Usually a team stacked with the NBA’s elite at the Olympics, this year the USA are without those superstars but are still the hot favourites to stand on top of the podium in Rio this summer.
NBA regular season MVP Stephen Curry, Finals MVP LeBron James and All-Star MVP Russell Westbrook will not travel to Brazil but the talk of the basketball world right now, Kevin Durant will hone his skills, alongside Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving as the U.S. bids for a three-peat of Olympic golds. We can say that it won’t be easy – but we said that two years ago in Spain at the FIBA World Cup – and once the hosts, widely considered the USA’s nearest challengers were dumped out at the quarter-final stage, the tournament turned out to be a case of who would end as runner-up, not who would win.
That goes to show that no matter what team the U.S. put out, they will always be in the conversation for trophies or medals. They’re the best in the world for a reason.
But, they will have obstacles to overcome and, like in the last two Olympics, Spain are their closest contenders. France, who are in the USA’s group will be the other challengers as well as Lithuania, who always seem to bring the fight to the Americans.
But first, they have to get out of Group A in Rio. Here are the teams that will compete in a star-studded pool.
United States of America
HOW DID THEY QUALIFY: FIBA World Cup 2014 winners.
With no LeBron James and Stephen Curry this summer, the USA will be led by arguably the most talked about player on the planet in Kevin Durant and veteran Carmelo Anthony, who will be vying for a third straight gold medal.
Prediction: While it won’t budge them from top spot in the FIBA rankings, Anything other than gold for the USA will be considered a huge disappointment.
HOW DID THEY QUALIFY: FIBA Olympic Qualifying winners (Manila).
Finishing third at last year’s Eurobasket was still considered a disappointment for a France team loaded with talent. but they still had to qualify for Rio 2016 the hard way, and they did so comfortably in the basketball mad city of Manila, the capital of the Philippines.
France will look to get results early in the competition before they meet the USA on the final day of pool play, but their ultimate Olympic goal this year with stars such as Tony Parker and Boris Diaw expecting to announce international retirement following the Games is to get on the podium. They cracked under the pressure at the London Olympics, four years ago. They won’t be looking to make that same mistake this term.
Prediction: While all eyes will be on Tony Parker, Nicholas Batum and Boris Diaw to guide France, Euroleague MVP Nando De Colo will seek to have the tournament of his international career in Rio. While they have firepower, it’s expected they will be competing with Serbia and Australia for second spot in the group.
HOW DID THEY QUALIFY: FIBA Olympic Qualifying winners (Belgrade)
After a lengthy rebuilding process from 2006 onwards, Serbia are finally back on the Olympic stage. FIBA World Cup runners-up in 2014, the Serbs lived up to their billing as favourites in their section of the FIBA Olympic Qualifiers in Belgrade and they delivered with an emphatic win in the finale against Puerto Rico.
But like the qualifiers, Serbia will have to compete without the services of Minnesota Timberwolves forward and 2015 EuroLeague MVP Nemanja Bjelica, who is sidelined thanks to a long term knee injury.
However, they will have the firepower of Milos Teodosic, Nikola Kalinic and Miroslav Raduljica to call upon plus a solid nucleus of young talent.
Prediction: It is great to have Serbia back in the Olympic fold 12 years on from their horrific Athens 2004 campaign where they won just one of their five pool games, finishing bottom of the group. The welcoming party though should make them feel at home but the knockout rounds might prove to be interesting.
HOW DID THEY QUALIFY: FIBA Asia champions 2015.
After a year in the global international wilderness, Asian powerhouse China return to their almost customary Olympic spot via the FIBA Asian championships, that they won last year on home soil. China will look to go a little better than the disastrous London 2012 campaign, where they lost all five of their games in convincing fashion, including to hosts Great Britain.
The Chinese will look to run in transition at any given time, and will have former NBA forward Yi Jianlian on their final roster.
Prediction: China will be so keen to go at least one better than their timid effort at the London Olympics in 2012, where they lost all five encounters. This is a tough group, so it will be hard for them to make it out but China will make life hard.
HOW DID THEY QUALIFY: FIBA Oceania winners 2015
The Boomers will look to enjoy their relatively comfortable place on top of the FIBA Oceania for as much as they can before they, and New Zealand merge with FIBA Asia in 2017 but with arguably the quickest route to the Olympics apart from the hosts, Australia will be looking to do even better than their quarter-final mark in London, four years ago.
Despite losing that quarter-final to the USA 119-86, the Boomers showed great fight and pushed the eventual gold medallists all the way. Big man Andrew Bogut will be missing as he recovers from an injury, that he suffered during the NBA Finals but they will be dancing their chances for a quarter-final spot once again.
Prediction: An outside choice this year for a quarter-final spot perhaps, but count them out at your peril. They will compete to the end. Just ask Great Britain’s 2012 Olympic team that. Leading 46-36 at the half, the Brits only managed to add 29 points more, losing 106-75 to a rampant Aussie side led by 39 points from Patty Mills. So the message here is: Write off Australia if you dare.
HOW DID THEY QUALIFY: FIBA Americas champions 2015
The rather surprising victors of the 2015 FIBA Americas tournament in Mexico City, Venezuela land just their second Olympic appearance with the last showing coming at the Barcelona Games in 1992.
But with Brazil hosting the tournament, it gave a unique opportunity for a team from the FIBA Americas sector to qualify for the Rio Games. Many thought that it would be between Mexico and Canada but they ultimately fell in the last four and have since lost out in the FIBA Olympic Qualifiers, leaving Venezuela, Argentina and the hosts as the “big three” this year.
And the Venezuelans will look to seize their moment on the world stage with a dream match-up against the USA on the horizon.
Prediction: Venezuela will be underdogs but will bring a loud fanbase with them and plenty of heart. They will show no fear and will play an exciting, yet smart style of basketball. If they manage a win, then they will be happy.