After Kevin Durant quit (to borrow a phrase from Sheridan) and Paul George’s devastating broken leg, the hosts of the 2014 Basketball World Cup have emerged as legitimate contenders for a gold medal.
While Team USA remains the odds-on favorites according to sportsbettinginfo.com to take the gold, despite clearly sending a “B” team, they will have their work cut out for them overcoming a cohesive Spanish team in a potential Gold Medal game.
The Spanish national team will be in Group A with France – which could have been a contender if Tony Parker were not too tired from the Spurs title run, Brazil, Serbia, Egypt and Iran. Team USA will be in Group C with Turkey, Ukraine, Finland, the Dominican Republic and New Zealand, the two favorites can only face each other in the Gold Medal game, in what would be a rematch of the London Olympics Gold Medal Game.
While the final 16 players on Team USA’s current roster only feature five players with previous Senior National team experience, 11 of Spain’s 12 players are returning to the team, with several who have played almost every year for the national team since the age of 16. While having a strong mix of high-level NBA talent and some of the Euroleague’s biggest stars, the chemistry and bond that the Spanish national team shares, playing with home court advantage, gives them a massive edge heading into the tournament.
There is no question that Spain’s rise to being the consensus second-best national team in the world has been the presence of the Gasol brothers. What are the chances that one family would produce two seven foot NBA All-Stars? To have one brother be a star and the other just to be a decent NBA player is one thing, but two 7 foot All-Stars from the same family? That’s just silly.
Pau Gasol, who has proven to be one of the top European big men in history, will be coming with a big chip on his shoulder after losing far more games than he has grown accustomed to since escaping Memphis for the bright lights of LA. Despite frequent criticism for being soft, Pau has typically been the leader of the Spanish squad, and his commanding post presence offensively will be needed to bring a medal.
Marc Gasol has developed over the years from a slightly pudgy, slow footed overlooked prospect in Girona, to a gritty two-way player who in his time in Memphis has become one of the top centers in today’s game, winning a Defensive Player of the Year award.
As if that weren’t enough, the Gasols will be flanked by Serge Ibaka, one of the best shot-blockers and defenders in the NBA with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Now in his third campaign with the Spanish national team, Ibaka has developed a good chemistry with this team’s core and has grown tremendously as a player, and should have a big impact on this team.
While the Gasols and Ibaka will likely see the bulk of minutes at power forward and center, Spain still has some nice depth with longtime national teamer Felipe Reyes, who has always been the kind of player who can impact momentum in short spurts, and Trail Blazers forward Victor Claver who should be hungry for some minutes after being largely irrelevant in his first two NBA seasons.
With Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, LeMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin and Chris Bosh all sitting out this year, the Spaniards could actually have a frontcourt advantage against Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried, DeMarcus Cousins and Mason Plumlee, who all should make the final cut, according to Sheridan.
As if their frontcourt wasn’t enough, Spain could have arguably the most backcourt depth at the World Cup. The team will feature four point guards who would start on most teams.
New York Knicks guard Jose Calderon will likely take on the role as the team’s main point guard, given his veteran status on the team. Ricky Rubio will see a lot of minutes as well with the first group alongside Calderon, where his lack of shooting can be covered up a bit.
Even more intriguing than the pair of NBA point guards are Real Madrid’s duo of Serio Llull (2009 NBA draft pick, Houston) and Sergio Rodriguez. Llull and Rodriguez quarterbacked a Real Madrid team that was probably the most exciting offense in European basketball, and they certainly will have a chip on their shoulder after having their hearts broken by Maccabi Tel-Aviv in the Euroleague Championship game.
After all of that, they still have La Bomba, Juan Carlos Navarro, a former Euroleague MVP who is one of the craftiest scorers in European basketball history. Navarro showed some signs of slowing down this year, but on a loaded team he is a very potent offensive weapon. He can go through stretches where he can just flat out get buckets with array of floaters and deadly jumpers.
This point guard quartet and La Bomba may not have the same level of talent and athleticism as Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damien Llillard, but they have a sense of togetherness that is special, and built over a lifetime of playing summer competitions together. Team USA has come a long way in the past few years developing a long term program with chemistry and cohesion, and this backcourt showdown could be a nice test to see if they can overcome a cohesive unit with their B squad.
Their fast paced backcourt will have Rudy Fernandez, the athletic swingman who has been a fan favorite since returning home to Real Madrid. Rudy is a constant threat in transition, on backdoors and to knock down extremely tough contested shots. Despite all of the talent on this roster, Rudy may have the most natural basketball flair, someone who makes the game look easy.
The lone newcomer on this team will be Alejandro “Alex” Abrines, the 32nd pick of the OKC Thunder in 2013, who currently plays for Regal Barcelona. Abrines probably won’t see a lot of minutes when the elimination rounds begin, but as a future staple of this team he will likely be given a few chances early to show what he can do. He looked like he was coming into his own leading up to the playoffs with Barca this year before being squeezed out of the playoff rotation a bit.
Loaded with talent at every position, Spain’s chances to come out of the Group A and B side of the brackets look pretty strong, since Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker’s absence is a huge blow to their two biggest threats in Argentina and France.
With team USA’s main stars sitting out of the tournament, the chances of Spain winning gold are not farfetched. This is a team with a lot of pride that is disappointed with their 3rd place finish in last year’s European Championship.
They will come hungry for the gold. With their pride on the line in front of their home crowd, the pressure is on to deliver.
AJ Mitnick is an American living in Israel and working as an assistant coach for Maccabi Rishon Lezion of the Israeli Basketball Super League. A graduate of IDC Herzliya, Mitnick is in his third season with Maccabi Rishon, where they have made the Israeli League Final Four, and have twice made the Final Four of the Israeli State Cup . Follow him on Twitter.