For the first time since the 2004 debacle in Athens, USA Men's Basketball faces real concerns about their place as the world's premier basketball nation. A stunning exhibition loss to Nigeria on July 10th was followed up with a humiliating defeat against Australia just two days later.
While there is plenty of reason for doubt, the reality is that the sheer amount of talent Team USA has assembled makes it impossible not to place them as the favorites to win gold during the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Successive victories against Argentina and Spain following the Australia loss have also righted what appeared to be a sinking ship.
However, any signs of positivity were wiped away last Sunday following a crushing defeat to France in the opening game of the Olympics. Clearly, Team USA is the most vulnerable it has been in years, and basketball has never been bigger globally. That means opportunity for several countries looking to take down an American goliath. Here are three international squads that could snatch a gold medal from Team USA in Tokyo.
Unlike some of the newer powers on the global stage, Australia has been a basketball powerhouse for over a decade. Although this year's group might not have the star power of previous Olympics, the Boomers have quality depth at nearly every position.
Six NBA players will suit up this summer for Australia, headlined by Olympic veterans Joe ingles and Patty Mills. Toronto Raptors big man Aaron Baynes solidifies the center position, while defensive specialist Matisse Thybulle matches up well against Team USA's plethora of talented wings.
With Ben Simmons opting out of the Olympics, there are questions about whether the Aussies possess enough elite talent to go up against the star-studded Americans. However, the team has impressed during international friendlies, including the aforementioned takedown of Team USA. 2021 appears to be Australia's best chance to capture their first Olympic medal in basketball.
At first glance, Slovenia doesn't appear to be a real threat to Team USA. They sit at just 16th on FIBA's world rankings, and have never been to the Olympics for basketball prior to this year.
What makes this year's group a worthy challenger? Luka Doncic.
The 22-year old phenom has become one of the NBA's biggest stars in just three seasons with the Dallas Mavericks. His phenomenal play showed no signs of slowing down during international play, as the guard was named Most Valuable Player of the Olympic qualifying tournament.
Regardless of how well Doncic plays, he will need help. Unfortunately for Slovenia, the rest of the team is thin on depth, with just one other NBA player (Vlatko Cancar) on the roster. Still, the Slovenians proved they could go up against top-flight talent in the final round of Olympic qualifiers, where they took down a Lithuanian side led by Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas. A tougher test against the Americans may prove too daunting for Slovenia, but its difficult to rule out the possibility of Doncic catching fire on any given night.
Just like seemingly every other Olympics tournament, Spain has a good chance of meeting Team USA with a gold medal on the line. Ranked #2 in the world according to FIBA, the Spaniards are hoping to medal for the fourth consecutive time.
The roster is still built around the two most famous Spanish players of all time: the Gasol brothers. Mark, 36, and Pau, 41, are likely embarking on what could be their final Olympic tournament, but the pair still bring size, strength, and savviness into the starting lineup. Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio also returns for his third Olympics appearance. Rubio's pass-first game is uniquely suited for a more finesse international brand of basketball, more so than in the NBA. It's shown during Spain's two international friendlies leading up to the Olympics, as Rubio dropped 23 points in both contests.
With an experienced team hungry for gold, the sky is the limit for Spain, despite their aging core. However, one setback may be their Group C position, which means games against a Doncic-led Slovenia and #4 ranked Argentina. If they can manage to survive group play, expect Spain to meet up with Team USA late in the tournament for a chance at winning gold.