BARCELONA — You know, we really have no business debating whether Spain can beat Team USA, or whether Team USA can beat Spain. It is disrespectful to Serbia, which whacked unbeaten Greece out of the tournament Sunday with an 18-point beatdown, and Brazil, which took down Argentina by 20. And it does a disservice to the four other teams that will begin the new workweek with a chance to be World Champions seven days from now.
But you know what? It is all anybody is talking about on this side of the pond, and with good reason.
Spain has been the class of this tournament thus far, not having any of the hiccups that have occasionally disrupted Team USA. Hey, when you look back at what happened in pool play and remember that the Americans trailed Turkey at halftime, that qualifies as a hiccup.
Folks in Spain believe this is not only the best chance, but perhaps the last chance, for Spain to defeat Team USA after losing to them in the gold medal games at the 2008 Olympics and the 2012 Olympics. Both of those games were classicos, as they call them over here, and both ended up with the Spaniards adding to their collection of silver medals. The Americans will have their A team back for the 2016 Olympics, and Spain’s roster is getting awfully old at a couple of key positions.
But 2016 is still two years away. This tournament means a lot around the world (more than it does to Americans), and the “we didn’t have our best team” excuse just does not fly — as much as than pains such a large number of folks back home.
It has been eight years and 42 games (60 counting exhibitions) since the United States lost an international basketball game, and the Americans have never been quite as vulnerable as they are now with a team devoid of superstars.
A question for the readers: Name one position where the United States has a distinct advantage over Spain. Go ahead, keep thinking ….
It isn’t easy.
And after you are done thinking, you will likely come to the same conclusion that is about to be drawn here: The Americans do not have a distinct advantage in any area other than athleticism, and athleticism will only get you so far. You want to use athleticism to go backdoor against Spain for lobs and dunks? Well, Marc Gasol is a former Defensive Player of the Year who might have other ideas about letting Anthony Davis or Kenneth Faried get behind him for too many of those types of plays, and Serge Ibaka probably feels the same way. As we saw when Ibaka returned for the Oklahoma City Thunder against the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs last season, he is a game-changer because of his defense.
The Americans also may have the tactical advantage of being able to force turnovers by using traps and pressure, but that is a dangerous game against an experienced team. You know why NBA teams don’t use the full-court press? Because they are going against NBA players, who have no problem beating a press. And of Spain’s 12 players, 10 have NBA experience and an 11th, Felipe Reyes, is good enough to play in the Association.
Also, Spain is comfortable playing uptempo if that is the way Team USA wants the game to be played. In case you have forgotten, the 2012 London Olympics gold medal game featured a combined 207 points (Team USA won 107-100). And the 2008 Beijing Olympics gold medal game had an incredible 225 points (118-107 for Team USA).
So let’s take a look at the teams, position by position.
Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose (and Stephen Curry) vs. Ricky Rubio and Sergio Rodriguez (and Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro)
Irving has been the Americans’ only reliable point guard, shooting 51.2 percent and going 5-for-11 from downtown. His numbers would be even better if he wasn’t always having his momentum taken away by Rose, who has been horrible (8-for-37 from the field, including 0-for-5 against Mexico in the round of 16 game, with 16 assists and 11 turnovers) as coach Mike Krzyzewski has repeatedly tried to get him going … to no avail. He needs to be benched, in my opinion (along with at least two others, DeMar DeRozan and Mason Plumlee). If the Americans use Irving as the starter and Curry (who starts out of position at shooting guard) as the backup, there might be the slightest advantage for Team USA. But Rose’s play makes this a draw at best, and it should be noted that Rubio has 22 steals (in just 119 minutes) with 5.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists to go along with his predictable .375 field goal shooting. Rodriguez has been the primary backup, with Calderon seeing mostly garbage time. Navarro merits mention because he often plays as the ballhandler in isolation sets, and his 16:2 assist-to-turnover ratio might be his most impressive stat. He is shooting 20-of-43, having taken more shots than anyone except Pau Gasol (73).
Curry and Klay Thompson vs. Navarro and Sergio Llull
This CAN be an advantage for the Americans if Curry and Thompson spend any significant amount of time playing alongside each other, but Thompson has not been a steady rotation player thus far (yes, that could change) and Curry has been slotted ahead of him in the 2-guard slot. The Splash Brothers have produced 30 of Team USA’s 44 3-pointers, with six of them coming from Curry against Mexico on Saturday. 44 3-pointers is slightly more than seven per game, and you need to make at least a dozen of them in a game to have the 3-point shot be considered an effective weapon on any given night. Right now, the Americans have made 44 3s at a 37 percent clip, while the Spanish have made 47 at a 34 percent rate. Navarro is shooting 10-for-26 from downtown. Llull is 5-for-20.
James Harden and Rudy Gay vs. Rudy Fernandez
Harden has been a rock for the Americans, their best perimeter defender (team-high 15 steals), their best facilitator (team-high 24 assists) and the best guy at getting to the line (31 attempts, making 77 percent of them). But Harden is playing out of position, and if this is a meatgrinder game that is tied or close to tied with 3 minutes left, what will the Americans do if Spain rolls out both Gasols along with Ibaka? In a situation like that, they’d put the ball in Navarro’s hands, let him isolate and drive, and send three bigs to the boards. Would Harden be on the court? Fernandez, meanwhile, is no slouch. He is shooting 50 percent overall (17-for-34), 50 percent from 3-point range (11-for-22) and 90 percent from the line. Those numbers make this position a wash.
Kenneth Faried vs. Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka
There is a good chance the Americans will shift Anthony Davis over to PF when Faried is subbed out, using DeMarcus Cousins as the center. That’ll help some, because it’ll allow the Americans to put some size on Pau. But if that size is not effective, it really won’t matter. And David was completely ineffective defensively against Gustavo Ayon (11-for-17) of Mexico, who is half the player that Pau is. That makes it extra necessary for Faried to be as good as he was over the first four games (he has tailed off slightly in Team USA’s last two games.) If Faried is winning the fight for offensive boards and scoring on put-backs, it brings this position closer to being an even matchup. But Spain still has a distinct advantage with the way Pau has been playing as the team’s alpha dog. Get this: Pau has scored 123 points in 154 minutes, while his brother — who many now consider the better player — has scored 68 points in 158 minutes. Pau also leads his team with 13 blocked shots (Ibaka has only 7). One place Pau cannot match Faried is shooting percentage despite making 64.4 percent of his attempts (47-for-73). Faried has shot 74.5 percent, going an astounding 38-for-51. Faried also has twice as many offensive rebounds (24) as Pau (12).
Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins (and Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee) vs. Marc Gasol
Why did the Americans bring six bigs? Because they are expecting to have their hands full with the Memphis Grizzlies center, who scared the U.S. federation more coming into the tournament than his older brother did — Pau’s play in this tournament has likely changed that perception. The Americans have enough fouls to withstand too many whistles if the referees take Davis and/or Cousins out of the game, which is somewhat to be expected. Remember, when USA and Spain played in the 2008 gold medal game, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade got taken out of the game by the refs in the first quarter with two fouls apiece (you only get 5 in FIBA matches). It won’t be long until Davis is Gasol’s equal, but Unibrow ain’t there yet. But again, the americans have enough talent and depth here to make this position a wash. This may be the most inexperienced Team USA that Krzyzewski has coached, but it is also the biggest.
Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. He has covered every senior U.S. national team since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Follow him on Twitter.