Basketball is a complex game of 5-on-5 that can be affected by outside forces, such as strategy (administered by the coach), stamina and synergy (altered even further by the team’s bench).
The consequential in-game matchups due to strategy, stamina and synergistic adjustments usually constitute the difference between winning and losing in Olympic play, especially when you enter the single-elimination rounds after pool play.
Because of that tenuous thread, we decided to look at USA Basketball’s top five opponents, each of which could field potential killer-quintet squadrons that may give the Americans trouble on any given August day.
Yes, we know USA Basketball is the overwhelming favorite to win the 2016 Olympics men’s basketball gold medal—at 1:20 odds, mind you—with Spain a distant second at 12:1, according to Las Vegas’ Westgate Superbook.
Still, there are five opponents out there that have a snowball’s chance in Brazil of beating USA Basketball if ev-er-y-thing were to break right for them.
The Leader: Future basketball Hall of Famer Pau Gasol not only believes he is the best center in the NBA today, but one could say the 36-year-old Spur has been FIBA’s best pivot in recent international play, leading Spain to silver-medal finishes in both 2008 and 2012 Olympics, while posting 20-point, 7-rebound averages in 23 games during the past three Olympics.
The Upstart: Timberwolves 25-year-old Ricky Rubio cut his teeth at the 2008 Olympics as a 17-year-old point guard forced into the starting lineup when Jose Calderon got hurt. When Rubio held his own against Chris Paul, Deron Williams and others—he finished second at the 2008 Olympics in assists (36 in 7 games) and first in steals (25)—the international community knew Spain had its b-ball quarterback for many Olympics and World Cups to come.
The Killer Quintet: Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez, Nikola Mirotic, Pau Gasol. Fans are bemoaning the loss of Marc Gasol, which—don’t get me wrong—is substantial. But to dismiss these new-look Spaniards because of one veteran’s absence could prove to be a fatal mistake. After all, Rubio, already a top-10 NBA point guard, is rounding into peak form. Pau Gasol, as well, is still churning out All-NBA and/or All-Star seasons on the regular. And now, 25-year-old Mirotic gives Spain a stretch-4 look they have not showed before. With Euro legends 36-year-old Navarro and 31-year-old Fernandez still capable of summoning up a great game or two, Spain possesses the second-best starting five unit in the Olympics. Add to that the knowledge that they also have the best bench, and one wonders of all the lineups they too can mix-and-match with Team USA. For instance, beware Alex Abrines, the former Barcelona marksman wing and current Thunder rookie who was voted 2015-16 Euroleague Rising Star for best 22-and-under player (he’s 23 now).
The Supersub: It is one thing to score more points from treyland (24 on 8-of-24 shooting) than from deuceville (20 on 10-for-18 shooting), as Jose Calderon did in the 2012 Olympics, en route to scoring 56 points in 8 games. It is quite another to knock down 41 percent of your three-pointers over an 11-year NBA career after hoisting up more than 2,000 attempts (2,042, to be exact). Need scoring off the bench? Do not be surprised if/when the Lakers point guard comes a-gunning.
The Coach: Sergio Scariolo, the veteran coach from the Italian and Spanish leagues, has had success coaching Spain, leading his teams to 2015, 2011 and 2009 EuroBasket titles.
How USA Cracks Opponent Code: The Spanish offense will be tough to thwart, considering they’re more steeped in international rules and have had a long history of playing together. With Rubio and Gasol in the game, Coach Mike Krzyzewski is going to want to counter with his top defensive point guard, Kyle Lowry of the Raptors, and top defensive center, DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers.
The combination of the Lowry/Jordan gives USA the ability to negate Spain’s best playmakers—or at least slow them down. Putting the pressure on Gasol and Rubio will make it harder for Spain to get into their comfort zones and cause a trickle effect to the rest of the team.
By playing the Warriors’ Klay Thompson at the 2 (another good defender), Coach K establishes a size-and-spacing advantage on offense, while closing the loop with forwards Kevin Durant of the Warriors and Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks gives his team an offensive arsenal that is too tall to handle for stretched-out forwards Fernandez and Mirotic.
The Leader: Tony Parker was not a part of the France team that won bronze at the 2014 World Cup, which makes the Spurs’ 34-year-old point guard’s presence in Rio an especially tantalizing one since this is the last time the future Hall of Famer will ever be able to lace them up with childhood friend Boris Diaw, lifelong teammates like Nicolas Batum, former Spurs teammates like Diaw and Nando De Colo, not to mention future NBA standouts like Rudy Gobert and Joffrey Lauvergne.
The Upstart: Remember when 22-year-old shot-blocking sensation Rudy Gobert out-rebounded the Gasol Brothers, 13-12, in the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals, as France stunned Spain, 65-52 in the single-elimination rounds? Well, Gobert is 24 now—bigger (7-1) and stronger (245 pounds) than ever.
The Killer Quintet: Parker, De Colo, Nicolas Batum, Diaw, Gobert. For those thinking NBA cast-off De Colo may be the weak link here, they may want to think again after the former Spur did his best Ginobili imitation for CSKA Moscow, averaging 19 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists in 28 minutes per game on 66 true shooting percent and 28.2 Player Efficiency Rating, en route to earning 2015-16 Euroleague MVP honors. Throw in Parker’s four-ring quarterbacking, the big-game play of Hornets 27-year-old small forward Nicolas Batum (27 points in 2014 World Cup bronze-medal game versus Lithunia) and Jazz 34-yuear-old power forward Boris Diaw (the catalyst in France’s 2014 World Cup quarterfinals upset of Spain, going 15 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists in 29 minutes for a plus-13 in the 65-52 victory) and the rim-protection of the Jazz’ elite defender Gobert, and one has to wonder if the Frenchmen have another Spain-sized upset in them.
The Supersub: Who can forget the 2014 World Cup bronze-medal game against Lithuanian when then 22-year-old Nuggets power forward Joffrey Lauvergne scored 13 points and grabbed 9 rebounds in only 23 minutes of play in the 95-93 win, giving France its first medal since the 2000 Olympics silver.
The Coach: Vincent Collet, who coached France to the Bronze medal in the 2014 World Cup, will certainly be second-guessed for not adding Magic shooting guard Evan Fournier to the roster after his NBA free-agency matters were settled. However, Collet did not want to disrupt a good guard situation he had going, with his backcourt leaders playing so well together (Parker, De Colo and Antoine Diot) at the July Olympic qualifying tournament.
How Team USA Cracks Opponent Code: If Parker is going to attack-attack-attack the way he does when he plays with the Spurs and France, you want to have an offensive-minded point guard like Kyrie Irving of the Cavaliers who will also keep the Frenchman on his heels. Likewise, you’ll need defensive stalwarts like Jimmy Butler of the Bulls and Paul George of the Pacers to keep wing threats De Colo and Batum under control. As big men, Diaw and Gobert present quite a diverse set of problems, with the veteran power forward being able to run bully-ball post-ups and offense from the low-block positions, while Gobert can become quite the deterrent on D if allowed to roam free. That is why the Duke head coach needs to play his best offensive bigs—Anthony and DeMarcus Cousins of the Kings—to challenge France’s power forward and center and get them into foul trouble not let them get too comfortable out there on defense.
The Leader: First-team All-Euroleague guard Milos Teodosic, who led the 2014 World Cup in assists, has sneakily led Serbia’s surge up the world charts, with the team playing an unselfish and contagious brand of basketball that has all the 29 year old’s teammates sharing the ball and glory.
The Upstart: NBA elite rooks Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis grabbed all the ink, but third-place ROY finisher Nikola Jokic may very well have deserved the 2015-16 NBA Rookie of the Year. If the 21-year-old Serbian center lifts his country, coming off a 2014 World Cup silver-medal finish, to higher heights in these 2016 Olympics, Jokic may finally start receiving the global recognition he deserves. After all, the Nugget did post a 21.58 PER in 2015-16 with a +2.3 on-court and +9.5 on-off ratings.
The Killer Quintet: Milos Teodosic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nikola Kalinic, Milan Macvan, Nikola Jokic. No one knows how this squad will look with Jokic now featured as the centerpiece. Besides playing the usual under-19 international affairs, Jokic had not played on this big-boy national team until this summer when he led Serbia to first-place at the FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament, where Jokic won tourney MVP awards, averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists. Bogdanovic, Kalinic and Macvan surely can play the roles of what standard shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards can do. But it will take elite performances from both Jokic and Teodosic to lift Serbia to medal heights.
The Supersub: As a starting center at 2015 EuroBasket, the 28-year-old Emporio Armani Milano seven-footer Miroslav Raduljika emerged as one of Serbia’s team leaders, averaging 14 points and 5 rebounds in 18 minutes per game during 9 contests.
The Coach: The relatively young head coach, 47-year-old Aleksandar Dordevic, is only 11 years removed from his playing days, but is on the verge of placing his name up in the annals of international coaching if he can top his previous feat of leading Serbia to the 2014 World Cup silver medal. The former Yugoslavian three-point scoring threat has become quite the coach in demand, just signing a two-year contract Monday with German team Bayern Munich.
How Team USA Cracks Opponent Code: You virtually could shut down Serbia’s offense by placing USA Basketball’s top defenders on the court strategically. By starting Lowry and Thompson in the backcourt, you could use the taller Thompson at 6-7 to shield Teodosic, Serbia’s tallish point guard at 6-5. With Lowry being able to defend shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic of Turkey’s Fenerbahce club. Jordan should get the defensive assignment on the younger Jokic, while power forward Draymond Green of the Warriors and converted small forward Jimmy Butler of the Bulls could put the clamps on the rest of Serbia, while supplying the playmaking and finishing roles which makes transition basketball so much fun.
The Leader: Future Hall of Famer and 39-year-old Manu Ginobili will forever be immortalized in his country for leading La Generacion Dorada a.k.a. The Golden Generation to its first Olympics gold medal (in 2004) after becoming the first team to ever beat an NBA-infused USA Basketball squad (in 2002). More than a dozen years later, the Spurs’ Ginobili, Nets’ Luis Scola and Real Madrid’s Andres Nocioni are still jugando.
The Upstart: NBA scouts have their eyes on 5-10 playmaker Facundo Campazzo after the 25-year-old’s stellar season for Murcia in the Spanish ACB league last season.
The Killer Quintet: Facundo Campazzo, Manu Ginobili, Carlos Delfino, Andres Nocioni, Luis Scola. The latter four and Pepe Sanchez made basketball history when they won the 2004 Olympic gold medal—shutting down USA Basketball following their 2002 upset of the Americans—and living in eternity as one of the greatest in global history. Twelve years later, we’ll see if these 33-through-39-year-olds have the legs to keep up the rest of the world in pool play, and later, single-elimination round action. Most interesting of the bunch will be Delfino, who has not played professionally since injuring his foot three years ago with the Houston Rockets. Campazzo is the young guiding force who will be asked to steer the old ship to shore. No doubt, the Argentines have chemistry built up over the years. Question is: Do these seniors have the physics to get it done?
The Supersub: Spurs rookie Patricio Garino is coming off a collegiate senior season at George Washington where the wing made 1.9 three-pointers per game at 43 percent. If he can shoot that well for Argentina, La Generacion Nuevo may be able to pull off an upset or two.
The Coach: Sergio Hernandez, who coached the 2008 Argentina squad to a bronze medal, is hoping to be to blend old with new for perhaps yet another medal finish for LGD. With the exception of one bench player and the four Argentines off the 2002 gold-medal team, Team Argentina is totally made up of 21-through-26 year olds.
How Team USA Cracks Opponent Code: Nobody can match Argentina when it comes to chemistry. After all, the core four—Ginobili, Scola, Nocioni and Delfino—have a dozen years experience playing together, while the former three have 14 years. To combat that synergy, Coach K may want to counter with his small-ball Warriors lineup that features Dubs Thompson, Green and Durant, along with ex-Warrior and current Mav Harrison Barnes, as well as Irving. Yes, Kyrie may not be the shooter that Curry is in this new-and-improved Lineup of Death, but he has proven to have a better mid-range game (50 percent on 10-16 footers; 47 percent on long 2s) than his Warriors counterpart (45 percent on 10-16 footers; 44 percent on long 2s). So even if Argentina comes loaded with chemistry, at least this Warriors-inspired lineup somewhat can match up in continuity, while still holding the big advantage in talent.
The Leader: You know it is strictly business time when Pat Mills hits the international scene with a name change. Four years ago, when he was leading the 2012 Olympics in scoring, Patty Mills went by the first name of Patrick. In these 2016 Olympics now, the 27-year-old Spur is calling himself Pat. One thing else we are certain of—come game time, he will need to call for his own shot a-plenty, perhaps to the tune of 21.2 points per game, which was his 2012 Olympics scoring average.
The Upstart: Once thought to be a goon, the 6-10, 260-pound center Aron Baynes made himself into quite the versatile center for the Spurs and later Pistons, showing he could handle Dwight Howard defensive duties just as easily as replacing Andre Drummond for heavy minutes when Hack-a-DreDrum measures called for it. Now the 29-year-old big can play alongside 31-year-old Maverick and countryman Andrew Bogut, comprising a rebounding-defensive frontline that could give USA Basketball trouble if Mills and Bucks’ 25-year-old Matthew Dellavedova are on their A-games offensively.
The Killer Quintet: Pat Mills, Matthew Dellavedova, Joe Ingles, Andrew Bogut, Aron Baynes. They may not have medalled in Olympics and World Cups, but NBA fans know these champions Down Under very well, with Mills and Baynes winning titles with the Spurs in 2014; Bogut with the Warriors in 2015; Dellavedova with the Cavaliers in 2016. That type of championship pedigree has to count for something on the global stage.
The Supersub: Backup wing Ryan Broekhoff has been known to light up the shooting from the outside, averaging 10 points in 28 minutes per game for both Kuban and Besiktas in the Euroleague the past two seasons, while making two three-pointers per game at a 49-percent clip.
The Coach: Before taking over the Australian national team reins, Andrej Lemanis spent the previous eight seasons as the head coach for the New Zealand Breakers, leading them to National Basketball League titles in 2011, 2012 and 2013. During that time, he did assist 76ers head coach Brett Brown on the Australian national teams at the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Olympics.
How Team USA Cracks Opponent Code: Australia appears that it is trying to run a two-big, too-strong lineup at USA Basketball, which is something similar to what both Oklahoma City and Cleveland did to Golden State in the 2016 NBA Finals. With that in mind, Coach K should respond to his challenge by pairing up centers Cousins and Jordan, who should be able to thoroughly outplay and out-rebound Bogut and Baynes. With that in mind, Coach K might also want to consider playing three guards alongside, with Irving, Lowry and Thompson presenting a variety of problems for Mills, Dellavedova and Ingles. If matched up just so, Mills may be the only person for Australia who can get off his own shot, but even he would be hard-pressed to stop Irving from doing so. We’d at least get to see a fierce battle from yesteryear’s Cleveland practices of Matty D versus Kyrie. And as for the Thompson-Ingles matchup, the Australian forward would be hard-pressed to show any game here, while he would be at a distinct mismatch chasing the sure-shot Thompson all over the court.