Ever since it started to take international basketball seriously again about a decade ago, the United States has embraced “American Exceptionalism” full on when it comes to roster formation. Who cares about a traditional frontcourt, USAB chairman Jerry Colangelo has reasoned, when you can slot Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James or Kevin Durant at the four?
So, for the last three major international tournaments, the U.S. brass has thrown conventional basketball wisdom out of the gym, trotted out its best players—regardless of position—and laughed all the way to two Olympic gold medals and a world championship.
Which brings us to Team USA’s final roster for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain. Four perimeter players—Damian Lillard, Chandler Parsons, Gordon Hayward, and Kyle Korver—were cut. Kept were bigs DeMarcus Cousins, Mason Plumlee, and Andre Drummond, along with DeMar DeRozan, an oversized guard.
What does this new embrace of size mean? Well, it’s certainly not a good sign. Unlike at recent tournament, the U.S. seems to be reacting to its opponents and retreating into the confines of the traditional basketball roster. With the Americans more vulnerable on the international stage than they’ve been in years, Colangelo has accepted the notion that the Americans need to play the matchups.
While this new development has more to do with who’s missing from the U.S. squad—namely LeBron, Carmelo, Kevin Love, Chris Paul, and Kevin Durant—it’s also a result of growing talent abroad. Here’s a closer look at five teams that, in the coming weeks, could take out the United States.
Few countries offer athletes of the same caliber as the U.S., but with Giannis Antetokounmpo on its roster, Greece boats one of the NBA’s best pure athletes. It’s certainly unrealistic to expect the 19 year-old to suddenly become a superstar who leads his team to a medal, but the Greeks have other pieces, too. Center Ioannis Bourousis has started for some of Europe’s top clubs—most recently Real Madrid—and 24-year-old forward Kostas Papanikolaou is slated to join the Houston Rockets. Nick Calathes gives the team another NBA talent in the backcourt. While it’s unlikely the Greeks will pull off an upset over the U.S., they have the pieces to keep it tight.2 of 6
Tony Parker isn’t playing, so France is done for, right? Well, not quite. The French, winners of FIBA EuroBasket 2013, are solid one through five, and, with Boris Diaw and Nicolas Batum in the starting lineup, the team has quite a bit of versatility. France boasts three other NBA players: Indiana’s Ian Mahinmi, Utah’s Rudy Gobert, and Orlando’s Evan Fournier. Meanwhile, Parker’s replacement, point guard Antoine Diot, is 6-4. This means the French could have a size advantage at every position against the U.S. With the size advantage plus a couple of NBA-tested forwards who can hit threes, France could be a challenging matchup for the U.S.3 of 6
Much has been made of Spain’s frontcourt (Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, and Serge Ibaka) but Brazil also boasts a hefty trio in the post: Tiago Splitter, Nene, and Anderson Varejao. All three are at least 6’10”, 230 pounds, and have NBA playoff experience to boot. Brazil’s guards are no slouches either. In 20 games with Phoenix last season, Leandro Barbosa averaged 7.5 points per game, and point guard Marcelinho Huertas starts for Barcelona—perhaps the best franchise outside the NBA.4 of 6
Compared to other international squads, Lithuania doesn’t have as many familiar names for NBA fans, but that doesn’t mean the team is any less dangerous. Lithuania took third place at the 2010 World Cup in Turkey and second at last year’s FIBA EuroBasket, and there’s no reason the squad shouldn’t medal again this summer. Linas Kleiza will be sitting this tournament out, but the team still features Raptors’ center Jonas Valanciunas. And with Donatas Motiejunas at power forward, Lithuania starts one of the biggest frontcourts in the world. But the size doesn’t end there. The team’s expected perimeter starters are all 6-5 or above—and they’re all between the ages of 27 and 29. A U.S.-Lithuania matchup, then, could be especially tough for the smaller and younger American perimeter players.
OK, think about this: in the gold medal game at the 2012 Olympics, the U.S. led Spain by just one point entering the fourth quarter. The Americans went on to win a relatively tight game by seven, 107-100. Of those 107 points, only two were scored by a member of the U.S. team that’s heading to the 2014 World Cup. Spain, meanwhile, returns all its scorers—and adds Ricky Rubio to the mix. Sure, Pau Gasol is four years older, but his brother Marc, and fellow forward Serge Ibaka are both better and more confident now. On top of all that, Spain’s starters have been playing together for years (decades?)—and the World Cup is being played in Spain. If there were ever a competition for the Spaniards to take down the Americans it’s the 2014 FIBA World Cup. U.S. fans can only hope that Jerry Colangelo’s new strategy pays off, and one of the extra big guys on the U.S. roster comes ready to bang in the post.6 of 6