This week, the best basketball nations in the world are heading to Spain for the FIBA World Cup of Basketball. The tournament — known until recently as the world championships — lacks the overwhelming attention of the Olympics in the United States, but for many other countries it is considered to be nearly as prestigious. As usual, Team USA enters the competition as the favorite, although that position is as precarious as it has been for some time, with Spain serving as the strongest competition. Even if the general hierarchy of teams hasn't changed, there is no question that they appear less dominant than we're accustomed to.
The tournament tips off on Saturday, with Team USA set to take on Finland at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. Here are five pressing stories to help you get acquainted with the World Cup before play begins.
1. Team USA looks vulnerable.
When it comes to the best basketball country in the world, such issues as vulnerability are always relative, because their chances of losing remain much lower than those for any other team. Nevertheless, this is not the same Team USA that won the 2008 Olympics, 2010 world championships, and 2012 Olympics with very few hiccups. The team's world championships/Cup roster never features the overwhelming star power of the Olympics, but it's still reasonable to think the group will include one or two perennial All-NBA players. Team USA is used to the best.
The 2014 roster does not immediately look like such an established and dominant group. While USA Basketball expected the absences of proven international commodities like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, the powers that be weren't necessarily looking to be without Kevin Love (who bowed out due to his potential and eventual trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves), Paul George (who was lost to his now-infamous leg injury during an exhibition game), and Kevin Durant (who withdrew from consideration due to mental and physical exhaustion).
As such, Team USA lacks a game-changing wing player who can move over to the "four" position — the role that has defined head coach Mike Krzyzewski's tenure. The team's ostensible leaders are Derrick Rose, who has barely even played competitive basketball in the past two years and might have trouble with the tournament's demanding schedule; James Harden, who sees himself as the team's defensive stopper and on-court leader even though he's not known for those qualities; and Anthony Davis, a truly incandescent talent who nevertheless has never been asked to do so much in international play.
To make matters worse, the losses of Durant and George occurred during training camp, which means that Coach K and his staff have been tasked with adjusting on the fly and working out a new team identity within a matter of weeks. The coaches and players are impressive enough to be up to the task, but it's a major challenge given that most international teams have played together for years. It's also going to take time to figure things out, and in a tournament such as this one that could mean flirting with a landscape-altering loss.
2. Take Spain very, very seriously.
A host nation isn't guaranteed a strong performance in the same tournament — just look at Brazil in this year's FIFA World Cup for proof — but it can sure help. Yet Spain would be the clear second-best squad no matter where the games took place. With Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, and Serge Ibaka, this team features the most formidable front line in the tournament, with Ibaka adding the athleticism necessary to avoid a blitz from Team USA. The backcourt isn't bad either — point guard Ricky Rubio, point guard Jose Calderon, expert shooter Juan Carlos Navarro, and shooting guard Rudy Fernandez are all well-regarded NBA or NBA-equivalent players. And these are really just the biggest names on the roster. Every player could contribute in a pinch, and they've been teammates long enough to have developed a strong understanding on the court.
Spain isn't invincible by any means — they finished sixth in 2010, albeit without Pau Gasol at his peak — but there's a reason they've lost the last two Olympic finals by a total of just 18 points. The Americans may be stronger, but the Spaniards can win in more ways than any team at the World Cup. If these two teams match up in the final, then Spain should be able to expose any remaining USA weaknesses.
3. Don't look past the other challengers.
While this tournament looks like the USA, Spain and everyone else, any competition that eventually becomes a single-elimination contest can turn chaotic. It would be wise to prepare for a final between the favorites, but it makes more sense to keep an eye on several other contenders.
Argentina can no longer depend on Manu Ginobili, but big man Luis Scola is a far more dangerous player in FIBA than in the NBA and can play the role of star. Lithuania remains one of the most basketball-mad nations on the planet and has a deep rotation. 2013 EuroBasket winners France will be without Tony Parker but have NBA players like Boris Diaw and Nicolas Batum to soften the blow. Greece features some of the finest players in Europe and ever-fascinating Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. Brazil's big-man trio of Anderson Varejao, Nene and Tiago Splitter would be a strength for any NBA team.
Perhaps more importantly, the FIBA game allows for upsets in a way NBA basketball does not. With the five-foul disqualification limit, a few early calls can change the course of the tournament. The closer 3-point line sometimes negates the importance of athleticism. In this context, a crazy result sometimes becomes all too sane.
4. Watching the not-so-great teams can be fun, too.
It's not worth pretending that teams like the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and Australia can win the World Cup, but they're still worth watching. The Philippines is home to the biggest basketball fans in the world on a per-capita basis and now boast the services of naturalized citizen and Brooklyn Nets big man Andray Blatche, the Dominicans have pending Kentucky freshman and highly regarded NBA prospect Karl Towns coming off the bench, and Australia should give a reasonable amount of playing time to Utah Jazz draftee Dante Exum.
Plus, many other teams without viable NBA players afford fans the chance to view basketball cultures most people around the world just don't get to see very often. It's truly a worldwide event.
5. Team USA can win four straight major tournaments for the first time ever.
It's hard to believe, but the Americans have never won the world championships/Cup twice in a row, which obviously means they've never had a period of dominance like the one they can achieve in Spain. By winning gold, Team USA will have won the 2008 Olympics, 2010 world championships, 2012 Olympics and 2014 world championships in succession, a masterful run. It's a testament to the work of Coach K and Jerry Colangelo that this is even possible, let alone probable.
Because, for all the concerns about this team's ability to adjust to recent changes, Team USA really is the favorite. The point guard rotation of Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving is an obvious strength, good enough to dice up defenses throughout the tournament. Being without Kevin Durant and Paul George will test this team, but Rudy Gay was on the gold medal team of 2010 and knows how to contribute in this setting. There is plenty of outside shooting with Curry, Klay Thompson and James Harden. Anthony Davis looks ready to dominate and step up to elite status in the same way Durant did in 2010. DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Kenneth Faried are easily the most athletic group of big men in the World Cup. The depth and level of talent is still absurd — any of these players would be fearsome opponents on any other team.
That's not to say Team USA can't lose. But this national team obviously plays by expectations that others don't, to the point where any loss in any circumstance qualifies as a shocking upset. Frankly, the Americans could have lost a few more rotation players and still would look like the favorites. Every two years, USA Basketball rolls out an elite collection of talent. This team is slightly less impressive than those of recent tournaments in the same way three scoops of ice cream is better than two. It's worth complaining only so much.
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