5 Teams That Will Give Team USA the Biggest Problems During FIBA World Cup
Team USA's 12-man roster for the FIBA World Cup is set, and now, all that's left of a summer's worth of uncertainty is the lingering question of whether this crop of Americans can cruise through international competition like most of the ones before it.
A handful of clubs at this year's World Cup would very much like to make the ride as bumpy as possible.
Realistically, the American side (to borrow a soccer term for a competition that is, conveniently, based in Europe) should take the gold. Team USA has more raw talent than any other two teams combined. But we've seen plenty of recent proof that talent alone isn't enough to assure victory in international hoops.
Part of the reason chairman Jerry Colangelo and head coach Mike Krzyzewski have replaced a glorified All-Star team with one that actually makes functional sense (arrived at through a series of practices, exhibitions and shrewdly considered cuts) is because they know that fit and role-filling matters just as much as raw skill.
Team USA eventually reached this conclusion a decade or so ago, but only after teams like Argentina (2004), Lithuania (2004) and Greece (2006) forced the realization that it was no longer possible to toss NBA players together and assume victory was assured.
Worldwide, basketball is being played at a higher level than ever. That means Team USA can't take any opponent lightly.
There are a few upset-minded squads, though, to which the Americans must pay particular attention. These clubs boast the kind of chemistry and fearlessness necessary to give Team USA fits, and a few of them have enough size and talent to go toe to toe with the U.S.—especially up front.
The following teams may not defeat Team USA, but they've got the ingredients to give it a run for its money.
Problems Posed: Breakout Big, Brothers
There are a few reasons the U.S. should be worried about Lithuania, the most obvious of which is a frontcourt tandem of Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas. You can't discuss the former without using the term "imminent breakout," and the latter is just the kind of skilled floor-stretcher who thrives with the shorter three-point line and free-flowing pace of international ball.
The absence of Linas Kleiza will hurt the Lithuanians, but Renaldas Seibutis can score from the wing. The Dallas Mavericks, a club with some history of success in international scouting, actually drafted Seibutis in 2007, but the 6'5" guard opted to stay overseas.
B/R's Adam Fromal tabbed him as a guy to watch:
A 6'5" shooting guard, Seibutis is capable of filling that wing void left by Kleiza—especially if he can score like he did the past few seasons for BC Lietuvos rytas in the Lithuanian LKL (Lietuvos krepsinio lyga). According to RealGM, he averaged 11.3 points per game in 2013-14, and that was actually his worst mark in three years.
Oh, and another thing: The Lithuanians have brothers!
If the Gasols have taught us anything, it's that fraternity pays double in international competition. Darjus and Ksistof Lavrinovic are 6'11" twins who have earned enough favor with head coach Jonas Kazlauskas to actually take a few minutes from Valanciunas, and both are experienced international competitors. Team USA will head into any matchup with Lithuania at a distinct brother disadvantage; Mason Plumlee won't have Miles at his side on the roster.
Bros aside, Lithuania should also be buoyed by reaching the finals against France at Eurobasket 2013, not to mention the fact that it played extremely well in a 99-94 loss to a much scarier Team USA in 2012.
Problems Posed: Craftiness, Orneriness
Thanks to a stress fracture in his right leg, iconic star Manu Ginobili won't be leading Argentina in its charge against Team USA (or anyone else) in Spain. But until it proves otherwise, this will always be a dangerous group.
Luis Scola's craftiness increases by a factor of five when he competes internationally (don't check the math on that), and both Andres Nocioni and Pablo Prigioni bring loads of experience to the World Cup.
Don't forget about Walter Herrmann, who brought his gloriously flowing locks to the Charlotte Bobcats and Detroit Pistons from 2006-2009, or Facundo Campazzo either.
The latter has been a beast in Argentina's Liga Nacional de Basquet in recent seasons, earning all-league honors and a pair of Finals MVP awards over the past three years. At just 5'10", Campazzo might struggle to defend Coach K, let alone any of the U.S. guards.
Still, the 23-year-old is feisty, as demonstrated by the low blow he administered to Carmelo Anthony during the 2012 Olympics. International etiquette and decorum aside, that proved Campazzo, then just 21, wouldn't be intimidated.
Outside of Campazzo, Argentina is old, and it's missing its best player. But this is a team that exposed the first crack in Team USA's seemingly impenetrable facade by defeating the mighty Americans back in 2002. That win was the first-ever recorded in the post-Dream Team era of USA basketball, and it had real symbolic significance.
While it's a stretch to suggest a 12-year-old triumph has any real bearing on upcoming matchups, that win certainly showed Argentina's refusal to back down—a trait that still defines the team today. If the U.S. isn't careful, Argentina could pose a real threat.
Problem Posed: Freakishness
On the one hand, Greece's most intriguing player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, wouldn't seem to possess the kinds of skills that could threaten Team USA. He's rangy and frighteningly athletic but still very raw and untested.
The U.S. has never had an issue handling athleticism or length (it's precision and chemistry that have generally posed difficulties), so you wouldn't think the Greek Freak ups the upset potential of his team.
Then again, we've seen inexperienced NBA players blossom for their national teams countless times before. There's something about going from a background gig to a primary role (with national pride at stake) that tends to bring out the best in young talents like Antetokounmpo.
Ricky Rubio did it. Why couldn't Antetokounmpo?
Besides, Antetokounmpo has been progressing at such a terrifying rate that the time between the end of the Milwaukee Bucks' regular season and the start of the World Cup could have seen him grow to eight feet in height while adding a left-handed jump shot or, possibly, the ability to bend space and time with his mind.
That's a slight exaggeration, but Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders tweeted that the blossoming forward "is now 6'11" with a 7'4" wingspan" in mid-August. Who knows what's happened over the past couple of weeks?
We've already seen him go the length of the court in two dribbles, so it's probably time to recalibrate our understanding of giant leaps.
Nick Calathes is steady at the point, and Kostas Papanikolaou, a draftee of the New York Knicks in 2012, signed a two-year deal with the Houston Rockets earlier this month, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.
The Greek roster has talent. There's little question about that.
And like the two teams already covered, Greece has had success against Team USA in the recent past, notching a major upset in the 2006 FIBA World Championship.
"They played damn near a perfect game," Chris Bosh told The Associated Press (via ESPN) at the time.
To give the U.S. a run, Greece may have to approach perfection again. But hey, anything's possible—especially when it comes to Antetokounmpo.
Problems Posed: Size, Smarts
The Spanish frontcourt trio of Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka gets most of the (deserved) recognition, but let's not discount the similarly potent Brazilian trifecta of Tiago Splitter, Anderson Varejao and Nene.
Team USA assured it would head into the World Cup with plenty of size by keeping Plumlee, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond. But those four players have a grand total of nine years in the NBA between them.
Varejao has 10 all by himself.
You won't find many threatening wings or guards on Brazil's roster (sorry, Leandro Barbosa), but we're not necessarily predicting teams who'll outright defeat the U.S. We're highlighting clubs that will pose problems, and Brazil's bigs figure to do just that.
Nene can stretch the floor with his mid-range jumper, perhaps even venturing out to the three-point arc in international play. And between Varejao and Splitter, Brazil has loads of big man smarts that the greener American centers simply can't match. In one-on-one matchups down low, Brazil's bigs might not have an advantage, but that's just the point: neither Splitter nor Varejao are throw-it-in-and-watch bigs on the block.
They'll cut, set good screens and roll hard. They'll do all the little things their years of experience and success, respectively, have taught them. Wisdom and basketball intelligence take time to develop, and it's fair to say all three of Brazil's frontcourt players have put in the work to cultivate the subtler aspects of their games.
Expect more than a few shrugged shoulders and "I thought you had him" moments as the Brazilian frontcourt flummoxes the less experienced U.S. bigs. It may not be enough for Brazil to win, but Team USA will have its hands full for sure.
Problems Posed: All of Them
You knew this was coming, right?
Spain won't just create problems for Team USA; it will pose the single biggest threat to American victory at the World Cup.
By now, we should all be well aware that the Spaniards possess the best frontcourt threesome in the tournament. Yes, even better than the one the Americans boast.
Anthony Davis might be the best big man playing in the World Cup, but he lags far behind Marc Gasol in terms of international experience and polish. Serge Ibaka is an elite defender whose perimeter shot makes him a terrifying matchup for any opponent. He and Marc Gasol alone make Spain a fearsome defensive squad.
And Pau Gasol, a four-time All-Star and two-time NBA champ, is the team's third-best big. That's frightening depth, and with Ibaka's developing outside stroke, we might even see all three big Spaniards on the court together.
It feels like sensationalism to say Spain's bigs are better than Team USA's. And to be totally objective, it's not even clear that the margin is all that significant. Davis, Cousins and Drummond all finished with higher player efficiency ratings last year than any of Spain's big men, and outside of Ibaka, the Spanish frontcourt has zero athleticism.
But the Gasols play brilliantly together, the Spanish team's passing and chemistry are second to none and there's also solid talent throughout the rest of the roster.
Don't forget Jose Calderon, Victor Claver, Sergio Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio and Juan-Carlos Navarro all have NBA experience. And guys like Fernandez and Navarro are no longer in the NBA by choice. It's not like they couldn't cut it against the world's best; both were successful in their stints stateside.
Fernandez averaged at least eight points, two assists and two rebounds as a rotation player in all four of his NBA seasons. Navarro put up 10.9 points per game in his lone campaign with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2007-08. Both are NBA-caliber talents; they just opted for the bigger roles and the proximity to home that European basketball offered.
That's all a roundabout way of saying that Spain comes closest to the U.S. in terms of raw talent. More than skill, though, the Spaniards have phenomenal chemistry and familiarity with one another. The core of this team has been together for years, and with limited practice time international competition necessitates, that's huge.
Per Marc Stein of ESPN.com, Coach K said Team USA had to "develop a new chemistry" after Paul George's injury and Kevin Durant's withdrawal. Those abrupt changes to the roster didn't help, but the truth is that the U.S. has to look for new chemistry every time it heads into international play. Newcomers abound, and roster turnover is the norm.
Contrast that with Spain—which has had both Gasols, Calderon, Fernandez and Rodriguez in virtually every international competition since 2006—and the chemistry disparity is easy to see.
Size, experience and the world's second-best collection of talent doesn't guarantee Spain will knock off the U.S. In fact, it doesn't even make an upset likely. But it does make the Spaniards, without question, the most problematic World Cup opponent Team USA will face.
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