• Also see: Group A Scouting Reports
The crown jewel of international hoops has arrived, as the Olympic men's basketball tournament tips off Sunday in London. The field of 12 teams is split into two groups of six. Group play consists of five round-robin games. The top four teams in each group move into an 8-team knockout tournament, culminating with the gold- and bronze-medal games on August 12.
Group B features Spain, Brazil, Russia, Australia, Great Britain, and China. Spain is the lead dog in the group but not an overwhelming favorite because of injuries. Brazil and Russia are closely-matched and legit bronze candidates. Their Aug. 2nd matchup should determine 2nd place in the group.
Australia is a solid, veteran club that will fight with Great Britain for the last knockout round bid. China rounds out the group and has enough talent such that they should not get steamrolled in every game. They could challenge the Brits.
Let's take a deeper look at the Group B teams:
Key Players: Gasol Bros; J. Navarro; J. Calderon; R. Fernandez; S. Ibaka
After underachieving wildly in 2010, Spain got back to business last summer and rolled through EuroBasket. Spain outscored its opponents by an average of 13.5 ppg and won eight of its 11 games by double figures.
Like Team USA, Spain's roster is 12-deep and has an endless array of options. Also, Spain really likes to push the tempo like the U.S.
Some NBA fans might assume the loss of Ricky Rubio would be a significant blow to Spain, but it's really not. Ricky isn't used to his fullest potential by Spain as they have too many players who need the ball in their hands.
The bigger injury concern right now for Spain are the statuses of Juan Navarro and Marc Gasol. Marc has been sitting out some prep games because of a bum shoulder, but not sure the severity.
La Bomba has been battling plantar fasciitis all year and had a slightly off-year in Barcelona. Possibly not having La Bomba at full strength is the most worrisome thing for Spain. He's Spain’s top perimeter threat and has been one of the top FIBA scorers over the last decade.
Rudy Fernandez is still working his way back from back surgery, but he's looked solid in the prep phase. Rudy's NBA career was a bit disappointing, but he usually shines when he plays for the national team. Spain allows him to play the free-wheeling style he craves.
Navarro and Fernandez will be run through their fair share of off-ball screens--La Bomba hit 56% (66% adjusted for 3PA) of his off-ball screen shots at Eurobasket, according to Synergy Sports Technolgy.
Navarro and Rudy also will run plenty of pick/rolls. Navarro generates a lot of points in ball-screen action either by scores or passes. Jose Calderon is back again, and is another savvy playmaker in ball-screen action.
At EuroBasket, Pau Gasol was awesome once again for Team España --20 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.7 bpg, 54% overall. Scored on post-ups, jumpers, cuts and put-backs (11-for-15 on put-back attempts, says Synergy Sports). Pau's defensive presence in FIBA play has always been an underrated factor.
We know the Gasols can do serious work on the blocks and Spain will feed them plenty. Often set up their post-ups with high-lo action that comes out of double-high post sets. Both bros pass well from the high post.
Maybe the most impressive aspect of Marc's play during Euro '11 was his passing, particularly his passing as the roll man. Marc averaged 13.3 ppg, 7.3 rebs and 2 apg.
Serge Ibaka has added a much-needed dose of athleticism to the frontline and was a factor in 17 mpg last summer. Ibaka will get his points on cuts and help the Gasols protect the rim.
This will be PF Felipe Reyes’ last go-round with the national team. Reyes is on the decline but can still score a bit around the rim and provide toughness in limited minutes.
Recently-signed Blazer Victor Claver can play both forward spots, but it's unclear how much floor time he will get. The athletic stretch-4 has not played much in the past for Spain, but Felipe Reyes is older now, so Claver might get some of his minutes.
Combo guard Sergio Llull (Rockets hold rights) will primarily back up Navarro but will get to handle the ball some. Llull's speed makes him dangerous in transition and effective with ball pressure. But his jumper is inconsistent.
Sergio Rodriguez will fill the void left by Rubio and has improved his shot over the years. Still a flashy passer, but still a turnover machine.
It's not a given Spain rolls through this group. Brazil has a legit shot of knocking them off because of the injury issues. Russia won't be a cakewalk either. If Spain has any hopes of upsetting the U.S., they have to have Marc and La Bomba at full force.
Key Players: Nene; A. Varejao, T. Splitter; M. Huertas; L. Barbosa
This projects to be the best Brazilian team in about 20 years--have all their key guys together and have a terrific coach, Ruben Magnano, to organize them.
Won the silver at the 2011 Americas tourney without the services of Nene, Varejao and Barbosa, who all return this year.
It will be interesting to see how Magnano integrates Nene, Barbosa and Varejao back into the offense. Nene is going to expect touches in the post and Barbosa likes to get up shots.
Next to Spain, Brazil has the best frontline rotation in the Olympics. Expect the interior defense to be stout with Nene and Varejao back.
Brazil hopes they can get a little bit better play from Tiago Splitter in London. Last summer, he struggled on the offensive end, continuing to have issues with his touch. But Tiago did help Brazil with his usual sound defense, passing and rebounding.
Brazil really likes to space the floor on offense. They like to start offense way up high and bombard the opponent with pick-n-roll. Their roll game should be tough to stop with Nene and Varejao back.
Marcelo Huertas is one of the best PGs outside the NBA and has played great ball for Brazil over the last few years. The speedy Huertas can penetrate and finish with variety of floaters.
He's very hard to contain in pick-n-roll as he will dribble off the screen or can go away from ball screens. Can get out of control sometimes, which leads to some forced passes (leaves his feet to pass sometimes) and forced shots.
One minor concern is the depth in the backcourt, particularly who spells Huertas. The backup PG minutes will be split by Larry Taylor and Raul Neto, both inexperienced at this level of national-team competition.
One player who might be overlooked, but who we feel could take this team to another level if he's consistent, is forward Marcus Vinicius. Think Vinicius could be the X-factor if Brazil wants to somehow upset Team USA in a possible semifinal match. The 6-9 forward has the length to be effective defensively.
Thought Vinicius gave Durant some issues in spots in 2010 and probably matches up with Durant as well as anyone in the tournament outside of Kirilenko. Vinicius has played well over the last two summers and is a capable pull-up shooter, particularly going left.
37-year-old SF Marcelo Machado is a lethal shooter and only needs a sliver of space to get his shot up. Often hits jumpers in rapid succession. A danger spotting or off screens. Not on the floor for his defense.
SG Alex Garcia usually gives up three-to-four inches when playing SF, but makes up for it by using his strong build to be an extremely aggressive on-ball defender. Can attack the rim in the half-court and in transition. Inconsistent shooter because of awkward release.
Combo forward Guilherme Giovannoni is their designated stretch-4 option off the bench. Giovannoni is slow, but defends better than expected.
Brazil has the ability to wreak havoc with defensive pressure and force an up-tempo game. This team is dangerous in transition thanks to great speed across the board.
Though, Brazil can force the issue too much in transition (particularly Garcia & Barbosa), which can often lead to the opponent getting easy scores back the other way.
They have the size, speed and skills to hang with any team in this field. With Spain not totally healthy, Brazil has a legit shot of winning this group. Brazil's our favorite for bronze, and maybe could sneak into the finals instead of Spain. Right now, they might match up better with Team USA than Spain does.
Key Players: A. Kirilenko; A. Shved; Vik Khryapa; T. Mozgov
Very closely-matched with Brazil and a bronze medal is a realistic goal. Had very little trouble navigating through the pre-Olympic tourney--they were the best team in Caracas.
Russia has a deep, athletic squad with good size at every position (both PGs are 6-6). And they're directed by one of the finest FIBA coaches around, David Blatt.
Led by their trio of versatile 6-9 forwards Andrei Kirilenko, Vik Khryapa and Sergei Monya. All three guys defend, rebound and pass well.
Kirilenko is coming off a Euroleague MVP season and, he was the best all-around player in Caracas (16.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.1 apg, 3.25 spg). AK was terrific last summer at EuroBasket as well, averaging 15 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.3 apg, 2.6 spg, 49% overall and 41% on 3PA.
Just think of Khryapa as the poor man's version of Kirilenko. Monya is a terrific help defender and the best shooter of the forwards.
Known for their great defensive play and should be one of the best defenses in London. Led EuroBasket in points allowed (65.7) and overall defensive FG pct. (41.4%). Their defense didn't fail to impress at the pre-Olympic qualifier as well
They swarm to the ball down low, deny on the perimeter (especially Khryapa) and challenge nearly everything.
Coach Blatt mixes up his alignments adroitly and causes confusion for opposing offenses. Expect Blatt to implement different types of zones, sometimes it's hard to decipher what the hell they're in--amoeba-type matchup zones. Lets Kirilenko and Khryapa roam around.
Their offense is built to get mileage off of cuts and off-ball screens. Not a ton of attacking off the dribble (besides Shved) or many post-ups.
Their ball movement tends to be good. In Caracas, 84% of their field goals were assisted, which is killer.
Very disciplined with their spacing and tend to keep the basket area open. Princeton-style sets that start out high and all five guys up near the free throw line extended.
Won't have the services of Andrey Vorontsevich, but shouldn't be too big a deal with the other 6-9 forwards on the roster. Also, combo guard Sergey Bykov is out with injury as well.
Athletic combo guard Alexey Shved is the key man in the backcourt rotation. New T-wolves signee is a rangy athlete who has an advanced understanding how to run pick/roll. Combines a nice handle (crossovers & hesitation dribbles) with good passing skills.
Shved played alright in Caracas (10.5 ppg, 5.0 apg), but he forced up too many questionable shots (especially haphazard runners) which led to 34% shooting. His decision making can be dicey at times.
Anton Ponkrashov (6-6) is another big PG at Blatt's disposal. He's nowhere near as dynamic/athletic as Shved, but he's nifty passer who plays a methodical style.
Starting SG Vitali Fridzon is the best pure shooter on the team, tore things up in Caracas--14.5 ppg on 68%, 11-for-14 on 3PA. Russia runs him off a lot of down screens.
Timo Mozgov didn't contribute much in Caracas because he sprained his ankle, but he should be ready to go this week. Mozgov has played well for Russia over the last few years and he's effective as a roll man. But he still has issues with fouls, so only expect 20-22 minutes of floor time.
Luckily, Russia added Sasha Kaun back to mix after missing EuroBasket with injury. In Caracas, Kaun(12.5 ppg on 75% shooting) gave them good minutes by running the floor well and finishing on rolls. Neither Kaun nor Moz post-up too much.
In general, not really that great of an outside shooting team. Fridzon needs to be marked and Monya is solid, but after that they're kind of erratic.
Teams maybe shouldn't respect their spacing as much as they do. Should slough off around the paint, keep the backline integrity to discourage the cuts.
Another minor concern was that their FT shooting was not very good last year (65%). Something to keep an eye on.
Russia's tough defense (with off-kilter zone looks), crisp ball movement and masterful coaching (and preparation) makes them a serious contender for a bronze.
Key Players: Patty Mills; Aleks Maric; Dave Andersen; Joe Ingles
This is Australia's 11th-straight appearance in the Olympics, the current record since the U.S. boycotted in 1980. But then again, Australia basically got another free pass to the Olympics thanks to being in the Oceania zone. But that does not mean this team is not a solid team; just means FIBA needs to rework its zone format.
Relatively deep team, with experience playing together--pretty much the same roster that advanced to the 2010 Worlds quarters (seven players remain from the '08 Olympic team)
Coached by San Antonio assistant Brett Brown. In 2010, the Aussies were good at nearly every facet on defense--must be a Spurs thing. The Aussies also hit the glass well.
Even without Andrew Bogut (and Nathan Jawai), the Boomers have a good rotation of veteran big bodies (four guys 6-10 or bigger). Coach Brown has the luxury of having three good back-to-basket 6-11 players in Matt Nielsen, David Andersen and Aleks Maric. All three have proven themselves at the highest levels of European ball.
Nielsen and Andersen give the Boomers two multi-skilled bigs who can move inside & out. Dave Andersen has 3-pt. range on his jumper but also works well in the post, where he can unleash his effective turnaround jumper over either shoulder.
Nielsen can float out like Andersen. Nielsen is a factor in the post because of nice passing and nifty moves. Nielsen can put the ball on the deck as well.
Aleks Maric is a bull in the painted area who shoots a high pct. and commands the boards. Uses his strong hind quarters to carve out post position and guard the post well. The downside of his physical play is a propensity to pick up fouls.
Ex-Wazzu Cougar Aron Baynes is another banger Coach Brown can call on to give five hard fouls. Combo forward Mark Worthington is a savvy, jack-of-all-trades veteran forward, who will post-up a bit.
S.A. Spur Patty Mills is their main perimeter threat and causes problems with his speed. Mills led Australia in scoring at the last Olympics and at the 2010 Worlds. Opponents should be going underneath Mills' ball screens as he's an unreliable shooter. Mills is not the best decision maker and needs to limit his TOs.
Coach Brown will turn to another St. Mary's (CA) product, Matt Dellavedova, to spell Mills, and also play alongside Mills sometimes. The senior-to-be at St. Mary's is nothing special of an athlete, but makes up for it with toughness and a shifty handle. Good deep shooter and very adept with runners.
6-8 Joe Ingles is a lanky, multi-skilled talent at the SF. Ingles' strong handle allows him to run some pick/rolls and create plays off of isos. Good passer but will force the action sometimes. Ingles is a decent shooter spotting or off the bounce.
6-7 Brad Newley (Rockets own rights) is another good athlete on the wings, who can bury shots on the perimeter. 6-9 Dave Barlow is a bouncy athlete who can knock down open shots and rebounds well at SF.
The Boomers will push the ball when given the opportunity and Mills makes them effective in the open floor.
Australia has the ability to hang with Russia and Brazil. Maybe even Spain, if they're not tuned in. The Aussies have good depth, they play solid defense, they should rebound well, they've got experience and they’re physical.
5) GREAT BRITAIN
Key Players: Luol Deng; Joel Freeland; Pops Mensah-Bonsu
At last summer’s EuroBasket, Britain finished 2-3 in a tough Group A that featured Spain, Lithuania and Turkey. Much the same roster is back this summer but Pops Mensah-Bonsu is added to the mix. This is an important upgrade as Pops is a dynamic player in FIBA ball.
But the Brits are dealing with some injuries to some of key rotation guys. Reserve big Dan Clark and starting SG Mike Lenzly are ailing and might not suit up.
Compound this with the Brits not being able to coax Ben Gordon to join the squad and there’s some uncertainty for the home team. Really could have used Gordon to give their backcourt a major upgrade in talent.
Luol Deng is the marquee name, and he carried the Brits at EuroBasket, averaging 24.6 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 3.6 apg and eight FTA/game. But Deng has to carry such a heavy load offensively for Britain.
Deng will isolate quite a bit on the perimeter and in extended post-ups. Britain will also run Luol off some screens and run some pick-n-roll looking for switches.
Simply, Britain was not real good on the offensive end last summer. At EuroBasket, shot just 42.4% overall and 30% from behind the arc. Add to that, 15.2 TOpg and only 12 apg. Also averaged 15 TOpg in 2010. A major concern.
Not surprising that the assist totals are low as this team lacks much player and ball movement. Too much standing around by players off the ball. Takes too long for them to initiate their offense, byproduct of having subpar guards.
Compared to other teams, don't tend to run too much pick/roll. Deng is really the only consistent dribble-penetration threat. Their guards are pretty much devoid of playmaking ability.
To put it nicely, the backcourt rotation is rather unimpressive. Basically have guys starting who aren't high-level European guards. More like 2nd-3rd division types.
38-year-old Nate Reinking will be called on to start at point simply because they have no better options at this time. Reinking (Kent St.) is a capable pull-upper, but that's pretty much all he does. Does not create scoring opportunities for his teammates and struggles defensively.
6-3 SG Mike Lenzly hit some shots last year, but in general, is a poor shooter and is mostly on the floor for his defense.
Reserve wings Kyle Johnson (ex-LIU Brooklyn) and Andrew Sullivan (ex-Villanova) are tough defenders who rebound well for their size. Johnson might have to start in place of Lenzly.
Might need to give current College of Charleston PG, Andrew Lawrence, more burn this year. Lawrence is the one guard who can be somewhat effective off the dribble. He's a pretty solid shooter and probably the best passer on the team.
The frontcourt rotation is pretty solid and should be able to hold its own vs. the strong frontlines of Brazil and Russia. Led by new Blazer Joel Freeland and Pops Mensah-Bonsu.
Freeland was Britain’s second-leading scorer last summer (11 ppg, 52.4%) and is an inside-out threat who can step out to 20 feet. Britain will post Joel often and he can score well with a hook or turnaround. Proficient on rolls or cuts--strong finisher.
Pops doesn't have much in the way of refined skills, but his uber-athleticism causes problems for the opposition. Pops is coming off a nice club season in Turkey where was named Euro Challenge MVP. Pops is a finishing (lotsa dunks) and rebounding machine (dangerous on off. glass).
Potential loss of PF/C Dan Clark is an underrated blow. The sweet-shooting big gave Britain quality minutes last year (8.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg in 24 mpg) and he can score a bit in the post. Think of Clark as a slower version of Freeland.
Veteran center Rob Archibald (ex-Fightin' Illini) is on the decline but is still a savvy, physical presence.
Britain's roster has not yet been finalized but two former PAC-10 bigs, Eric Boateng and Matthew Bryan-Amaning, could play roles off the bench.
Former Arizona St. center Boateng can score around the rim and is solid on the boards while Bryan-Amaning's combo of long arms and explosiveness make him an exciting finisher and shot challenger.
Defense was solid last summer, just like it was in Euro qualifying in 2010, which makes up somewhat for the lackluster offense.
They rebounded well last summer and should be even tougher on the glass with Pops back. The perimeter players tend to rebound well for their size.
Not sure how much of a chance the Brits have vs. Australia for 4th-place considering their injuries. Having Deng, Pops, Freeland and home court should just be enough to make things interesting. But give the Aussies the edge because their far superior backcourt.
Key Players: Yi Jianlian; Sun Yue; Wang ZhiZhi
China wrested back the Asian crown from Iran to make their eighth-straight Olympic appearance. Went undefeated at last year's Asian zone tourney, but barely squeaked by Jordan in the finals, 70-69.
Yi Jianlian might not be much of a NBA player but when on the FIBA stage, he tends to shine. Proven himself at the highest level of national-team play by putting up 20 ppg ang 10 rpg at the 2010 Worlds. Yi was a force last summer leading China with 16.6 ppg, 11 rpg and 1.4 bpg.
China will run Yi in the post often, run him off some screens, let him iso and put him in plenty of pick-n-pops.
The Dodger, Wang ZhiZhi, returns to help Jianlian on the frontline. ZhiZhi will post-up a little and can still knock down jumpers.
China has plenty of shooting talent and can spread the floor well when Jianlian and ZhiZhi are on the frontline together.
6-9 Sun Yue played well over the last few summers for Team China. Sun is a multi-skilled point forward who can pass and shoot. Sun uses his length well to be a strong rebounder at his position and a disruptive defender.
Wang Shipeng and Zhu Fangyu are both nice shooters on the wings. Shipeng was injured last summer but played well at the 2010 Worlds and can create quick-dribble jumpers for himself.
The guards have gotten better over the years, but still wonder how they will handle the aggressive ball-pressure that a team like Russia, Brazil or Spain will implement.
Just think the decision-making on the perimeter is sketchy. It seems like the guards will take off with the dribble without any clear objective. PG Liu Wei is the main culprit of ponderous perimeter playmaking.
Chen Jianghua and Guo Ailun will back-up Wei and both are Nike Hoop Summit alums. Both are very quick and shifty with the dribble. But like with Wei, both PGs don't make the best decisions.
Forward Zhou Feng possesses an inside-out game that causes matchup problems for the opposition. He can create pull-ups and hit turnaround jumpers on the block. Reserve forward Yi Li is an active presence on the glass and on defense.
There is decent talent here that has experience playing in major FIBA competitions. China has a legit shot of knocking off Britain, especially with their health issues. Could they upend Australia and sneak into the knockout stage? Not implausible, but unlikely.