Olympics Basketball Lookahead
Basketball was always a big deal in the Olympics, but in 1992 the landscape of the sport at this mega event changed forever. The sport has come a long way since then. But, it is likely that basketball, as we have known it in the Olympics since Barcelona ‘92, may never be the same after London ‘12. Things exploded in ‘92 because for the first time ever, NBA players were allowed to participate, and since then, they have taken the event by storm. However, the next Olympics will most likely see an age limit of 23 imposed, similar to that in football. This move is aimed at turning the attention of the world from Olympics basketball to a World Cup of basketball instead. The US has always been a favourite regardless of rules, but will likely be a lesser force once the rule change is implemented. More important than that, without the NBA superstars, they will certainly be less of a spectacle. This makes this edition all the more special. One last chance for the American superstars to dazzle the world; One last chance for the rest of the world to take a crack at the inventors of the game.
Fans of the NBA will be treated to a slightly different version of the sport when they tune in to the matches during London ‘12. To begin with, there are several rule differences. NBA quarters are 12 minutes long, but FIBA likes them at 10 minutes. There are far fewer timeouts and breaks, hence matches get by quicker. The three point line is closer to the ring in FIBA rules than in the NBA, hence long NBA two pointers will count for extra here. Goaltending rules are relaxed in FIBA, and although the sizes and shapes of the Ds are the same now, they were not so until recently. There are a few other minor changes as well, but the biggest difference will be seen in the style of play. NBA has a style that is heavily coach and playbook oriented, but FIBA will have a more free flowing fast paced style. Those used to outstanding individual athleticism and excellence are likely to be disappointed, but those who appreciate team work and a clash of distinct styles of basketball from all over the world are going to be in for a treat. Lot lesser dunks, lot more three pointers.
Twelve teams qualified via various routes and will be split into two groups. Group A consists of powerhouse USA, South American giants Argentina, dark horses France, Lithuania, Tunisia and surprising qualifier Nigeria. Group B consists of Beijing runner up and European champion Spain, Brazil, former giant Russia, Asian top dog China, Australia and hosts Great Britain. Each team plays the other in their group, following which the top 4 teams from each group advance to the quarterfinals, after which a straight knockout is used to crown the winner.
The United States of America is the undoubted favourite to retain their gold medal from 2008. With a team stacked with NBA superstars such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant et al, this is the team that will get people to fill up the stadium, this is the team that will beat most teams comfortably and in style, and this is the team that will be talked about most. There has been a lot of talk about comparing this team to the Dream Team of 1992 with a lot of jabs being exchanged between the current players and the former ones. Comparison of teams across history is always a tricky affair, but this US team is capable of destruction. They are a little short on size with far lesser centers than they would like, but the team is filled with guards and forwards, and those of the best available quality. The US typically likes to outpower and outrun opponent teams to maximise their advantage, and teams normally have trouble keeping up with it. Their only seeming weakness is their lack of big guys. If the likes of Spain and Brazil make use of their skilled centres they will have a significant advantage while matching up to the US. Coach Mike Krzyzewiski acknowledges this weakness and intends to create mismatches of using speedy guys who can stretch the floor against slower big guys.
Spain, silver medalists of 2008, are the favourites in the race for teams that can possibly challenge the US. Spain played out an excellent and mostly tightly contested final in Beijing before losing out in the final minutes. In many senses, Spain is the antidote to the US. They play a great team game, and have an excellent selection of individual players who know this is the last chance for their ‘golden generation’ to capture gold. Led by Spain’s flag bearer Pau Gasol, who plays alongside Bryant for the LA Lakers in the NBA, Spain’s squad has a great combination of veterans and youth. Juan Carlos Navarro of Barcelona will be the team’s main weapon along with Rudy Fernandez, who recently moved from Denver Nuggets of the NBA to Real Madrid, will also be an important player in Spain’s plans. Point guard phenom, Ricky Rubio, will miss the games due to an injury and will have his starting spot taken by Jose Calderon. Naturalized citizen, Serge Ibaka, will provide much needed physical presence for blocking shots. Marc Gasol, brother of Pau, who plays for the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA will be a useful player to form an excellent 3 man rotation for the 2 big man spots. Local based Sergio Llull, Sergio Rodriguez, San Emeterio and Reyes round up a fairly solid bench to form a squad, that on its best day, can defeat the US in a one off game.
Apart from the US and Spain, who are widely tipped to finish 1 and 2; France, Argentina, and Brazil are the other big teams to watch out for. France will be lead by NBA Star Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs. Although they are without big man Joakim Noah, who is out with injury, they have a fairly formidable team and are dark horses in this tournament. Nicholas Batum, of the Portland Trail Blazers is likely to be their main scorer, and one to watch out for in this French team. Brazil, is another team stocked with talented big guys. NBA players Nene, Varejao and Splitter form another formidable rotation, similar to that mentioned earlier of Spain. On the guards front, they have veteran Leandro Barbosa who plays for the Indiana Pacers and quick point guard Marcelinho Huertas of Barcelona, who set the stage alight in the 2010 World Championships. Argentina will also look to capitalize on what may be the last chance for their own ‘golden generation’ to achieve something after their brilliant run in 2004 Athens, which ended in a gold medal. Led by NBA Star Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs, the team has veterans stamped all over it. Luis Scola is an NBA journeyman and a really skilled big guy, who will be accompanied by other regulars like Pablo Prigioni, who is moving to the NY Knicks of the NBA after a good lengthy career in Spain. Andres Nocioni, who made the opposite move from the NBA to Spain, is also a handy swingman to have along with impressive substitute Carlos Delfino of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Australia are without star big man Andrew Bogut, but are led by Patrick Mills. The word from down under is that this is one of their best teams they have sent to official competitions. Lithuania is another unknown from Eastern Europe, with occasional popular names such as Linas Kleiza and Martynas Pocius. Russia, with veteran swingman Andrei Kirelenko, will be another unpredictable team. As good as China, Tunisia, Nigeria and hosts Great Britian are, they have not much going for them in terms of potential or repute, and as much as they would like to prove critics wrong, they can be looked at as nations that are there to make up the numbers.
The tournament starts on 29th of July and goes on till 12th of August. If you are new to the sport, there is no better introduction than the Olympics. If you are a seasoned fan of the game, this is the event you look forward to, to see the clash of styles that are so desperately missing in the well televised and popular NBA. Will the USA walk away with the gold medal again? Will it be the last time that we see superstars per se, gracing the courts during the games? All these questions will be answered in the next couple of weeks, and basketball fans across the world can’t wait for it.
[The cover image was originally posted to Flickr.com, was uploaded to Commons using Flickr upload bot on 22:57, 1 September 2008 (UTC) by Ytoyoda (talk) and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license]