The United States enters as a heavy favorite to win their third straight Olympic gold medal, even though a handful of the best players in the world chose to stay home and not participate. There is a solid 12-team field in Rio, likely all chasing silver, but the U.S. cannot sleepwalk through the tournament as Spain, France, Argentina, and host Brazil have all brought their best talent. The field is split into two groups of six with a round-robin format. The top four teams in each group will advance to the quarterfinals of a knockout stage to determine the champion. To fit this format into the two-week period of the Olympics, teams will have to play every other day, so depth and fatigue will be factors.
Australia is counting on center Andrew Bogut being healthy, but they do have other strong big men such as Aron Baynes and Cameron Bairstow. Bogut is their only rim protector however, and defense could be an issue for this squad. Their best perimeter defender is Matthew Dellavedova, and he and Patty Mills make a quality backcourt. The Aussies have a good shooting team with their guards and Joe Ingles, but they will need to be on fire from deep, because they do not have many playmakers who can create off the dribble. They should make it out of group play, and possibly win their quarterfinal matchup, but a medal might be just out of reach.
China is a little bit of a mystery, as most of their team plays professionally in their own country. One certainty is that they have size. Forward Yi Jianlian and captain Zhou Peng will be the leaders of this very young team. Two intriguing seven-footers are Wang Zhelin and Zhou Qi, both talented, raw, and selected in the NBA Draft in June. The backcourt figures to be a major question mark. It is difficult to see this team making it out of group play.
France has one of the best squads in the world, but some of their key pieces like Tony Parker and Boris Diaw, and even solid role players like Mickael Gelabale are aging. Their best player, however, is Nicolas Batum and he will be able to man the ball-handling duties when Parker needs a rest as well as provide lock-down defense on opposing teams’ best perimeter players. Rudy Gobert will serve as a terrific anchor to the defense and young Joffrey Lauvergne is another big to keep an eye on. If Evan Fournier had made the trip to Rio, this would undoubtedly be the biggest threat to the U.S. Nonetheless they still are a versatile group with a nice mix of youthful energy and savvy experience.
Serbia looks to regain Olympic glory, this proud basketball nation has not medaled in the Olympics since 1996. Their only NBA player is center Nikola Jokic, a rising star for the Denver Nuggets. But they have plenty of high-level talent. They will rely heavily on the playmaking of guards Bogdan Bogdanovic and Nemanja Nedovic, both very skilled and athletic. Experience comes from captain point guard Milos Teodosic and former NBA center Miroslav Raduljica. This team is very dangerous and should advance to the knockout stage.
The United States obviously has the best collection of talent in the world and a roster with plenty of size and athleticism. They will have to share and play together, but coach Mike Krzyzewski has proven to be a master at getting teams like this to do so. While point guard Kyrie Irving was one of the heroes of the NBA Finals, he needs to avoid trying to be the hero in this tournament and just play facilitator to all the talent around him. It will be interesting to see if the U.S. plays some positionless basketball, something they tried for stretches in 2012, and something they are still equipped to do even without LeBron James on the roster. A lineup with Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Paul George, for instance, would have the ability to switch comprehensively on defense and still have enough ball-handling to function on offense. No country can come close to matching their depth. Even without all the talent that was left at home, anything less than gold would be a bust.
Venezuela did well to qualify for the Rio Olympics by winning the 2015 FIBA Americas (USA did not participate). But getting out of group play will be very tough for this South American nation. They are led by do-everything point guard Greivis Vasquez, who recently signed with the Brooklyn Nets. Former Creighton University standout Gregory Echenique will provide the muscle near the basket, but it will be tough for him to battle with so many NBA post players.
Argentina is again running out the most decorated non-American foursome of international basketball players; Luis Scola, Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, and Carlos Delfino have volumes of Olympic and FIBA success to their name. But they are inevitably old; Scola, and Nocioni are both 36, and Ginobili is 39. Their chemistry and experience is not to be overlooked nevertheless. They will look for youthful energy from new Dallas Maverick wing, 23-year-old Nicolas Brussino. Former George Washington University star Patricio Garino, who recently signed a deal with the San Antonio Spurs, will be counted on for help off the bench. Bold prediction: Argentina fails to make it out of this tougher group.
Brazil, the host nation, has a number of useful pieces, but its unclear if they have anyone who can carry the scoring load. Veteran Nene can hold his own in the post, but he will need help against the better teams. Brazil will look for a huge boost from Chicago Bull big Cristiano Felicio who was chosen as a replacement for the injured Anderson Varejao. The backcourt is comprised of NBA veterans Marcelo Huertas and Leandro Barbosa. Guard Raul Neto of the Utah Jazz will also be counted on. This team will count on quick passing, chemistry and a boost from the home crowd to get out of the group stage and have a chance at a medal.
Croatia is a very intriguing and talented team. The offense will run through Brooklyn Nets wing Bojan Bogdanovic. A potential breakout player could be 22-year-old forward Dario Saric, the 12th overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, now of the Philadelphia 76ers. He is a skilled stretch forward who stands 6’10” and is a player to keep an eye on. Mario Hezonja of the Orlando Magic will be counted on to stretch the floor as well. This is a very skilled team, but interior play could be an issue. They should advance from group play, but a medal seems doubtful.
Lithuania is a traditional basketball power, but this group will struggle to live up to that legacy. They will be led by center Jonas Valanciunas, who might put up some of the best numbers in the tournament. Another player to watch is Domantas Sabonis, son of Arvydas. Domantas was a standout frontcourt player for Gonzaga University and was recently drafted to play for the Oklahoma City Thunder. All their best players are bigs, so guard play could be a major issue. Making it out of this tough group will be a struggle.
Nigeria is an intriguing sleeper team in this tournament. In the absence of Al-Farouq Aminu, the team will be led by former University of Tulsa guard Ben Uzoh. This team is very deep and athletic. Former Syracuse University guard Michael Gbinije, fresh off leading the Orange to a Final Four in March will also be on the squad. They have a number of other players who played high level NCAA basketball including guards Josh Akognon and Chamberlain Oguchi, as well as forwards Ike Diogu and Ekene Ibekwe. If they can channel the chemistry that led them to win FIBA Africa last year, they can advance out of group play.
Spain has long been the fiercest challenger to the U.S. and they will sport a formidable group once again. Pau Gasol will lead the charge in the frontcourt, while point guard Ricky Rubio runs the offense, and a number of other players return with two Olympic silver medals to their name. The aging group of Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro, and Sergio Rodriguez will all man the backcourt along with Rubio. But there are good new players added to the mix as well. Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic and new Oklahoma City Thunder shooter Alex Abrines will provide scoring from the perimeter. Former Portland Blazer wing Rudy Fernandez is not to be overlooked as well. This is undoubtedly the deepest team other than the U.S. and a medal is expected, although chances of unseating the Americans seem unlikely. They should win this tough group and make a run in the knockout stage.