FIBA World Cup: Spain to give US a tough fight

Bert A. Ramirez
FIBA World Cup: Spain to give US a tough fight
Team USA remains a favorite to defend their title at the FIBA World Cup, but hosts Spain remain a viable threat to unseat the Americans

 

In street lingo, it is called “partida,” the proverbial handicap a favored protagonist gives his opponent in order to somehow even out a matchup that would have been lopsidedly in his favor. And that’s exactly what Team USA has given the rest of the world in the forthcoming FIBA World Cup to be held in Spain from August 30 to September 14.

The spate of withdrawals and injuries to the original pool of talent called to join the American team is indubitable proof of that. There’s LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, and, finally, Paul George and Kevin Durant. That’s a whole starting five right there.

But the depth of the Americans’ talent pool is such that even with such an elite group of talent being lost, the US remains a potent force and a legitimate bet to retain its title in the quadrennial meet of the world’s best basketball teams, which for the first time this year will be called the FIBA World Cup in an obvious takeoff from FIFA’s World Cup in football.

The US, in fact, can form as many as four or five national teams of equal strength and caliber that can win any international tournament they play in. The Americans would just have to allow all available talent in the NBA ranks to take part in this program to make that possible. The US, for example, can designate LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Chris Paul, or Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant (depending on Kobe’s physical state entering this season) as the de facto leaders of those teams and fill in the rest of the rosters by building around whichever leaders are eventually chosen.

That’s an accepted fact of life as far as basketball pedigree is concerned. Truth is, it’s only the availability of talent vis-à-vis the circumstances of the players’ NBA teams, plus of course the always-contentious factor of time spent together (which is responsible for the chemistry, familiarity and teamwork that other countries make up for in terms of talent deficiency against the Americans) that somehow narrows the proverbial gap in caliber between the US and the rest of the basketball universe.

Right now, Team USA has 16 players in its pool from which Coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff may choose the final 12 players that will represent the US in the Spain joust. These are Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of Golden State, Derrick Rose of Chicago, James Harden of Houston, Anthony Davis of New Orleans, Gordon Hayward of Utah, Chandler Parsons of Dallas, DeMar DeRozan of Toronto, Kyrie Irving of Cleveland, Damian Lillard of Portland, Mason Plumlee of Brooklyn, Andre Drummond of Detroit, Kenneth Faried of Denver, Kyle Korver of Atlanta, and DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay of Sacramento. The 6-foot-8 Gay was a last-minute addition to fill in the vacant spot opened by Durant’s withdrawal. 

Indeed, the withdrawal by Durant was the biggest blow this team has suffered. With all due respect, it’s a bigger blow in terms of basketball value than the gruesome injury that sidelined Paul George, probably for the next 12 months, as the Indiana All-Star heals the two breaks that he suffered in his right leg in a Team USA scrimmage and tries to regain his basketball mojo. While the 6-foot-9 George is a better defender than Durant, the Oklahoma City superstar was expected to be the unquestioned go-to guy of the Americans, the one single player nobody in the World Cup is expected to be able to cover with any kind of consistency with his offensive clout and versatility. 

Durant was actually expected to fill the role of the stretch “four” in the Worlds, a ploy that would have made it even more problematic especially for a big team like Spain as the 6-9 forward would have created a mismatch on offense. The reigning NBA MVP has also slowly become a competent defensive player with his length and athleticism, and was in fact the World Championship MVP when the Americans won the last edition of the tournament under that moniker back in 2010 in Istanbul, Turkey. Durant, with a 22.8-point average, ranked third in scoring in that tourney behind only Luis Scola of Argentina (27.1 ppg) and Kirk Penney of New Zealand (24.7) and scored the tournament high of 38 points in the semifinals against Lithuania. He had a game-high 28 points in the US’ clinching 81-64 victory over the host Turks in the finals.

With the loss of Durant’s sure 20-plus-points-per-game average, the Americans have to find an offensive leader, or at least a group of players who can share in the responsibility of spearheading the US attack.  This could come from anyone among Curry, Harden, the comebacking Rose or, surprisingly, even Davis himself.  

The 6-10, 237-pound Davis, an apprentice on the previous US team that won the gold medal in the 2012 Olympics, has been gradually developing into a major offensive force, as he showed in the last NBA season with the Pelicans for whom he averaged 20.8 points in 67 games. He provided a glimpse of that new-found offensive dexterity in the Americans’ first tuneup game, a 95-78 victory over Brazil over the weekend.  In that contest, Davis sparked an American juggernaut midway through the fourth period by diving into the stands for a recovery that helped turn a close game into a rout. Davis had 20 points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots in the win. 

The 21-year-old power forward, one of a long line of Kentucky big men who may be turning the NBA into their playground in a few years, including Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl Towns Jr. (the last two of whom are expected to join the next draft), is now expected to also anchor the Americans’ power slots. This is after such big men as Aldridge, Griffin and Love have begged off, and with veterans like Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan and Tyson Chandler either unavailable or unable to muster the level of play they used to.

GASOL BROTHERS. Spanish national basketball team players Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol will lead Spain in the 2014 FIBA World Championship. File photo by Paco Campos/EPA

Team USA is actually in good shape as far as big men are concerned. While the popular perception is that the defending champs will have a hard time in this tournament especially against Spain, whose imposing frontline of brothers Pau and Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka is expected to assert itself, one has to remember that the squad that won the title in 2010 just had one bonafide center, Tyson Chandler, and relied only on Love and Lamar Odom at the power positions. Yet, that squad led the entire tournament in rebounds with an average of 41.6 boards.

This year’s unit, meanwhile, will be better equipped at the “five” and “four” slots, assuming of course that the right knee injury that Cousins suffered in practice is not anything serious. The 6-11, 270-pound Cousins would ideally start at center for the Americans, flanked by Davis, with whom he collided in that play that hurt his knee, at power forward. Other frontcourters who are expected to make the squad and play the power slots are Faried and Plumlee, who may get the nod over Drummond.  

The 6-11 Plumlee was a rookie with the Nets last year who once played for the US’ silver medal-winning Under-18 team in the 2008 FIBA Under-18 World Championship. Drummond, the Pistons’ 6-10, 270-pound starting center, would have been a shoo-in with his potent rebounding and shot-blocking skills, but his atrocious free-throw shooting (a career 40 percent) and complete inexperience in the international game could do him in. 

While the Americans may not be in such a bad shape inside, this does not, however, mean that Spain, or even such teams as Greece, Australia or France, will not give them a strong challenge in that area.  Perhaps the main misgiving about the American big men is not a lack of talent but a relative lack of experience particularly in international play, where they suffer in comparison to their older and more seasoned rivals. 

Still, Team USA’s big-man opponents are worthy on sheer basketball skills alone. Nobody can dispute the talent of Pau and Marc Gasol, perhaps the most formidable frontcourt brother tandem in memory. The seven-foot Pau, even at 34, has shown that he’s not about to ride into the sunset just yet, averaging team highs of 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks for the LA Lakers last season before signing a free-agent contract with the Bulls this summer. His brother Marc, 29, remains one of the NBA’s premier centers with Memphis, averaging 14.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks even as he missed 23 games. The 7-1 Marc, also a member of the Spanish team that won the FIBA World Championship in 2006 like his elder brother, is penciled in as one of the top free agents in the NBA next year.

Ibaka completes the Spaniards’ imposing trio of frontcourt stars. A member of the Spanish team that won the gold in the 2011 FIBA European Championship and placed second to the US in the 2012 London Olympics, the 6-10 Ibaka normed 15.1 points, 8.8 boards and 2.7 blocks for the Thunder last season.

Over and above that formidable frontline, Spain boasts of probably the deepest team in the tournament outside the US in terms of NBA experience, parading a total of nine players with that pedigree and another who was drafted by an NBA club. Aside from the Gasols and Ibaka, the Spaniards also have NBA veterans Jose Calderon, Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez and Victor Claver and Denver draftee Sergio Llull. Together, they account for a combined 48 years of NBA experience, next only to the Americans’ 68, and you’re talking here about the 16 players that are currently in the US pool, which means that number is bound to fall once Team USA’s final 12 have been determined.

Groupings in this year’s FIBA World Cup will see Brazil, Egypt, France, Iran, Serbia and Spain bracketed in Group A, which will play its games at the 7,500-seat Palacio Municipal de Deportes de Granada in the City of Granada in Southern Spain.

Group B, meanwhile, has Argentina, Croatia, Greece, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Senegal. The group will play its games at the 10,200-seat Palacio Municipal de Deportes San Pablo in the City of Seville in Southwestern Spain.

Group C, on the other hand, brings together the Dominican Republic, Finland, New Zealand, Turkey, Ukraine and the US, and has the 15,414-capacity Bizkaia Arena in the City of Barakaldo in Northern Spain as venue of its contests.

Group D, which groups together Angola, Australia, Korea, Lithuania, Mexico and Slovenia, will have its preliminary matches played at the 11,500-seat Gran Canaria Arena, a newly-built arena located in the City of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, one of 17 autonomous communities in Spain.

The games then will move on for the knockout stages to Barcelona and Madrid. The Palau San Jordi in Barcelona, with a seating capacity of 16,500, will host half of the games in the knockout stage, including a semifinal contest. The 15,500-seat Palacio de Deportes de la Comunidad de Madrid, meanwhile, will be the venue of the championship game and the bronze medal-game as well as the other half of the final phase.

From where we sit, Brazil, France, Serbia and Spain are shoo-ins to move into the 16-team knockout phase from the high-powered Group A. Argentina, Croatia and Greece are expected to advance from Group B, with Puerto Rico and Gilas Pilipinas, assuming the Filipinos play up to their potential, battling for the last slot from their bracket. The US and Turkey, meanwhile, should easily move on to the next phase from Group C, with New Zealand and possibly an Al Horford-less Dominican Republic team or Ukraine disputing the fourth slot to join them there. Australia, Lithuania and Slovenia, on the other hand, are touted to make it from Group D, with possibly African champion Angola collaring the fourth and final berth.

It’s not hard, of course, to see Spain topping Group A. It’s not hard either to see Brazil, France and Serbia following the Spaniards to the next phase from their bracket. The Brazilians have NBA big men Tiago Splitter, Anderson Varejao and Nene Hilario as well as veteran backcourtman Leandro Barbosa.  The French, on the other hand, have even more NBA campaigners on their roster – seven – with Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw, Evan Fornier, Mickael Gelabale, Nando de Colo and big men Rudy Gobert and Ian Mahinmi.  Serbia, on the other hand, has seven-foot veteran center Nenad Krstic, fellow seven-footer Miroslav Raduljica, Nemanza Nedovic and this year’s 27th pick by Phoenix, hotshot Bogdan Bogdanovic, a 6-6 shooting guard.

Argentina, of course, has NBA veterans Luis Scola, Pablo Prigioni, Andres Nocioni and Walter Herrmann, Croatia has 7-2 Ante Tomic, Dario Saric, this year’s No. 12 pick who went to Philadelphia, Oliver Lafayette and two players who’re set to become NBA rookies this coming season, Damjan Rudez and 6-8 swingman Bojan Bogdanovic (not Bogdan), while Greece has 6-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo, Georgios Printezis, seven-foot Giannis Bourousis, Kostas Papanikolaou and Nick Calathes.

The Americans should almost certainly breeze to the top of their bracket with only Turkey providing a semblance of competition there. But the Turks themselves, who posted a high-water mark with that silver-medal finish in 2010, have been hurt by player losses, with such veterans of previous teams as the injured Ersan Ilyasova, Enes Kanter, Semih Erden and Hedo Turkoglu no longer on the roster and only Omer Asik and NBA draftees Emir Preldzic and Cenk Akyol left to carry the fight.

The Australians look formidable in Group D even with Patty Mills and Andrew Bogut out of the lineup because of injuries, banking on Dante Exum, this year’s fifth pick by Utah, Aron Baynes, Matthew Dellavedova, incoming Chicago rookie Cameron Bairstow, David Anderson, Nathan Jawai and one-time Houston draftee Brad Newley to carry the torch. Lithuania, with seven-footers Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas, veterans Jonas Maciulis and Ksystof Lavrinovic and one-time Dallas draftee Renaldas Seibutis, should also advance despite the absence of Linas Kleiza, its top player during its bronze finish four years ago. Slovenia, with star guard Goran Dragic, big man Uros Slokar and former Indiana draftee Erazem Lorbek, also appears to have the inside track for a spot in the next phase.

Still, it’s hard to imagine, all things being equal, any team breaking up a projected US-Spain confrontation in the finals. This has always been the matchup everybody is waiting for. With Tony Parker out of the French lineup, last year’s EuroBasket champions, who beat Spain in overtime 75-72 in the semifinals of that tournament, will conceivably be weaker this time. One also has to take note that the Spanish club that placed third in that tournament also missed Pau Gasol and Navarro, who will be available this time.

The US, of course, is a given. The Americans beat Spain 107-100 in the gold-medal game in the 2012 Olympics, but that was with the team still at full strength. Durant, Love, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams were all there to give Team USA unmatched firepower, and even with that high-powered squad, the team still had to go through some uneasy moments, beating Lithuania in group play by just five points 99-94 and Spain by just seven in that final matchup.

With Durant and company out this time, the usual edge in talent the Americans have and the much-needed experience in international play are now compromised. Spain, not to mention other capable teams that can catch Team USA on a bad day, could pull off an upset if the stars are aligned.

Don’t bank on that happening though if the defending champions, particularly the younger stars like Davis, Curry and Cousins, stick to the script and rise up to the challenge. Krzyzewski is 62-1 since he handled the US in international play in 2005, and that means he has a grasp of what the Americans need to do to get the job done. While the odds of the Americans’ winning the championship went down from 2-7 to 2-5 while those of Spain went up from 5-2 to 2-1 when Durant quit Team USA, all it shows is that the US is still the favorite.

Now, will the defending champions prove equal to the challenge? Now is the time for the younger guys to step up and show they’re capable of carrying the torch from their predecessors. This is, after all, how it works in terms of succession, and no better opportunity to prove to the world their superiority in the game is there than now.

SHORTSHOTS: So it’s Paul Lee, after all, who takes the last slot for Gilas Pilipinas in the forthcoming FIBA World Cup. We’d say it’s a well-deserved slot as Lee has also made tremendous sacrifice as a member of the training pool. It also means Chot Reyes is going for more offense than defense in the Worlds as Jared Dillinger was stricken off the final roster in the end… Our fearless forecast for the final Team USA roster, expected to be announced this week: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving and James Harden at guard, Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried, Chandler Parsons, Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gay and Mason Plumlee at forward, and DeMarcus Cousins at center… NBA referee Dick Bavetta has retired after 39 years in the league. The 74-year-old Bavetta had not missed a game since 1975, a run of 2,635 straight games. Amazing… Four-time All-Star Shawn Marion chose to cast his lot with Cleveland even for a paltry $1.4 million for a better chance to win another title.  The Cavs and Indiana were Marion’s last two choices to sign a free-agent contract… New York has added Jim Cleamons to assist rookie coach Derek Fisher on the Knicks’ coaching staff.  Cleamons coached Dallas for a little more than one season and served as assistant in nine of Knicks president Phil Jackson’s 11 titles with Chicago and the LA Lakers… New LA Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, whose record $2 billion purchase of the franchise was upheld by the courts, led a rally of some 4,500 Clippers fans where he showed his gung-ho style of leadership by high-fiving and chest-bumping with the fans, clapping, sweating and shouting himself hoarse. – Rappler.com

Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the ’80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008.  He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA’s International Basketball, and currently writes a sports column for QC Metro Manila Life and, until this summer, a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk.  A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.

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