at home and very well could have the benefit of favorable refs (see Germany game). Also, Lithuania can come out flat vs. teams they don't consider as threats. Lithuania fouls a lot, and China is shooting their free throws well. Lithuania is actually turning the ball over more than China, who usually has a mighty hard time holding onto the ball. (This game could be a TO-fest). China also is coached by Jonas Kazlauskas & Donnie Nelson, who have both coached for Lithuania in the past, and should be very familiar with Lithuania's personnel. But think all these factors will have play out perfectly for a China upset.

Also: Quarters Preview, Part II

Friday, August 15, 2008

Olympic Basketball Notes:
Spain's Wacky Lineups & More

Before we get going on this post, let's clean up a little unfinished business from yesterday's post on Ricky Rubio. We made a comparison between Rubio and Brandon Jennings, who could both be top 5 picks in the 2009 Draft. After we posted, we realized that Rubio's DKV Joventut and Jennings' Lottomatica Roma teams are in the same Group C in the Euroleague, so they will match up twice in the regular season. Circle your calendar for October 29 and December 11 as dates to fire up the for matchups of these top PG prospects.


OK, on we go. When the Olympic basketball tournament started, there were two teams - USA and Spain - who looked like clear favorites on paper. Heading into the USA-Spain matchup on Saturday at 10:15 a.m. ET, both teams are 3-0 yet they seem to be on divergent paths so far.

The Americans, as we saw in their complete dismantling of a very good Greek team on Thursday, are really starting to fully realize Jerry Colangelo's vision as they are coming together beautifully as a team. The cohesion is there after three years of the national team program, the respect for the opponents is there, the knowledge of opposition personnel is there, and they're even starting to look comfortable with FIBA rules, as they slapped a couple shots off the rim.

The Team USA performance on Thursday was nothing short of a glorious display of basketball - a reminder of why this game we love is the greatest sport in the world when it's played on such a high level as Mssrs. Wade, James, Bosh, Bryant and friends played it yesterday.

We've been tough on Coach K for the 2006 loss to Greece, but he has been outstanding so far in 2008. The U.S. was utterly well-prepared for the Greece rematch, and we think Coach K has done a very good job of creating a consistent rotation of 9 players with well-defined roles (if only he'd demote J-Kidd, we'd say he's been flawless).


Meanwhile, Spain has been inconsistent en route to its 3-0 record. They were impressive in their opener, an 81-66 win over Greece, but never should have been a position to nearly lose to China. Spain had to rally from 14 down in the 4th Q for an OT win against a team they should have beaten by 20.

Even Spain's 13-point win over Germany was deceptive - they looked sluggish and unimpressive for most of the first half, scoring just 12 points in the 1st Q, and trailing by as much as 8 in the 2nd Q, before turning things around and taking control in the second half.

I've watched all three Spain games - the team just seems unable to get into a flow, and I don't think it's a coincidence that Spain coach Aito Garcia Reneses has taken a completely different approach with his lineups. I can't even call it a "rotation" because there's been absolutely no consistency to it.

I mean that literally: Aito has started a different group of five players in each of the six halves Spain has played so far. Take a look:

Greece 1st Half
M. Gasol

Greece 2nd Half
P Gasol

China 1st Half
R. Lopez
P Gasol

China 2nd Half
B Rodriguez
M Gasol
P Gasol

Germany 1st Half
R Lopez
B Rodriguez
P Gasol

Germany 2nd Half
P Gasol

Aito is also playing all 12 players on his roster. Even though Spain hasn't blown anyone out, all 12 players are averaging more than 5 mpg, and 11 players are averaging more than 10 mpg. (Veterans Juan Carlos Navarro and Jorge Garbajosa have been odd men out so far, averaging just 17 mpg, though both made key plays down the stretch vs. China.) On top of that, the one guy who's averaging just 5 minutes - Raul Lopez - started the last two games.

Against Germany, Berni Rodriguez also started, meaning Spain started arguably the 11th and 12th men on its roster, which probably helps explain why they scored just 3 points in the first 5 minutes. I really don't think it's a coincidence that Spain got off to very slow starts against both China and Germany.

I can only imagine that this is Aito's strategy to conserve the minutes of his top players in the preliminary round, but the 12-man "rotation" with absolutely no lineup consistency seems extreme - there's no sense that roles are developing and they don't seem to be developing cohesion and flow as the tournament goes on.

It'll be interesting to see if Team Spain can turn it on in the medal round, and to see if Aito goes more with his top players and a more traditional rotation against the U.S. on Saturday, and as we get into the medal round.

Argentina coach Sergio Rodriguez has taken the opposite approach to coach Aito. With limited depth, Rodriguez has stuck mainly to a 6-man rotation. Only 12 players in the tournament are logging 30+ mpg, and Argentina has three of them, even after a much-needed blowout win vs. Croatia allowed for some rest. Coach Pop can't be happy with that 30.3 mpg that Manu is logging.

Argentina has looked better and better as the tournament has progressed - we'll see if their short rotation catches up with them in the medal round against the depth that the U.S., Spain, Lithuania can throw out there.

Obviously, we're still quite early in the proceedings, but is there any question that Dwyane Wade is the MVP so far? Look at these scoring leaders. Dude is leading the Olympics in scoring (18.3 ppg) even though he's only played 18.7 mpg! 76 FG%! 58.8% 3PT%! Plus 3 steals per and the play of the tournament so far:

Pretty much all of the so-called unsportsmanlike foul calls I've seen so far in the Olympics have been head-scratchers, such as the one called against Kobe early in the Greece game. These babies are penalized like NBA flagrant fouls - 2 shots and the ball - yet there doesn't seem any rhyme or reason to what constitutes the call. There's potential for a huge amount of controversy if one of these strange calls affects a close game in the medal round.

Overall, the officiating has been leaps and bounds better than it was in 2004, mainly thanks to FIBA going from two refs to three. Still get some oddly officiated games, though - I thought USA-Greece was pretty called inconsistently overall.

Alright - enjoy the games on Fri.-Sat.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ricky Rubio, Yo Creo

I hadn't really had a good opportunity to watch 17-year-old Spanish phenom Ricky Rubio play until these Olympics. After spending the last two nights watching Spain's games vs. China and Germany, all I can say about the kid is: Yo creo. I believe.

My reaction after watching Rubio struggle against Greece's pressure D in Spain's opener was that Ricky was pretty much what I expected - very impressive to make the powerful Spanish national team at 17, but still ultimately a boy playing against men.

So after hearing reports that Rubio helped spur Spain's comeback win vs. China, I was initially skeptical, and tended to agree with the sentiment that Henry Abbott voiced on TrueHoop:
    Game of the day was China and Spain, which went to overtime. 17-year-old phenom Ricky Rubio -- a candidate to be the first overall pick in next year's draft -- was something of a surprise to make this team. But he played almost all of the key minutes, and ended up getting a huge steal, his fifth, down the stretch. If you watch the highlights, you'll think he's an MVP candidate. But let's be clear, he hardly owned this game. The guy had five steals to go with a dubious 4 x 4 stat line: four assists, four rebounds, four fouls, and four turnovers. He also missed four field goals, and one free throw, to finish with one point in 21 minutes. He's a fantastic prospect, but despite the big play in a big win (Spain came back from 14 down in the fourth quarter) please let's not call this his coming out party.
Still, part of me was intrigued - why was Ricky in the highlights? Why was the kid even *in the game* at crunch time?


I went back and watched the Spain-China game, which I heartily recommend, even now, to any hoophead. Tremendous atmosphere in the building, with lots of great individual performances - Pau and Rudy for Spain, and Liu Wei, Zhu Fangyu and my main man Wang Zhizhi, the Dodger, for China. It was just a good ballgame in general, with Pau and Yao going at it, and lots of guys stepping up to make plays, both for China as they built the lead and for Spain as they fought back. Best basketball game of the Olympics so far.

And in the China game, I think I started to understand how Ricky Rubio's impact can exceed an uneven, unremarkable stat line. The dude was all over the place defensively, probably gambling too much, but just wreaking havoc and causing TOs everywhere - on the ball, doubling down, in the passing lanes - to help spark the comeback.

Clearly, Rubio's game is much more developed defensively than offensively at this point, but the poise and sheer cojones that the kid displayed down the stretch in such a high-pressure environment... it was just somewhat mind-blowing as I repeatedly reminded myself: HE'S 17!

Watch the highlights. At the 2:45 mark, Ricky calmly drops a behind-the-back dime to Pau during the 4th Q comeback. At the 4:15 mark, with the score tied at the end of regulation, and Spain holding for the last shot... yes, that's Ricky with the ball in his hands at the top of the key, driving right at Yao and getting off a pretty good attempt over him, even though it didn't fall.

I know, it's just the highlights, like Henry said, but I just couldn't believe a 17-year-old was not only on the court and making plays in that situation, and not only looked like he belonged out there, but Rubio just looked like he completely *believed* he belonged out there at crunch time, like it was no big deal.

I don't want to oversell the kid - he's got a long way to go before he's an NBA All-Star - but it was just an impressive thing to watch, and it's hard to translate into stats or words.

Try it like this: Rubio and Brandon Jennings are considered to be the two top point guard prospects who could enter the 2009 draft. Jennings is even a year older than Rubio. Try to imagine Jennings not only on Team USA, but on the court in crunch time of an Olympic game, with the ball in his hands being asked to make plays. It's fairly incomprehensible.

There are questions - rightly, I believe - about whether Jennings will be able to be productive on a team of seasoned professionals at Lottomatica Roma. That's what's amazing about Rubio: he not only looks like a seasoned pro at 17, he actually *is* one, with three years of experience in the Spanish ACB league (the best domestic league outside the NBA) already under his belt.


Then Rubio did it again vs. Germany last night, delivering pivotal plays in the third quarter. Germany led for most of the first half as Spain looked sluggish before showing life late in the 2nd and finally taking a 39-36 lead at the half. Spain got a three to start the second half, and then Rubio broke the game open.

First, he got a three-point play as he made a beautiful cut to the basket, caught a nice pass from Rudy, and executed a tough finish as he absorbed the contact. Ricky followed that up immediately with a steal of Stefan Hammann in the backcourt, leading to an easy layup. 5 points in 7 seconds and Germany was never within nine points again.

Rubio's overall stat line - 7 pts, 5 reb, 3 ast, 2 stl, 0 TO - was fairly unremarkable... until you consider that he played just 12 1/2 minutes!


Everyone always wants a comparison to another player, and while Rubio is unique, I'm going to throw a couple out there.

First, I'm going to call him a defensive version of Steve Nash. It's interesting to me that scouting reports of Rubio almost always question his lateral quickness and his athletic ability as a whole, yet he manages to be everywhere defensively. The thing that springs to mind in comparison is how Nash might not be the quickest PG (though I think his athleticism is underrated), yet he's just so damn quick and efficient with the ball. It's probably one part superior basketball IQ, one part being underestimated, one part knowing the angles. Who knows? Though Rubio is certainly gifted with excellent height (6-4) and length (6-9 wingspan) for the PG position, as well.

As I mentioned, Rubio's defense is way ahead of his offense right now, and he has a long way to go in terms of becoming a scoring threat, but his poise, basketball IQ, court vision and flair are already evident.

Let me throw this one out there in terms of a comparative player to Rubio in terms of style: Gary Payton. Now stop for a second and relax: I am not saying that Rubio is going be as good as Gary Payton! I just think Rubio might be similar as a guy who has the potential to completely disrupt the game defensively from the point guard position, and who might need time to fully grow into his game offensively.

Listen, I'm not trying to oversell the kid, really. I found an interesting message board discussion on RealGM debating Rubio's merits vs. Derrick Rose, and trying to figure out where Ricky might ultimately fit in comparison to Nash, Kidd, Paul, D-Will. Honestly, I have no idea.

The Raleigh News & Observer is reporting that Rubio had this to say about comparative players after the China game:
    Reporter: Who did you pattern your game after?

    Rubio: I'm Ricky Rubio. I can't be anyone else.


Ultimately, I don't know exactly what to make of Ricky Rubio - it's hard for me to sit here and definitively say that he'll be a NBA star, but the kid's clearly got something unique.

Of course, I'm interested to see Rubio vs Team USA on Saturday. I expect Rubio will have some good games and some bad games before this tournament is over. The fact is that he excelled against China and Germany, who have subpar guards, and struggled vs. Greece, who has excellent guards -- Ricky may well fall flat on his face vs. the USA pressure D.

Regardless, keep the perspective that the dude is just 17 freaking years old. He's not an NBA All-Star now, but I now understand and comprehend why he might just be one a decade from now.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Olympic Basketball Day 3 Preview:
USA-Greece Headlines Big Day

The Wednesday/Thursday slate of games shapes up to be the best of the prelim stage in Beijing. Sure, everyone is awaiting the USA (2-0) vs. Greece (1-1) matchup, but there are three other enticing games on the Olympic docket.

Germany (1-1) vs. Spain (2-0)
is the other big game in Group B, with interesting matchups like Gasol vs. Kaman, & Dirk vs. Garbajosa. Have to imagine Spain will be tuned in from the opening tap after the scare China gave them.

Lithuania (2-0) vs. Russia (1-1)--always a grudge match given that Lith. is a former Soviet republic--is also a rematch of last year's Eurobasket semifinal, won by Russia. The difference this year is that Lith. has a healthy Saras Jasikevicius, and Russia has a less-than-100% Vik Khryapa. Russia is in a little danger here because they still have Argentina & Australia left to play after tonight.

Finally, Argentina (1-1) faces off vs. Croatia (2-0) in a game that could decide 2nd place in Group A. Croatia is shooting the ball really well & their defense has been stout & physical. Argentina shot the ball better vs. Australia, and their spacing & execution looked like vintage Argentina. Croatia has physical bigs that could get Oberto & Scola in foul trouble; not like those two need help.

Below we explore some things to watch for in the US-Greece game:


- Fully expect the Greeks to try to milk possessions, and make this a physical, defensive affair. The 101-95 semi in '06 was really an aberration for Greece--in every other game in the Worlds (besides the China game), the Greeks preferred to keep games in the 70s, and would do just enough on the offensive end to pull out games.

- Think you will see some zone from Greece, but can't see the 40 minutes of zone that ESPN's Chris Sheridan proposes. Greece takes a lot of pride in their man2man, and has good long athletes on the perimeter who won't necessarily get overwhelmed. Greece played a decent amount of man vs. the US in '06, and really have not seen too much zone from them so far this summer.

- Also, Sheridan alludes to Greece treating the USA bigs like they did Germany's--very physical & extra attention on Kaman & Dirk. But I'm not so sure you will see the quite the same game plan vs. Team USA. Germany's two best players were on the frontline & Greece was willing to let the perimeter players of Germany hurt them. It would not be wise to treat Team USA the same way.

- Though, could see them being physical with Dwight & hacking him when he gets deep post position, and making him work for his points on the free throw line. Greece might look to take fouls when Team USA is ready to bust out in transition. Think in general, Greece will try to muck up the pace, and try to disrupt the rhythm of Team USA.

- Germany's 2x3 was effective vs. Greece early in the 2nd. Zone looks can really put a crimp in the strength of Team Hellas, which relies on the penetration of their three guards. Papaloukas & Diamantidis like to get into the lane to create for their teammates, and Spanoulis is looking to create for himself. That being said, Greeks have shown flashes where they can attack zones in the past, specifically last year vs. Spain, where Spanoulis was an attacking machine. But still think Coach K needs to throw some zone out there to see how Greece responds.

- This is a squad that Team USA needs to be more judicious around with their aggressive defensive play. Can't just full-tilt shoot the passing lanes & jump the ball vs. Greece. Their guards are too good. Though not saying Team USA should not pressure at all. Spain mixed in some extended pressure this weekend & it was effective in spots.

- Who keeps track of Fotsis? Antonis Fotsis has been quiet so far in the Olympics, but otherwise has been playing well this summer, and is Greece's best natural offensive talent. Could be a rough matchup for Melo with his inside/out game. Fotsis can shoot from deep but also can get to the basket where he's a strong finisher. Lebron might be the better defender on Antonis, while Melo can handle Vasiliopoulus, who's a minor offensive option & is out there for his defense. Though sometimes you don't need to worry about Fotsis because he will take himself out of the flow of the game. Head USA scout Tony Ronzone hit the nail on the head when summing up Fotsis to Sheridan:

"The key with him, he's soft," Ronzone said. "But if he's like Carlos Delfino, a guy who if he makes his first two shots, he's on. If he misses, you've got him."

This is something we've always felt was Fotsis' main weakness--he's tends to disappear & is not assertive enough.

- Yeah, yeah, we know pick/roll coverage is important vs. Greece, but there is more to it than that. It's about knowing the other team's tendencies, and Team USA was totally lost last time vs. the Greeks. And if you really don't know the other team's tendencies how do you expect the players to defend the pick/roll properly. What it seems like is Team USA is much better prepared and there is a better line of communication from the scouting department to coaching staff to the players. And this should make Greece's chances of springing another upset unlikely.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Monday Nite Recap: (CRO-RUS; GRE-GER)

Croatia continues its strong play this summer with a tough victory vs. the defending Euro Champs. (This outcome is not surprising, a very mild upset at best). Kept up their physical defense that worked wonders vs. Germany & kept up their patented outside shooting ways.

Croatia's main objective is to free its guards with high pick/roll, and they worked that action very well tonite. Marko Popovic used the screens to get off his deft jumpers, while Z. Planinic looked to get into the lane, but also hit some jumpers as well.

Popovic led with 22 pts (3/7 from 3pt), including a big 3pt. after he reversed back off a high pick/roll midway thru the 4th. Former NJ Net Planinic actually came off the bench to shoot 7/9 for 20 points.

New Raptor Roko Ukic even had his jumper working (not something he's known for). The FIBA boxscore said he had only made 2 fgs, but I could have sworn he hit three long jumpers. But this is something you get used to over the years--FIBA stat-keeping is notoriously uneven. Ukic hit a big pull-up 3pt not long after Popovic's big 4th quarter 3pt. Stanko-nia Barac played well off the pick/roll by sinking a few elbow jumpers, and finished with 12 & 7 rebs.

We mentioned before that Croatia's defense has taken huge strides in the last few years, and think they are consistent enough to be on par with elites like Greece, Spain & Russia. Russia could not get many easy looks in the lane. Croatia always had a big waiting, sloughed off in the painted area for help. Croatia's weakside help seemed to be in the right spots, not afraid to wander off the Russians, which is smart gameplanning.

Vik Khyrapa hit some jumpers don the stretch, and finished with four 3pters, but he really did not look like the same all-around, active Khyrapa we saw last summer. Even though Kirilenko had 18 pts, never thought he got into a great rhythm thanks to Croatia. Sergei Bykov gave Russia a great boost off the bench with his speed & outside shooting.

Would not stun me if Croatia were to win Group A. Their defense is on par with the elites, their guards can burn you from deep & Planinic is crafty with his dribble. The bigs are solid & tough, able defenders in the interior & all hit the glass. Prkacin can get you some low-box points, and Stanko-nia, Loncar, & Nicevic can hit from the elbow & are effective in pick/roll. They nearly beat Lithuania last year, and can probably neutralize their perimeter play & shooting. And they might have better depth on the frontline to give Argentina problems & foul issues.

This game was a little bit better representation of what Greece is capable of. Spain has a way of making Greece look uncharacteristically bad--they did it in '06 after Greece played solid in every other game at the Worlds. Greece looked like its normal self on the defensive end by denying Germany many good looks in the interior, and holding Germ. to 41 points thru the last 3 quarters.

Germany started the game with 5 TOs in the first four minutes, when they finally started taking care of the ball, it usually ended with a made 3pt--5/7 from 3pt in the 1st quarter. Thought the Greeks thoroughly outplayed Germ. in the 1st quarter but Deutschland stuck around strictly because of their deep shooting.

Germany's offense just collapsed in the 2nd quarter. Some of it had to do with Greece's defense, but thought Germany just lost discipline and started to rush some shots up. The only thing that kept them hanging around was some nice 3pt shooting--9 of their 10 2nd quarter points came from 3pts, 24 of their 33 1st half points came from deep. Also, Germany hung around because their 2x3 zone was giving Greece some issues early in the 2nd. Thought the Germans should have stuck with the zone at little longer.

Greece never let Dirk get off. They would send some doubles, usually when Dirk was into his moves. Dirk only got 8 shots up from the field. And Germany's prospects were not helped any by Kaman playing like a pile-o-poo. He rushed a few of his shots, but worst of all Kaman felt the need to show off his ball-handling ability which usually ended up with poor results. Kaman must have turned the ball over at 3-4 times from overhandling the ball. Maybe the only positive for Germany was their role-playing shooters did their job: Schultze, Greene & Roller hit multiple 3pts.

The 3-headed point guard monster returned for Greece tonite. Better ball movement that was reminiscent of their play in Athens last month. Papaloukas & Diamantidis looked to have their creative juices back & Spanoulis continues to be super-aggressive--23 pts & 5 assts for the former Rocket. Spanoulis hit some set jumpers, but he's just so much more dangerous pulling up off the bounce. Greece burned Germany at least four times on out-o-bounds plays. Defensive stalwart Kostas Tsartsaris, plus A. Fotsis, did an solid job of checking Dirk & neutralizing Germany's height advantage. Slightly surprisingly, Greece beat Germany on the glass, 33-26.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

2008 Olympic Men's Basketball Preview:
Group B Scouting Reports

Also: 2008 Olympic Men's Basketball Preview: Overall Ranks/Group A

Here we go with the in-depth breakdowns for Group B, which has the 3 best teams in the tourney in our estimation, definitely the two best in USA & Spain. A great team is going to be stuck with a 3rd place finish. We see Gold, Silver, and Bronze overall coming from the first three teams below.

GROUP B (Listed in predicted order of finish)

1. USA (Overall Rank: 1)
No news is good news for Team USA. Think back to this time four years ago. The list of players who dropped off the roster between the dominant 2003 qualifying team and the disastrous 2004 Olympic team included the following: Kidd, R. Allen, McGrady, J. O'Neal, Bibby, K. Malone, Brand, V. Carter, Collison. Several others declined invitations as USA Basketball had to scramble to cobble together a roster at the last minute.

Now the waters are smooth. Out of the 12 players on the 2008 roster, 3 (James, Anthony, Howard) have played each of the past two summers, and the other 9 have played one summer. In 2004, 4 players had played *one* of the previous two summers, while the other 8 were making their international debuts at the senior level.

Kudos to Jerry Colangelo for that, as the only main roster question is whether the choice of Prince instead of Chandler will leave Team USA too thin up front, with only three traditional bigs (Howard, Boozer, Bosh).

This year's team includes four All-NBA first teamers (Paul, Bryant, James, Howard) from the previous season. No USA Olympics or Worlds team has had that many All-NBA players since the 1996 Olympics, the last dominant Team USA on the world stage. The bronze-winning 2004 and 2006 clubs had just one first-teamer apiece, while the 2002 disaster had none.

Pressure defense seems to be the Team USA calling card, which will trigger their potent transition game. It will work vs. most teams, but not so sure how effective it will be against Spain & Greece specifically. Both teams have the guards who will not be overwhelmed by the ball pressure. Also, Team USA needs to pick its spots to overplay passing lanes because a team like Argentina will kill you with back-door action & players getting lost behind the defense.

We wrote a piece last summer which touched on these issues, noting that Team USA's defensive issues were not just about pick-and-roll D; they were about team D as a whole. We think the piece still stands.

In '06 a lot people forget Team USA actually played pretty solid defense in the prior playoff games vs. Aust. & Germ (defended Slovenia very well in the prelims). To us, not understanding Greece's tendencies was a problem as much as strictly the technical aspect of bad pick/roll coverage that has been buried into the ground. And Team USA seems to be making a concerted effort to be thoroughly prepared for each opponent with int'l scouting guru Tony Ronzone running the show & packaged video clips via Synergy Sports.

One minor weakness could be the lack of size and we've seen some instances where Team USA can have issues on the boards. Also, Coach K still needs to prove himself as a game coach on the professional level after the 2006 Greece pick-n-roll parade, and foul shooting seems to be shaky in spots. This was an underrated problem in '06, and something to keep an eye on.

Despite the small weaknesses, the strengths are still formidable: we're picking the U.S. to bring home Gold for the first time in a major competition in 8 years, and think they are a clear favorite. But in a one-game scenario, the US could go cold from the outside, cold from the free-throw line, the forced TOs could dry up, and the opposing team could just be red-hot from the perimeter. Spain & Greece are the likely teams to do it, with Lithuania & Argentina having a legit shot as well. This is not a done deal, so let's hold off on the Dream Team comparisons for a couple weeks.

2. SPAIN (Overall Rank: 2)
We'll see how they recover from the devastating collapse at home at last year's Eurobasket. Have been rolling thru their exhibitions, but they always take their friendly games seriously. Have great balance with one of the best offenses in FIBA & one of the best defenses. Also, probably have the most raw talent outside the US, and are extremely deep this year with NBA-caliber players--most in their prime or approaching it--in Calderon, JC Navarro, Rudy Fernandez, P. Gasol, M. Gasol, Garbajosa plus 17-year-old sensation Ricky Rubio and several solid Spanish League veterans.

There was a brief moment this spring when Spain's summer prospects were in jeopardy, following the sudden sacking of Coach Pepu Hernandez. However, the players supported the hiring of new coach Aito Garcia Reneses, and the transition appears to be seamless, as they've continued to bring their varied defenses. Like Russia, Spain does a great job of mixing up their defensive looks, play probably the best zone in FIBA, and sometimes employ def. sets that are hard to figure out.

One of the keys to Spain's emergence as a top dog the last few years has been their improved outside shooting. They were the worst perimeter shooting team at the last Olympics (even worse than Team USA). But Calderon & Navarro have worked on their shooting, and have turned into reliable 3-pt threats, especially Juan Carlos. And Rudy can drill as well.

Pau is much more effective as a FIBA defender than in the NBA. He can just sit in the lane, and is an effective anchor for Spain's stellar zone looks.

Pau might feel the need to redeem himself not only for a lackluster NBA Finals, but also remember that he struggled badly down the stretch of Spain's shocking 59-58 loss at home to Russia in the 2007 Eurobasket final. Pau was just 3-8 at the FT line, with 3 TOs, in the fourth quarter of that game. He missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer, and committed a costly TO with his team up one in the final 30 seconds. Though that one nightmare quarter should not cloud the fact that Pau was a stud at the Euros overall.

Pretty scary when you can bring Rudy Fernandez & Ricky Rubio off the bench. Rudy probably should be starting over Navarro. Marc Gasol has really improved over the last few years, and is one of the best players in the ACB (Spanish League). They will look to push in transition with Calderon & Rubio looking to set guys up. And Rudy, a dangerous finisher, is always looking to run the floor.

Felipe Reyes is a combo forward who can go inside & out. Has very good footwork in the painted area. We'll see if Garbo is fully recovered from his brutal leg injury this year. Last summer, he was obviously not himself, and Spain needs him close to full strength, because Jorge is huge for their defense. He's one of the best help defenders in the world, and he's allowed to float around like Kirilenko does for Russia.

This might be the best Spanish team in their recent vintage, thanks to emergence & growth of guys like Marc Gasol, Rudy & Rubio. Expect to see them in the Gold Medal game, and think they have goods to push Team USA to the limit, and possibly upset them.

3. GREECE (Overall Rank: 3)
We think this might actually be the best Greek team of their current golden era--even better than the '05 Euro Champs or '06 Worlds Runner-up. They looked stunningly good in the pre-Olympic qualifying tourney, where they smacked every team they played. And the offense that really struggled in spots last year looked the best we've seen it from this era of Team Hellas.

What's encouraging about this squad is how successful they have been the last few years with an average offense. They would do just enough on offense to supplement their great defense and pull games out. But this year, the offense has turned it up a notch. They have better shooting, which creates better spacing for the creativity of Euroleague superstars Theo Papaloukas & Dimitris Diamantidis. Their ball movement looks great, and they are even looking to run out a little more.

Having Antonis Fotsis back in the fold this summer is huge. Really feel like his absence due to injury was a big factor in their early lackluster play last September. The 6-9 forward is the best natural offensive talent Greece has. The former Memphis Grizzly can play inside & out, can put the ball on the deck, and is an underrated athletic finisher. Sometimes is just too reticent to assert himself.

Greece also has Sofocles "Baby Shaq" Schortsianitis back this year after spending last summer at fat camp. His size of course gave the U.S. all kinds of problems in the 2006 upset, and could do so again, given Team USA's limited number of bigs. Team Hellas was looking to set up Big Sofo in the painted area more at the qualifying tourney. He had some issues finishing early on, but got better as the tourney went on, and still drew fouls aplenty. He still struggled with free throws & TOs, though.

Outside shooting has been a Greek bugaboo in the past, and really affected their spacing last year. But they look to be solid with Fotsis back this year, and a healthy Nikos Zisis back too. Diamantidis is a solid shooter (very clutch actually) but he's reluctant to shoot sometimes. Vassilis Spanoulis has slowly improved his outside set shooting, though he is much more dangerous as a pull-up shooter.

Still, everything starts with defense for Coach Panagiotis Yannakis' well-drilled club, as Greece has one of the best half-court defenses in the tourney. They force a boatload of turnovers, get tons of deflections because of length and active hands, & rotate nicely--total team affair. They play a tight, controlled pace at both ends of the court and are more than happy playing games in the 60s & 70s.

They have been looking to run out in transition more with Papaloukas usually creating on the fly--makes sense with all the turnovers their defense can force. The Greeks will look to extend pressure up the floor & their traps are effective--they can cause a string of TOs in a hurry. Long-armed Diamantidis (aka "Octopus Man") is a demon, Spanoulis is great at shuffling his feet laterally to stay in front of guards, and Papaloukas is underrated with great anticipation & quick hands.

Panagiotas Vasilopoulos will likely start at the SF slot, and gives Hellas another strong defender with a decent shooting touch in the starting unit.

Contrary to some reports, Greece has actually been a subpar rebounding team the last few years. Though this year they look to be solid with more playing time for Bouroussis, Sofocles, and a healthy Fotsis. Also, Vasilopoulos rebounds very well for a SF.

Kostas Tsartarsis will probably start alongside Fotsis on the frontline and is a solid role-playing forward who provides solid rebounding & defending.

This team is a smart, tough, cohesive unit which makes very few mistakes. This team just finds ways to win because of their collective mental toughness. And now their offense is catching up to their rock-solid defense, which gives them a legit shot to knock off Spain or even repeat their upset of the U.S.

4. GERMANY (Overall Rank: 8)
Got here by dispatching Puerto Rico in the 3rd place game in Athens a few weeks ago for the final spot in Beijing. Played solid ball, and did a nice job of incorporating new Deutschman Chris Kaman into the mix.

The offense revolves around a heavy diet of either Dirk or Kaman on the low blocks, plus the requisite isos for Dirk scattered around the floor. Dirk was a stud in the qualifying tourney, and was very aggressive every game, which is a good sign. Kaman was very effective in only about 20 mins per game, especially on the glass, and helped protect the rim.

Dirk & Kaman did a pretty good job of moving the ball out of the post when they drew extra attention. And Germany shoots the ball well as a team: besides Dirk, D. Greene, Roller, Garrett, & Schultze can all hit from deep.

Would like to see a few more high pick/rolls involving Steffen Hamann to get him in the lane. Hamann is not the best playmaker around, and has issues with TOs, but he is a big, athletic PG who is a good finisher in the lane. Pascal Roller will back-up Hamann, and brings a sweet shooting touch & the ability to pull up off the dribble or coming off screens.

Germany was already a very strong rebounding team before Kaman arrived, and it's definitely a big strength. Very big team with six guys over 6-10. Starting SF Konrad Wysocki even rebounds well which helps fill some of the void left from injured Ademola Okulaja, who unfortunately has been diagnosed with a broken vertebra caused by a tumor.

Thought Bauermann should have given Jan Jagla some more floor time in the pre-Olympic tourney. He brings great energy off the pine, especially crashing the glass, and is an underrated passer. Former UW Husky Pat Femerling is not the most graceful big around, but he still gives Germany some serviceable minutes on the defensive end.

Defense is pretty solid under Coach Dirk Bauermann, and was especially stout on the interior last month in Athens. Their zone in the 2006 Worlds was the most effective I've seen vs. Team USA in the last few years. They can put two 7-footers on the backline to protect the rim.

How consistent can the role players be is the main question for Team Deutschland. SG Demond Greene needs to show up every night in my estimation if Germany wants to make a deep run. He can get streaky hot from the outside, and was a nice 2nd option to Dirk at the '06 Worlds.

Germany should slide into the last quarterfinal playoff spot in Group B, but needs to be alert vs. Angola & China, because both teams can knock them off in a one-game scenario.

5. CHINA (Overall Rank: 10)
Let's just clear something up: China has no shot at a medal. I understand there are a lot of promotion angles at work that would benefit from China being a contender, but don't let Nike or NBC fool you--China is likely done after the prelims. It would be a shock if they even got to the Semis, and will be lucky to even make the 8-team playoff portion of the tourney.

The bulk of responsibilities of course fall on Yao, who will likely do his part once again as one of the best players--delivering some of the best stats--in the tourney, as he did in Athens in 2004 and Japan in 2006.

Still, it won't be enough against the brutal lineup in the talented Group B. China's guards are decidedly subpar, and have extreme difficulties bringing the ball up the floor vs. even token pressure. Just getting Yao enough or good touches will be a constant chore. This team just turns the ball over way too much; it's not just the guards, the bigs lose the ball too much as well. China's perimeter defense is nothing special either, and that puts even more pressure on Yao to clean up their mistakes.

Yi Jianlian could be an X-factor in determining China's success, though he tends to disappear for long stretches. Fans of "Big Dodger" Wang Zhizhi will be happy to see him in action; he currently plays for the Bayi Rockets of the Chinese Basketball Association.

The one thing that China does do well is shoot the perimeter jumper. We know Yi & ZhiZhi are bigs who can face-up, but SF Wang Shipeng is another shooter, who was China's 2nd best player in '06 & a secondary scoring option after Yao.

Liu Wei should get the nod at PG, and is a solid playmaker when he can get into the half-court set. Other players of interest include guards Chen Jianghua, a youngster who provides more And 1 flash than production, and Sun Yue, a Laker draftee.

Beyond the curiosity factor and all the hoopla, you don't need to waste your time with the USA-China game on Day 1 from a basketball standpoint. You can save your energy for a couple huge games that are way more interesting: Spain-Greece and Lithuania-Argentina, four of the top five teams matching up on opening day.

6. ANGOLA (Overall Rank: 11)
Fans who saw this entertaining, up-tempo club play at the 2006 Worlds know that they have the ability to put a scare into any team. Angola actually beat China by a point to win the Stankovic Cup in China last month. Sorry to get all cliche-y, but the best word I can think of to describe this squad is scrappy. Have good overall athleticism, and they're a very active bunch.

They are very small--no one over 6-8 sees serious minutes. The other problem is they don't shoot the ball all that well. Still not sure why more teams do not consider more zone vs. this team.

On offense, they are always looking to attack the basket, mostly attacking off the dribble. SG/SF Olimpio Cipriano is probably their top-dog and the best perimeter shooter. Joaquim Gomes & Ed Mingus are the inside duo that is relentless going against bigger opponents. Gomes & Mingus are each about 6-8, but are still capable rebounders & are the secondary scorers next to Cipriano. Milton Barnes comes off the bench to cause problems with his great speed--he really speeds up the pace & wreaks havoc at both ends of the floor.

As we said before, Angola is a tough out for any team in Group B besides maybe Team USA. Angola had great chances to knock off Germany in their epic 3-OT battle at the '06 Worlds, and they stayed within 10 points of Spain in '06 when Spain was crushing other teams. Would not be stunned if Angola beat Germany & China and snuck into the playoffs--they're that dangerous.

Also: 2008 Olympic Men's Basketball Preview: Overall Ranks/Group A

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

2008 Olympic Men's Basketball Preview:
Group A Scouting Reports

Also: 2008 Olympic Men's Basketball Preview: Group B

The big daddy of international hoops has arrived, as the Olympic men's basketball tournament tips off Sunday in Beijing (Saturday evening in the U.S.), with unprecedented depth of talent in the 12-team field.

Links: Wikipedia | FIBA | U.S. TV schedule

The tournament is wide-open: nine teams have a shot at a medal, five of those teams have a shot at gold, and two of those teams are juggernauts on paper. Yes, the U.S. is a clear favorite with four first-team All-NBA players, but this field is too good to think they can't be beaten in a one-and-done knockout scenario.

Here's how we rank 'em overall:

1) USA

Team USA is the clear favorite, but any of these five teams has a legit shot at the Gold. Not much separates Gre, Arg, & Lith, and you could juggle those teams in any order, but we gave Greece the slight edge because of uncertain health status of Arg. (Manu & Oberto) & Lith. (Songaila & Kleiza). Two months ago, we might have considered Lith for #3, but there's no Big Z and it looks as if Songaila ain't going to China, so that's a minor blow to Lith.


Russia is kinda straddling the line between Tier I & II in our minds, but they don't have enough offensive firepower & shooting to put them with the Tier I group. Wouldn't be stunned if they snuck their way to a Bronze. Not much separates Cro, Germ, & Aust, and can juggle them in any order. Germany should secure the 4th spot in Group B. Croatia & Australia should fight it out for the 4th spot in Group A, and it's really a toss-up between them.

12) IRAN
Let's get this straight: China is not a serious medal contender what-so-ever. They're barely a contender to even make the 8-team playoff portion of the Olympics. Some have been overhyping China, and even promoting the US-China game like it will be interesting--USA-China is one of the least intriguing games of a packed Day 1. Angola is not to be taken lightly, and can cause problems for any team besides Team USA. Iran should just be happy if they can stay within 15 points of any opponent.

How It Works
The 12 teams are 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 24, all to be held at Wukesong Indoor Stadium in Beijing.

Here's what the two groups look like, with our power rankings in parentheses:

Argentina (4)
Lithuania (5)
Russia (6)
Croatia (7)
Australia (9)
Iran (12)

USA (1)
Spain (2)
Greece (3)
Germany (8)
China (10)
Angola (11)

As you can see, Group B is, in our estimation, the much more challenging group. Below are in-depth capsules of each team in Group A. Group B capsules come later today.

GROUP A: (Listed in predicted order of finish)

(Overall Rank: 4)
A little older, a little bit more banged up, a little less depth, but still an extremely potent club because of their tremendous chemistry & raw talent. No team has more talent on the wings besides Team USA.

The retirement of longtime point guard Pepe Sanchez and the decision of scorer Walter Herrmann to skip the games has really hurt the Argentina depth. They will need to rely on their top 6 of Manu/Nocioni/Scola/Oberto/Delfino/Prigioni, though Argentina did play surprisingly well in finishing second in Las Vegas last year with only Scola, Delfino and Prigioni.

We worry about the depth on the frontline. Argentina has never been a very big unit or had much depth up front, but this year it's even shakier because of no Ruben Wolkowisky or Walter Herrmann. It's compounded by the fact that Scola & Oberto are foul machines. Nocioni & Freddy Kammerichs have to see some minutes at the 4--Coach Sergio Hernandez has been reluctant to move Noce down there much in the past, but we think he has no choice this year. Big lug Roman Gonzalez is the only other servicable big.

Pablo Prigioni is a very good PG in Europe, and played very well in Vegas last year, but he does have some issues dealing with bigger points, who can disrupt his playmaking ability. Still a great passer, but a spotty jumpshooter. Ginobili & Delfino handle the ball very well, and can provide pressure releases for Prigioni. So PG depth might not too much of an issue.

Oberto, Scola, & Nocioni are very crafty at getting lost on the baseline & using the flex screens to get quick seals. Though Delfino could be inconsistent in the NBA, he has played very well in FIBA the last few years. He's an underrated ball-handler & passer who's done a good job as a playmaker for Team Argentina. Nice passer on the move.

Kammerichs gives them a poor man's Nocioni off the bench with frenetic energy at the forward slot. SG Paolo Quinteros can provide deep shooting off the bench.

Should consider throwing some zone at Argentina because it can really mess up their offensive rhythm & continuity. A zone is very effective vs. flex-type or continuity offenses, which is somewhat similar to what they run. It can limit the cuts, passing lanes, back picks & backdoor cuts. Argentina is a solid 3pt. shooting team, but we'd rather have them do that sometimes because when they get that offense rolling, they get a tremendous rhythm that permeates the rest of their game. Definitely mix up the defenses to try to ruin their flow.

In one-game playoff scenario, this team can still beat anyone in the world, even the US. Their offense can still be a thing of beauty when they are clicking. Argentina has to hope that Manu has regained some of his verve, because he needs to have more explosion than he had in the Lakers series if Arg. wants a shot at Gold.

2. LITHUANIA (Overall Rank: 5)
Lithuania finished 4th in 2004 after three straight Olympic bronzes since regaining independence in 1991, and we expect them to fall in that range once again.

About two months ago we were thinking Lithuania had the best chance at beating Team USA (even better chance than Spain) because of its frontcourt depth. We figured they could outrebound USA & take fouls at will, but injuries & no-shows (Ilgauksas, sharpshooter Arvydas Macijauskas, Songaila) have put some kinks in this perennial juggernaut.

Still a very dangerous veteran ballclub, which returns most of the core of last year's Eurobasket Bronze medal team that was cruising thru the tourney until Saras Jasikevicius was felled with a bum hammy. Be careful in judging Lithuania by its subpar exhibition play--they are notorious for laying low in the pre-tournament friendly stage, they did it last year & have done it in the past.

They have the ability to just out-shoot the competition from deep, sort of like a Suns philosophy (well, what *used* to be the Suns philosophy, at least). Lithuania, at its best, plays the prototypical Euro-style system of crisp ball movement & off-the-ball player movement, with plenty of 3-point attempts as the scoring weapon of choice. And they always have multiple guys who can flat-out bury jumpers, including some bigs who can pop out & cause problems for opposing defending bigs.

This deadly offense is usually orchestrated masterfully by Jasikevicius. Runs the high pick/roll to perfection, either opening shots for his teammates with precision passes or burying jumpers. Lithuania was tearing it up in the early rounds last year thanks a lot to Saras' playmaking & quarterbacking. If not for a untimely hamstring injury late in the prelims, Lith. ends up in the title game instead of Russia.

Euroleague MVP Ramunas Siskauskas is one of the best all-around players in Europe, and could be at least a nice NBA bench player. The versatile wing can drill from deep, but will also bull his way into the lane & draw fouls. Reminds me a little of another Lithuanian, Sarunas Marciulionis, with his tenacity to put his head down to attack the rim. Probably Lith's most determined defender as well.

Italian League star Rimas Kaukenas, back from a knee injury suffered earlier this year, starts alongside Saras to provide Lith with another shooter, and an underrated defender. Simas Jasaitis is another shooter for Lith to turn to off the bench.

Even without Songaila, they still have a solid frontline who can hit the glass hard. The Lavrinovic twins (Krystof & Darjus) are both active, athletic 7-footers who can float out to the perimeter & will hit the glass. Linas Kleiza gives them an athletic forward to go inside & out. Robertas Javtokas is a big, strong athlete who will hit the glass & defend, but gives nothing much on offense besides some dunks.

They can have some issues with extended defensive pressure. Not just Team USA's pressure, but they have had issues in the past vs. other squads. Saras can be careless with the ball (TOs are his weakness), and they really don't have an adequate back-up for him.

Saras is the motor that makes this team rumble, and his fiery leadership--not to mention his superb skill set in the international game--is invaluable. Their offense is always so good it can cover up for their defensive shortcomings--though I thought their defense was solid last summer. They can play an effective zone, and will likely employ packed-in looks if they run into Team USA.

3. RUSSIA (Overall Rank: 6)
Coming off a surprising run thru the '07 Eurobasket, in which they shocked Spain at home in the Gold Medal game. In David Blatt, they have the best coach in this competition besides maybe Greece's Yannakis. Blatt's willing to try all types of things, especially on the defensive end. And he's a great bench coach, who's adept at in-game adjustments (kinda the opposite of Coach K in FIBA).

The Russian defense is simply superb. They guarded the interior wonderfully at the Euros last year. Their help & recovery is tight. They will play different types of zones, and even have looks where it's hard to decipher what the hell they're in--hybrid, amoeba-type looks.

Andrei Kirilenko will often be given free reign to float around on defense inside & out. They have the ability to force TOs--which paid off huge vs. Spain in the Gold Medal game.

The uncertain health status of Vik Khryapa (ankle) could be a big blow. He was huge for Team Russia last year (we thought he was first-team All-Eurobasket) as their 2nd best player--Teller to AK47's Penn. (Even to the point that Viktor is a mute). Viktor was a poor man's AK47 last summer--passing, rebounding, defending, and even knocking down his outside looks as the tourney progressed. At the '07 Euros, Vik was 2nd in steals, 4th in rebs & 5th in assts overall.

Run nice offensive sets with nice ball movement--some Princeton-style stuff presumably influenced from Blatt's college days. Will also look for post-ups for Kirilenko, who was effective down low last summer.

But Russia is just not that explosive of an offensive team--they are prone to extended dry spells, probably due to not really having many natural shooters. JR Holden is a solid player, but he's more of a mid-range pull-up jumpshooter than a consistent deep threat. He is a proven performer in the clutch, as he hit the last-second, game-winning shot to beat Spain in the Euro final last year, and he has often come up big in the Euroleague Final Four for CSKA Moscow, as he did this year. Overall, Russia is really not that great of an outside shooting team--Z. Pashutin is their only true shooting threat.

7-footer Andrei Savrasenko helps as a nice interior defensive presence, and does a sneaky job slipping the high pick/roll. Nikita Morgunov did a great job backing up Savrasenko last year, and also did damage sneaking to open spots. Victor Keyru gives Blatt another long, active defender who could somewhat make up for the possible loss of Khyrapa.

Just don't think Russia has enough offensive firepower to be put in the title contender category. They did just enough on the offensive end to win last year, and don't think they can pull off the same magic this year. Russia really needs Khryapa, and Blatt is saying that Vik could suit up by the weekend. But with Blatt at the helm, they can't be totally counted out of an appearance in the medal round.

Six players on the Russian roster play for Euroleague champion CSKA Moscow as their club team.

4. CROATIA (Overall Rank: 7)
Got here via strong play in the pre-Olympic qualifying tourney last month, especially impressive on the defensive end. Defense has steadily improved over the last few years, and was tremendous in their semifinal victory vs. Germany. Their help & recovery was top-notch, as they closed out & contested great on Germany's array of shooters.

No NBA notables on this team, but many of their players are standouts in the European leagues, including a great collection of guards who are versatile & solid athletes. Croatia looks to generate most of its offense on the perimeter, trying to free their guards to drive-n-kick and unleash their shooting acumen.

Marko Popovic & Davor Kus are combo guards who can both drill from deep, and also handle some ball-handling duties. Former NJ Net Zoran Planinic is the primary point who can get into the teeth of defense & create for himself or teammates, though Zoran is still having issues with his foul shooting. New Toronto Rap Roko Ukic played very well off the pine in Athens last month and is great at penetrating, but is a spotty shooter. Marko Tomas was one of the best players in Athens, and showed why he was once considered a 1st-round NBA prospect. The 6-7 wing is a deft shooter, but is also a solid athlete who can put the ball on the deck & finish in the lane.

Grizzled vet Nikola Prkacin provides Croatia with a burly big who will look to back down his man on the block, and will hit the glass. Marko Banic gives Croatia another banger who throws his weight around on defense & the glass. K. Loncar gives Croatia another big who can hit elbow jumpers & rebound off the bench. Stanko Barac & Sandro Nicevic bring similar things as well.

Young big Damir Makota, formerly of the Bucks, is out with an injury, and longtime Euroleague star Nikola Vujcic is retired from international play.

At the '07 Euros, Croatia beat Spain, played Lith tough, and lost to Greece on a 30-footer buzzer-beater from Spanoulis to win, so this team can definitely hang with the big boys. They can beat any team in their group, and have a great shot at making the knockout playoff round.

5. AUSTRALIA (Overall Rank: 9)
The strength of the field should be evident by the fact that we have Australia, which just played Team USA tough without Andrew Bogut, rated so low in its group.

The Boomers have played really well so far this summer after looking really good last summer in thrashing New Zealand for the Oceania crown. The Aussies have tightened up their defense the last few years under the guidance of Coach Brian Goorijan, and have made it a priority.

Nice collection of bigs in Bogut, solid Euroleaguers Dave Andersen and Matt Nielsen, and Australian NBL MVP Chris Antsey. Each big can face up and draw defenders away from the painted area. Andersen is a great face-up threat who is a highly efficient baseline shooter.

CJ Bruton is a battle-tested veteran PG who can hit jumpers off the bounce, and was a solid contributor at the '06 Worlds. They also have the services of young PG Patrick Mills, who was great in NCAA for St. Mary's (CA) this year & really caused problems for Team USA in the friendly game with his speed. He's also dangerous with his jumper.

Really like to set up their perimeter shooters. Love to look for 3pters, and have the players to drill it: Brad Newley, Barlow, Bruton, Mills & M. Worthington can all hit. Thought their offense would click better when they ran their sets thru Bogut during the '06 Worlds, utilizing his passing skills. But did not go thru Bogut enough for my liking. Also, seem be taking better care of the ball this summer--turnovers were a major issue in '06, when they averaged nearly 20 per game.

This team can really shoot the ball up & down the lineup, and have shown a stout defense. Think they could challenge any team in Group A, and beat any team on a given night, even give Argentina game because of their size advantage.

6. IRAN (Overall Rank: 12)
Iran has been playing surprisingly well thru the summer (including a startling friendly win over Serbia), but have been snakebitten with injuries to some of their key players. It looks like two of their best players could be sidelined for the Olympics.

7-footer Hamed Hadadi, who is drawing some cursory looks from NBA teams, is likely out of the tourney. Meanwhile, guard Mehdi Kamrani has a bum leg that should keep him out of Beijing. This is on top of the devastating death via car accident in December of Aidin Bahrami, a contributor on last year's Asian champions.

For a team that was already clearly the weakest in Beijing, not having their best could make some of their games ugly. Their go-to-guy now is Samad Nikkah, who is a dangerous shooter. Really have no chance to win a game.

Also: 2008 Olympic Men's Basketball Preview: Group B