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Sunday, July 29, 2012

London 2012: Olympic Hoops Predictions

The boys in Vegas won't be shocked with my chalk-laced prediction that the United States will successfully defend its 2008 title as gold medalists at London 2012. But the forecast for Team USA's road to gold will come with severe storm warnings. 

To those close to the team, we might replace the Olympic motto of "Faster, Higher, Stronger" with the predicted outcomes of "Close, Closer, Closest." The USA's all-out dominance of men’s basketball – dating back to the ’36 Olympics but underlined in 1956, ’60 and ’92, then re-established by the 2008 "Redeem Team” – will be replaced by one huge factor which will determine the outcome of each and every game, and that will be the USA's ability to force turnovers and score in transition.

It's that simple.

Russell Westbrook of USA vs Tunisia.
"If we win the gold medal, it will be because of how well we play defensively," stressed USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski after his team won-out over Brazil in its recent exhibition game because of a 20-5 second quarter run.

The philosophy developed for the 2012 version of USA Basketball's elite is born from a combination of many factors. That philosophy began the day after the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, then it transpired throughout the 2010 World Championship in Istanbul, and it further unfolded during the basketball season leading up to the 30th Olympiad.

So, let's get one man's take on the big picture surrounding the current USA Olympic basketball team.

First, on the day after the Beijing Olympics, USA guard Jason Kidd hung-up his "USA" jersey and announced he’d played his last game for the national team. Kidd's presence and the obvious addition of LA Lakers guard Kobe Bryant to the '08 squad, were monumental.

While Bryant's ability to guard the perimeter might be over-looked by some, his uncanny leadership skills – along with his willingness to step-up and hit big shots – was an element that put Team USA over the top. So, while Bryant's game made the USA exponentially better, it was Kidd's locker-room demeanor, confidence, and "We're not going to lose on my watch" attitude that gave the younger members of the '08 team a level of swagger that the 2006 USA bronze-medal world championship team did not possess.

Kidd, David Robinson and Ray Allen are unquestionably the best international players the USA had on its roster since the '92 Dream Team passed the torch, along with the impossible task of living up to the legendary efforts in Barcelona. Don’t overlook the fact - losing Kidd hurt.

At the '06 worlds, the USA left home with a backcourt that could not defend the bigger, stronger guards of international play. While the likes of 6-foot Chris Paul, 6-foot-3 Kurt Hinrich and 6-4 Dwyane Wade played defense with tenacity and skill, they were simply outmuscled by a Greek team that ran its pick and roll offense to perfection. Coach K and Team USA – joined by with USA Basketball head-honcho Jerry Colangelo – countered by sliding Lebron James to play the point, but James' defensive abilities in 2006 were nowhere close to his "D" in 2012.

Secondly, after the triumph and relief of '08, the United States had to field a team for the 2010 FIBA world championship.

Gone were Bryant, Wade, James, Kidd, Paul, Deron Williams and the entire core from '08. Instead, Team USA stocked up with a ton of big-time, versatile guards such as Chauncey Billups, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and a bevy of 6-6 to 6-9 swingmen like Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Rudy Gay.

Meanwhile, as the 2011-12 basketball season and playoffs unfolded, several players – including former NBA MVP Rose, center Dwight Howard and forward Chris Bosh – all suffered nagging injuries that kept them from pushing their bodies through a grueling summer of try-outs, exhibition games and, ultimately, eight tough Olympic games.

The loss of Howard and Bosh, in particular, combined with the personal trials and tribulations of C-F Lamar Odom (possibly the MVP of the 2004 and 2010 national teams), handed the USA with a roster void of big men, the so-called traditional centers. The result: the United States headed to London this past week with a team that might jump "higher" and is infinitely "faster" but is under-sized and certainly not "stronger" in any sense of the word.

The rest of the world’s teams have all studied Team USA closely and will calculate different ways to defeat the Americans. Certainly, it will involve getting the USA's only true center, Tyson Chandler, into early foul trouble. It will involve the defensive strategy to allow the USA to penetrate and pitch for long, outside jumpers.

If the likes of Carmelo Anthony, James, Iguodala, Bryant or Durant are hitting from three-point land, it will translate to 20-plus point victories for Team USA, no matter who the opponent. However, if an Anthony or James struggles with the outside shooting, like Mr. Melo did in the 2006 elimination game against Greece in Japan – or even as the entire USA squad did in its Washington, D.C. exhibition game against Brazil – the upset vultures will be circling, much the way they did when Lithuania ran with the USA until the waning moments in Sydney in 2000.

While there wasn’t much suspense to the bold prediction that the USA will win gold at London 2012, the first part of this preview begs an answer to the question; Who might upset the US in men’s basketball?

That's easy, but with these predictions, you’ll be reading about more chalk. The likely contenders for medals, along with the USA, will be the same three teams that graced the medal stands over the last three FIBA world and European competitions. Those are: Spain, Argentina, and Lithuania with Russia and France as sleepers.

Editor’s note: Turkey (2012 silver), Serbia (2010 4th place) and some of the other traditional powers, like Croatia and Italy did not qualify for London.

Here are thumbnail sketches on the medal contenders in London:

SPAIN: The frontcourt size of 7-footers Pau Gasol and his "little" brother, Marc, will be reason for concern for the undersized USA but the key factor for Spain when it faces the USA in medal-round action will be the play of guards Jose Calderon, Juan Navarro, Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez. If the backcourt can hold its own and not turn the ball over against the pressure USA defense, Spain will be in the game. Spain has no fear of the USA and will pound the ball into the bigmen in an attempt to get to the free throw line. Spain won the 2011 European championship, no small accomplishment. If both the USA and Spain win their respective pool play rounds, the likely meeting will not come until the gold medal game.

ARGENTINA: Similar to the “last go ‘round” for the core members of the 2006-2012 US national team, the Manu Ginobili-led Argentines know this is the end of the trail. Add that to the potential for the Olympics to be a tournament for 23-and-Under tikes, and it only underlines the fact that Argentina will be competing with heavy hearts and the intangible of sentiment and desire. Ginobili, himself, can become a USA defense-breaker or a turnover machine while Carlos Delfino is a suitable international guard.  Upfront, Luis Scola and Andreas Nocioni are as tough and experienced of an international tandem you will see. Argentina is dangerous, especially to the team that will see them in the quarterfinals and the semifinals.

FRANCE: Seven current or former NBA players dot the roster of the French national team, the runner-up at the 2011 European championship. While the name Tony Parker, the MVP of the 2007 NBA Finals, flows from the mouths of world basketball fans like fine champagne in a NYC nightclub, the key factor for the French team is the absence of one, Joakim Noah, the 6-11, New York City-bred, pain-in-the-ass center of the Chicago Bulls. Because of Noah’s French heritage (nearly every sportsman knows his father, Yannick, was a world class tennis star), and his friendship with many a player on the current French national team, Noah was ready to suit up until a left ankle injury curtailed his 2012 NBA Playoffs and continues to require extensive rehabilitation work. While the French team can do some damage in London, Noah, the NCAA champion from Florida, would’ve made a huge difference when it came to to play Spain, Lithuania, Brazil or the USA.

LITHUANIA: Every time you look up, Lithuania is right there. Whether it’s a European championship, a world championship or the Olympic Games, Lithuania comes to play and they come with size, rebounding and shooting. A pair of Toronto Raptors team members, Linas Kleiza and Jonas Valanciunas will be most familiar to North American fans, along with Darius Songaila of Wake Forest fame and guard Sarunas Jasikevicius, formerly of the University of Maryland. Fans might remember it was Jasikevicius’ potential game-winning three-pointer that was in the air but fell short, partially because of tenacious defense by Jason Kidd and also because of a partial block by Antonio McDyess at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. At London 2012, look for Lithuania to be in the mix for a medal.

RUSSIA: When FIBA created the current system for Olympic qualifying, they sliced off three tournament berths and created a pan-continental, pre-Olympic tournament and money maker. In doing so, they also created “the hot hand.” In the summer of 2012, Russia is the hot hand, coming off the first-pace finish at the recently completed tournament held in Caracas, Venezuela. Coach David Blatt is one of the top international coaches in the world and he’ll bring Andrei Kirilenko, a signee by the Minnesota Twolves, Denver Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov and NBA newbie Alexey Shved.

BRAZIL: As the USA experienced in one of their five friendly games leading up to London, Brazil’s formidable frontline of Nene (Washington Wizards), Tiago Splitter (San Antonio Spurs) and Anderson Varejao (Cleveland Cavaliers) along with quick, sharp-shooting guards, like Marcelinho Huertas or Leandrinho Barbosa, can create some havoc unless Brazil’s opponent forces a ton of turnovers. Aside from the USA, no other team features a game-long, relentless full-court attack, so Brazil can advance deep into the medal round, if the big fellas stay focused, out of foul trouble and relentless on the boards.

The Medal Pretenders:

Australia and Great Britain could all leap-up to grab a medal round berth, especially Great Britain with Chicago forward Luol Deng carrying his national team on his shoulders in front of the hometown fans, who would rather be at Wimbledon, Equestrian or a local cricket game. Australia’s Boomers come to London equipped to grab a fourth place berth in Pool B and from there, a match-up with the Americans, as long as the Americans win-out in their side of the preliminary round.

Happy to be there:

China, Nigeria and Tunisia do not figure to be in play for one of the eight medal round berths. Nigeria surprised all in gaining the third slot at the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament. China has taken a giant step backwards with the loss (retirement) of Yao Ming while Yi Jianlian cannot fill the huge roll left from Yao’s departure, although his tremendous athleticism will be on display for all to see.


2012 Men's Basketball tournament odds (courtesy of #DigSportsDesk)

USA 1/8
Spain 13/2
France 25/1
Argentina 25/1
Lithuania 30/1
Russia 30/1
Brazil 40/1
Australia 100/1
China 125/1
Great Britain 250/1
Nigeria 250/1
Tunisia 1000/1

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