Despite everything that has stood between Tokyo and their hosting of the Olympic Games, we’ve crept closer and closer to the beginning of the Games of the XXXII Olympiad.
The large shadow that is COVID hovers over the Japan National Stadium and all of its surrounding arenas but as we write, the Games are on and we’re officially excited.
I’ll watch as much of the coverage as my three girls will allow and the time zone is perfect for us here in Oz. The Men’s basketball tournament kicks off this Sunday with the blockbuster that is Czech Republic and Iran.
Things get real at 9pm inside the Saitama Super Arena (in front of no fans) as Team USA face a talented France.
Here is my breakdown of the teams who will contend for medals, plus a word on the rest and a prediction for the tournament;
UNITED STATES – Ranked #1
Key Players – Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Devin Booker.
Team USA’s aura is gone – make no mistake about that. For almost all of its existence, America’s basketball program has been untouchable. Sure, they lost their way for a small while but since Coach K and now Pop took over, things have been righted and the Dream Team is back in force.
The U.S. lost exhibition games to Nigeria and our very own Boomers in Las Vegas but reinforcements are coming and they are very much needed. Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton will join the Olympic squad at the conclusion of the NBA Finals. But, what we’ve seen in Vegas is worrying. The Americans have little-to-no rim protection, are not built to dominate the glass and seemingly lack creativity and playmaking.
In their own right, Damian Lillard and Kevin Durant are among the best individual players in the world but one – or both – will need to assume the role of facilitator to ensure Team USA has cohesion and continues to get easy and open shots.
The most worrying element to their performance in the Olympic lead-ups was the fourth quarter against Australia. The Boomers moved the ball, got easy buckets with back cuts and player movement whilst American took isolation fadeaway jumpers. The movement of the Boomers offence versus the movement of the Americans offence was stark – and ultimately cost them the game.
A pecking order with specific roles need to fall into place quick smart. KD and Lillard need to become the 30+ minute performers who take the lion’s share of shots whilst Draymond, Bam and Jerami Grant must become gritty defenders who block shots, get on the boards and defend hard.
Booker and Middleton will add outside shooting and provide more depth which is the area where America often dominate their opponents. When opposing teams go to their bench and USA goes to its bench, the gap in talent increases and the Americans often pull away.
USA is still top dog. You’d be unfair to label them as anything but favourites but the challengers are there, and they’re confident they can upstage Team USA and claim gold.
SPAIN – Ranked #2
Key Players – Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez.
Spain are an admirable team with a veteran core who have played so so much ball together. The Gasol brothers are ageing but continue to provide for Team Spain – who know what it takes to win at the biggest tournaments. Much will be asked of Ricky Rubio and whether he can make some outside shots or not will determine the level Spain can get to at these Olympics.
I respect Espanyol but I’m knocking their chances at these games due to the ageing nature of the squad and the lack of a go-to guy now that Pau Gasol is 41.
The one element you must respect is the cohesiveness and passion of Spain. They’ll play hard, together and for all 40 minutes. They won’t beat themselves, you’ll have to beat them.
AUSTRALIA – Ranked #3
Key Players – Patrick Mills, Joe Ingles, Aron Baynes.
Australia have never won a medal at the Olympic Games on a men’s basketball court.
That surely changes in Tokyo. The Aussies are loaded with NBA talent and are seemingly the most in-sync and determined team arriving at these games. Mills becomes superhuman when he throws on a Boomers jersey and Ingles also raises his game in the green and gold. His long range shooting and playmaking will be crucial.
76ers swingman Matisse Thybulle has added x-factor, defensive tenacity and athletic prowess to the Boomers squad and his bench productivity on both ends will be such a plus.
Perhaps the fortunes of the team will lay with Mills – and how much offence he is asked to create – and Aron Baynes, who will be forced to shoulder so much of the load inside the paint. Foul trouble to Baynes will put us at risk to almost any opponent.
Australia can win gold. But they cannot miss a medal to consider these games a success.
NIGERIA – Ranked #22
Key Players – Gabe Vincent, Jahlil Okafor.
Beating USA Basketball has seen Nigeria’s Twitter go through the roof but only off the back of some incredibly positive on-court performances.
The Nigerians knocked off America in an absolute stunner when they drained everything they threw up from downtown but almost as impressive was their demo job of the world’s No. 4 team, Argentina. They then smacked the Argentines by 23 to announce themselves as a genuine knockout contender at these games.
Former NBA head man Mike Brown has this squad humming which kicks off its campaign against our Boomers this Sunday at the empty (saaaaad) Saitama Super Arena.
FRANCE – Ranked #7
Key Players – Ruby Gobert, Evan Fournier, Nicholas Batum.
This could be a sleeper team. With many of the regular European superpowers either not here or down on their very best, the French loom as a danger and a team who could go a long way into these games.
3-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert should be even more powerful on the defensive end with FIBA rules allowing him to take up residency in the paint and protect the rim. His size around the cup will cause issues for any opposition (think about how the USA and Australia will have to try defend him) whilst Nick Batum, Tim Luwawu-Cabarrot, De Colo and Evan Fournier form a dynamic perimeter quartet.
The French kick things off against Team USA which would immediately light up the Olympics should the Les Bleus prevail.
SLOVENIA – Ranked #16
Key Players – Luka Doncic, Luka Rupnik, Zoran Dragic.
Aside from a couple of Team USA’s superstars, namely KD and Dame, no team offers up a bigger global phenom than Slovenia’s Luke Doncic.Doncic entered last NBA season as the MVP favourite and averages a borderline triple-double.
He will be the centre of so much attention from opposing defences but that’s nothing he’s not accustomed to as a Dallas Maverick. Alongside Doncic is a well known name to basketball fans – Dragic.
Unfortunately, it’s not Goran Dragic but his brother Zoran. (His parents were imaginative with their names)
Whilst Goran would’ve provided Slovenia with the best backcourt in these games, Zoran is no slouch. He’s a slightly bigger version of Goran and plays more off the ball with a deft shooting stroke. His playing style complements Doncic excellently.
The Slovenians get underway on July 26 with a clash against Argentina, who are the fourth ranked team in the world, although Slovenia enter as heavy favourites – The Doncic effect!
ITALY – Ranked #10
Key Players – Danillo Gallinari, Nico Mannion.
Italy received a major boost late in their Olympic preparations when NBA veteran Danillo Gallinari committed to joining the squad. His outside stroke and ability to make contested shots will give the Italians a legitimate No. 1 scoring option – which is something they perhaps did not have before his arrival in Tokyo.
Fringe NBA man Nico Mannion will run point and his play will also be vital to the fortunes of the Azzuri. Italy traditionally play everyone tough and advancing through the European bracket when teams like Lithuania and Serbia are stuck at home.
ARGENTINA – Ranked #4
Key Players – Luis Scola, Facu Campazzo, Gabriel Deck.
Argentina are a traditional world basketball power, but I feel the tide is turning. Past teams have had numerous NBA players such as Andrew Nocioni, Carlos Delfino and superstar Manu Ginobili, which landed them the 2004 gold medal in Athens.
But, this is not that team and despite veteran Luis Scola’s presence – at age 41 – they look like a team evolving from phase to phase rather than a true medal contending squad.
Denver point guard Facu Campazzo will be an important piece and you get the feeling FIBA ball suits him even more so than NBA but the depth is not there, nor is the genuine star power of years gone by.
Argentina and Slovenia get their Olympic campaigns underway on August 26.
GERMANY – Without the services of Dennis Schroder the Germans will find things tough in Tokyo, although they’ll fancy themselves against Nigeria and Italia.
CZECH REPUBLIC – The Czech Republic game v Iran game will be their chance to claim a W.
JAPAN – The host nation gets the free pass into the tournament, however they’re long odds to even win a game.
IRAN – The Iranians will get handled by USA and France and from there she’s curtains.
Gold – Australia: The Americans are wounded and not well constructed. We have been building toward this moment for a dozen years and we are ready.
Silver – Team USA: Obviously, they’re the overwhelming favourites and could run the table but the aura is no longer and their preparation on and off the hardwood has been ordinary.
Bronze – France: A talented squad with enough star power to make a real splash. International play should make Rudy G a real force on both ends.
Tournament MVP: Rudy Gobert (France)
Olympic All Star 5Luka Doncic, Patrick Mills, Kevin Durant, Damien Lillard, Daniel Gallinari.