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Starting on Saturday, Spain will host the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, where Team USA will look for its second straight championship and fifth overall, which would tie Yugoslavia for the most ever. The United States will be bringing a young and inexperienced team to the tournament, but one that still has to be considered the favorite to bring home a fourth straight major title, including the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics gold medals. What follows is a rundown of the USA’s chances of coming out on top at the end of what will be an intense two-week competition, and who will be standing in the Americans’ way.
Most of the headlines about the U.S. pre-World Cup training camp revolved around the absences, with big men Blake Griffin and Kevin Love both dropping out voluntarily before Paul George‘s gruesome leg injury knocked him out for the upcoming NBA season. Love’s absence leaves Anthony Davis and James Harden as the only returning players from the London Games, while Stephen Curry, Rudy Gay and Derrick Rose will all return four years after their 2010 World Cup win in Turkey.
The USA’s biggest enemy in Spain will be its own lack of experience in international competition, and especially a dearth of playing time as a team compared to other countries whose core players have been coming together every summer to play at the global or continental level. But make no mistake: the Americans have by far the most talented team in the tournament, and anything other than a first-place finish would be a disappointment.
With most of the league’s top stars sitting this one out, the USA Basketball front office has chosen a more balanced team than the ones we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years, which typically featured an abundance of wing players and thin frontcourts. This time around, Davis will lead a very solid group of big men, including DeMarcus Cousins and Kenneth Faried, while Curry, Harden and Rose will be joined in the backcourt by the likes of Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson.
One factor that will play heavily in the USA’s favor is that the luck of the draw placed the Americans in what is by far the weakest of the four groups for the first stage, along with, in descending order of difficulty, Turkey, New Zealand, the Dominican Republic, Finland and Ukraine. While Turkey made it all the way to the final playing at home four years ago, before losing by 27 points to the U.S., this year’s team is without the resting Ersan İlyasova, injured Enes Kanter and Hedo Türkoğlu, who has retired from international play, and will have center Ömer Aşık as its focal point. The U.S. will unquestionably go 5-0 in group play and be well rested for the elimination stage.
American, Spanish and neutral fans would all love to see a Spain-United States final on September 14 in Madrid’s Palacio de Deportes. With the World Cup on their home floor, all of Spain’s NBA players are coming together to try to win their second world title, and they certainly have the tools to return to the final after a disappointing quarterfinal exit in 2010. One often overlooked weakness, however, is that Spain’s overflow of talent at point guard, where the criminally underrated José Calderón will start ahead of Ricky Rubio, and in the frontcourt, with Pau and Marc Gasol and Central African-born Serge Ibaka, does not extend to the wings.
With Juan Carlos Navarro well past his prime, expect to see two-PG looks from Spain while another former NBAer, Rudy Fernández, mans the small forward position. Even so, if the World Cup does come down to Spain vs. United States, Mike Krzyszewski will no doubt exploit the advantage in the backcourt, where no Spanish player can guard Harden or match the athleticism of DeMar DeRozan and Gay.
Still, the Spaniards will have no lack of motivation: outside of the 23-year-old Rubio, the well seems to have dried up, and for the veterans this will likely be their last chance to add to their already substantial collection of hardware. A win over the USA, in the final, at home, would be a storybook ending for their international careers, but first they will have to fight their way out of the tournament’s toughest group.
Argentina’s chances of challenging for their second World Cup took a hit with the news that Manu Ginóbili would not be traveling to Spain following a grueling run to the NBA Championship with the Spurs. With Carlos Delfino also out, the Argentines will be led instead by three other veterans: Andrés Nocioni, Pablo Prigioni and Luis Scola. Like Spain, Argentina is suffering from a dearth of talent in the younger generations, who have not been able to match the stars that won Olympic gold in 2004. Still, they should have enough to come out of the group stage and make a deep run.
The Lithuanians are coming off a third-place finish four years ago and a trip to the final at last summer’s EuroBasket, and they now have their sights set on loftier goals. Two young big men, Donatas Motiejūnas and Jonas Valančiūnas, will try to lead their team to another semifinal run, if not deeper. Lithuania has an intriguing combination of young rising stars and veterans with plenty of international experience, and will pose a stiff challenge to any rival.
Australia: The Aussies have only one player over the age of 30, and both Andrew Bogut and Patty Mills are out, but the crop of young talent includes Cameron Bairstow, Aron Baynes, Matthew Dellavedova and Dante Exum.
Greece: This Greek team is not the powerhouse of five to 10 years ago, but with last year’s rookie sensation Giannis Antetokounmpo and former Florida star Nick Calathes suiting up for the nation of his ancestors, the Hellenes could make some noise again.
Serbia: Like Greece, Serbian basketball fell on some hard times of late, but an influx of young blood has them dreaming big again. Seven-footers Nenad Krstić and Miroslav Raduljica will give any frontcourt fits.