Early Take: London 2012 Olympic Basketball Power Rankings
After China edged Jordan 70-69 last Sunday for the FIBA Asia championship (in what was likely the most-watched basketball game in the world this year), the qualifying season for the 2012 Olympic men's basketball competition ended for this year.
As we did four years ago, we're taking an early look at sizing up the 21 countries which are still alive in the race for Olympic gold - both the nine countries which have qualified for the 12-team field in London, and the 12 nations which will compete at next July's pre-Olympic qualifying tournament that will determine the final three spots.
So, here we go with some early handicapping of the 2012 Olympic field, with some FIBA Power Rankings:
QUALIFIED FOR LONDON (9)
Anything can happen in a one-and-done setting, but if anyone other than the U.S. and Spain is playing in the gold-medal game in London next August, it'll be an upset.
1. USA (Qualified as: FIBA World Champion)
As we work our way down this list, the key recurring variable which causes uncertainty is the question "Who'll be playing in the summer of 2012?" While Team USA has plenty of roster uncertainty for London 2012, they've also certainly earned the right to top these rankings, after an entirely new lineup of players with little international experience followed up 2008 Olympic gold by impressively marching through the 2010 FIBA World Championships. The system implemented by Jerry Colangelo and Coach K is now a well-oiled machine, and the Americans should have several of the 20 or so best players in the world on their team one way or another. The foibles of the 2002-06 era are in the past, and Team USA is once again a strong favorite to win Olympic gold.
2. SPAIN (Qualified as: EuroBasket Champion)
After a disappointing performance without Pau Gasol at the 2010 World Championships, Spain roared back with an impressive run to its second straight EuroBasket title, with a point differential of +13.5 for the tournament. MVP Juan Carlos Navarro was in full La Bomba mode during the knockout round, but it's Pau Gasol who is the lynchpin for this side. Pau easily led the EuroBasket with a whopping 36.9 PER (20 & 8 on 54% FG in 26 minutes per game).
While the return of Pau was essential for Team España, the addition of newly naturalized Serge Ibaka was an intriguing personnel game-changer for Spain. Ibaka, who was a force in the gold-medal game with five blocks in 21 minutes, adds a welcome dose of athleticism. The equation of Gasol bros. plus Serge might well equal the best rotation of bigs in London, depending upon the frontline players Team USA is able to assemble.
While there are heavy favorites for gold and silver, the picture for bronze is wide open. Any of the three teams listed here in Tier II - plus the 3 teams which qualify at the pre-Olympic tournament (see below), who will all probably ultimately slot in somewhere in this tier - has at least a decent shot getting onto the podium.
3. FRANCE (Qualified as: EuroBasket 2nd Place)
With some of the best talent and athleticism in world basketball (they easily have the most NBA players of any non-U.S. country), France has been a FIBA underachiever in recent years, but they put it all together in Lithuania, qualifying for their first Olympic appearance since 2000.
Considering that Joakim Noah was France's key addition, one would think that the team's improvement was on the defensive end. The numbers, however, show that France played its best offense in years, finishing 4th in the tournament at 76.6 points per 70 possessions. This gang that too often can't shoot straight also finished a surprising 4th in three-point percentage, at 38.4%. Here's where France has ranked in points per possession in recent major FIBA tournaments (thanks to the essential In-The-Game.org for the numbers):
RANK / PPP (70 poss)Certainly, the return of Tony Parker after a year off was critical to the French offense. Parker was the best guard in the tourney, averaging 22.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.7 steals in 35 minutes per game. Also, Nic Batum delivered a fine EuroBasket, averaging 13.8 points and 2.0 steals with 53.5% FG in 31.5 minutes, an improvement on his play in Turkey in 2010 (12.5 points and 1.3 steals with just 42.9% FG in 28.5 minutes).
2006 WC: 17th (of 24) / 64.6
2007 Euro: 8th (of 16) / 72.2
2009 Euro: 7th (of 16) / 73.2
2010 WC: 14th (of 24) / 71.4
2011 Euro: 4th (of 24) / 76.6
France still has room for improvement, as they could potentially add players like Ronny Turiaf, Roddy Beaubois or Mickael Pietrus to this year's squad.
4. BRAZIL (Qualified as: FIBA Americas 2nd Place)
5. ARGENTINA (Qualified as: FIBA Americas Champion)
Speaking of years of underachievement, after years of dismal coaching, Brazil turned over the reigns to Coach Ruben Magnano, architect of Argentina's 2002 Worlds silver and 2004 Olympic gold, and they qualified for their first Olympic basketball tournament since the days of Oscar back in 1996.
We touched on this at length last month, but we fully expect 2012 to be the year in which the torch of South American basketball officially gets passed from Argentina to Brazil.
To review, at the recent FIBA Americas tournament, Argentina was expect to dominate the competition, playing at home and with essentially its full complement of players. Instead, Argentina lost to Brazil 73-71 in second-round play, and had to dig down deep, with the support of a passionate home crowd, for a late fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Brazilians 80-75 in the dramatic gold-medal game.
Not only can Brazil add players like Leandro Barbosa and Andy Varejao to this year's lineup, but they also have several young players in their primes or improving. Meanwhile, every good player for Argentina is on the wrong side of 30, and there's no significant young talent waiting in the wings. Brazil is on the rise, Argentina is in decline.
Certainly, the Olympic schedule won't be as punishing as the 10-games-in-13-days slate which wore out the Argentines by the end of the FIBA Americas. Still, I don't think Argentina will have enough depth or youth to compete with the top teams in 2012. This Golden Generation of Argentina basketball has been one of my favorite teams to watch, on any level of basketball, ever, so it hurts me to say that I will be surprised if they make it out of the quarterfinals in London.
The Tier III teams are unlikely to be near the medal podium, but are talented and scrappy enough to pull off an upset or two.
6. AUSTRALIA (Qualified as: FIBA Oceania "Champion")
After surviving the grueling best-of-three series vs. New Zealand that is FIBA Oceania qualifying, Australia is back in the Olympic basketball tournament for the 11th straight time, dating back to 1972. The health and availability of Andrew Bogut will likely be the determining factor of whether the Boomers can compete into the knockout round, or if they'll be eliminated in the Group Stage.
7. GREAT BRITAIN (Qualified as: Host)
British basketball is still a program in development, as they contested their first EuroBasket in 2009, and are now using host-nation status for their first Olympic appearance since London hosted the 1948 Games. For such a nascent program, the Brits have been surprisingly competitive, consistently well-coached under Houston Rockets assistant Chris Finch (not, mind you, this guy). Great Britain nearly shocked Spain without Luol Deng at the 2009 EuroBasket, and they were a respectable 2-3 in the brutal Group A (Spain, Lithuania, Turkey) at the 2011 EuroBasket.
G.B. has a legitimate go-to guy in Deng, who led all players in scoring with 24.6 points per game at the recent EuroBasket. Finally corralling the services of Ben Gordon onto the national team would obviously provide a huge boost, as would the return of Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who missed the 2011 EuroBasket due to injury after being a stalwart on the boards in Euro qualifying play. I expect the Brits to upset somebody before the home crowd.
Enjoy the fortnight in London.
8. CHINA (Qualified as: FIBA Asia Champion)
With Yao Ming's retirement, China moves back from Tier III to Tier IV. After making it to the quarterfinals in 2004 and 2008, China will be fortunate to win a game in London, and should be bounced in group-stage play. Yi Jianlian was the FIBA Asia MVP after delivering 25 points, 16 rebounds and the game-winning free throw in the gold-medal game, but Chairman Yi is no Yao. As always, though, we're excited to see the Dodger, Wang Zhizhi, who should be bringing his lefty stroke to the fourth Olympic Games of his career.
9. TUNISIA (Qualified as: Afrobasket Champion)
Tunisia will be happy just to be in London, and they should be rightly thrilled after knocking off Angola 67-56 in the Afrobasket final, becoming the first African nation other than Angola to make the Olympic basketball competition since 1988.
IN THE PRE-OLYMPIC QUALIFYING TOURNAMENT (Again, 12 teams for 3 spots)
In 2008, the three teams which emerged were all from Europe, and in 2012, the six teams which likely have a chance to qualify for London consist of four European nations and two from the Americas. In other words, this tournament is something of a joke. At least one, and possibly two, more automatic bids should be awarded to Europe, and any playoffs should be contested head-to-head (a la FIFA qualification playoffs) between teams from Europe and the Americas, only.
We're for the global expansion of basketball as much as anyone, but until more teams from Asia and Africa can consistently compete on the world stage, they do not deserve more bids. It's simply not fair to players who play full club seasons to have to put their bodies on the line for a supplemental, ultimately unnecessary, tournament.
1. RUSSIA (Qualified as: EuroBasket 3rd Place)
2. GREECE (Qualified as: EuroBasket 6th Place)
3. LITHUANIA (Qualified as: EuroBasket 5th Place)
These three European teams are awfully close as favorites for the qualifying tournament, and who ends up playing should be a hugely decisive factor.
With Andrei Kirilenko and Viktor Khryapa back healthy and in action for the first time since the 2008 Olympics, Russia was back near the form they showed in winning the 2007 EuroBasket in surprising fashion. David Blatt might be the best coach in FIBA world basketball. Blatt gets the maximum out of Kirilenko and Khryapa, who are like a pair of FIBA Pippens under his expert deployment, wreaking havoc with smart, athletic, unselfish, versatile play on both ends of the court. If those two play, Russia should be favored to win the qualifying tournament, especially because many believe that FIBA will award the tournament to the highest bidder, and Russia should have the inside track to host based on that criteria.
We place Greece ahead of Lithuania narrowly at no. 2 due to greater upside. And the Greeks were competitive in the 5th-place game (a 73-69 loss) in front of a raucous Lithuanian crowd even with a depleted squad. Vassilis Spanoulis should be back next year, though it's unclear if Sofo Schortsanitis will be. The key for the Greeks could be whether they can coax Dimis Diamantidis out of national-team retirement.
The 5th-place finish at home in the 2011 EuroBasket has to be considered a disappointment for Lithuania, who were widely expected to make the semifinals at worst. When the shots weren't falling in the quarterfinal loss to (FYR) Macedonia, the Lithuanians really seemed to miss having a player who could create his own points the way Linas Kleiza did at the 2010 World Championships, when he averaged 19 points per game to lead Lithuania to a surprising bronze medal (though, to be fair, Lithuania was 2nd in offensive efficiency, and just 13th on defense, for the tournament overall). Kleiza's full recovery from microfracture surgery on his knee is critical for Lithuania, and the continued development of Jonas Valanciunas with all deliberate speed would certainly be helpful as well.
4. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC (Qualified as: FIBA Americas 3rd Place)
Make no mistake, we certainly consider the Dominican Republic a strong contender to grab one of the three remaining Olympic qualifying spots. The Dominicans took a big step forward in 2011, nearly qualifying outright at FIBA Americas, as they lost a tough semifinal to Brazil, 83-76. Adding a top-quality coaching staff headed by John Calipari, with respected assistants like Del Harris and Billy Bayno, was a big help.
Most of all, though, they have Al Horford, who was an absolute beast at FIBA Americas (averaged 19-9-3 plus 2 steals and 1 block), and should be the best player at the qualifying tournament. Rugged FIBA Americas revelation Jack Michael Martinez looks like a FIBA Ben Wallace - he led the tournament in rebounding. The Dominicans need better play from NBAers Francisco Garcia and Charlie Villanueva, who shot an atrocious 36% from the floor in Argentina.
5. PUERTO RICO (Qualified as: FIBA Americas 4th Place)
Puerto Rico nearly pulled off the shocker of the qualifying season, losing a FIBA Americas semifinal 81-79 on the road to Argentina in a game that Manu Ginobili called "one of the toughest games I've ever played." If the Puerto Ricans had prevailed, they would have qualified directly for London, and sent Argentina reeling into this tournament. That follows on the heels of their hard-luck slot in 2008, when they were the last team eliminated from this pre-Olympic qualifying tournament, losing the 3rd-place game to Germany.
Led by an experienced FIBA backcourt of Carlos Arroyo and J.J. Barea, P.R. has to be considered at least outside contenders to grab one of the three qualifying spots. It would be helpful if 7-3 P.J. Ramos were to return.
6. (FYR) MACEDONIA (Qualified as: EuroBasket 4th Place)
I think that we here at The Painted Area have made it eminently clear that we love us some Bo McCalebb, about as much as anyone outside Skopje or New Orleans, to be honest. McCalebb had a truly remarkable EuroBasket, averaging a 21-3-4 with 2 steals as he carried (FYR) Macedonia on his back to a stunning 4th-place finish, deservedly earning a First-Team All-EuroBasket nod. (For the record, I agreed with the First-Team selections of Bo, Pau, Parker, Kirilenko and Navarro, though Jay Aych and I both would have given the MVP to Pau instead of La Bomba.)
All that said, I think it's going to be very hard for Macedonia to replicate its run next year. This team is so heavily dependent upon Bo; there is very little other offensive talent. For the tournament, Bo shot 47% from the floor, while the rest of the team shot just 35%, as the likes of Pero "The Macedonian Boozer" Antic jacked up five threes a game to the tune of 29% success.
Overall, (FYR) Macedonia averaged just 69.8 points per 70 possessions, ranking 15th of 24 teams in EuroBasket, and had an overall point differential of just +1.8 points per game. They pulled out four different games by scant two-point margins, and benefited heavily by the draw, which placed them in the much weaker Groups C and F (though it should be noted that (FYR) Macedonia was competitive in all four losses, three of which came vs. top teams Spain and Russia).
Listen, I still consider (FYR) Macedonia one of six teams that's a contender for the three remaining Olympic spots, and again, we love love love us some Bo, I just think it's going to be tough for them to recapture the magic of Lithuania.
Just not enough talent
7. NEW ZEALAND (Qualified as: FIBA Oceania LAST Place)
New Zealand certainly had the easiest road to the qualifying tournament, as they didn't even have to win a game to finish 2nd (out of 2) in the ridiculous FIBA Oceania qualifying process. The Tall Blacks are usually a well-drilled team which gets the most out of its talent. At the 2010 World Championships, the Kiwis surprisingly qualified for the Round of 16, and went 3-3 overall, with wins over France, Canada and Lebanon. New Zealand is led by Kirk Penney, who was second in scoring at the 2010 Worlds with 24.7 per game, but ultimately, they are too outmanned to have a strong shot at the top three.
8. VENEZUELA (Qualified as: FIBA Americas 5th Place)
Greivis Vasquez of the Memphis Grizzlies was a stud at FIBA Americas, averaging 19.3 points (2nd in tourney) and 5.8 assists (1st) for the running, gunning Venezuelans, who averaged 94.8 points per game (10 more than anyone else) and earned the final qualifying tournament entry under the guidance of former NBA coach Eric Musselman. Venezuela probably doesn't have enough talent to get into the top 3, but they should regularly be competitive in this tournament.
9. ANGOLA (Qualified as: Afrobasket 2nd Place)
Not only did Angola fail to win the Afrobasket after winning the last six, and 10 of the last 11 - thus making them unlikely to make the Olympics for the first time since 1988 - but they were fortunate to even make this tournament, as they needed a miracle rally from down five with 10 seconds left to beat Cameroon in the quarterfinals. That said, Angola has been a frisky side at recent World Championships, getting out of the group stage and into the Round of 16 in both 2006 and 2010. They have the goods to pull off an upset or two in this tourney, but not enough to make it all the way to London.
10. JORDAN (Qualified as: FIBA Asia 2nd Place)
Jordan narrowly missed its best chance to make the Olympics, when - after knocking off favored Iran in the quarterfinals - their upset bid on the road in China fell just short. Coach Tab Baldwin led New Zealand to a 4th-place finish at the 2002 World Championships - it'll take that kind of miracle for him to lead the Jordanians to the top three in this tournament.
11. NIGERIA (Qualified as: Afrobasket 3rd Place)
If Nigeria can get Hakeem Olajuwon circa 1994-95 to play, they might have a chance to grab a qualifying spot. Might.
12. KOREA (Qualified as: FIBA Asia 3rd Place)
Even though the FIBA Asia 3rd-place slot had little chance to advance any further, I have to say I'm bummed that Korea got it, because it meant that they ended the dreams and the Cinderella run of one of the greatest basketball-loving nations on the planet, the Philippines, who lost the third-place game in a heartbreaker, 70-68. The 4th-place FIBA Asia finish was the best for the Philippines since 1987.