• One Big Thing: Changing of the Guard

    Coming into Rio, the general consensus was fairly straightforward. USA, France, Spain, Argentina. Some mix of Croatia, Australia, Lithuania and Serbia. The also-rans.

    As it turns out there’s been some turnover on the international scene that people weren’t ready for. A borderline team like Croatia topping Spain? Lithuania over Argentina? Sure, why not.

    Australia whipped France up and down the court. I mean I guess so.

    The supposed also-ran Brazil knocking off Spain? Now we’re talking.

    Slowly, without most of the basketball populous accounting for it, the teams that we took for granted as favorites are looking increasingly vulnerable. Some of that’s understandable given the standard biases of the North American basketball scene.

    Spain has Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic. Argentina has Manu. France has Tony Parker and Nic Batum plus restricted area monster Rudy Gobert. These are names that you hear on TV every night and recognize as being good. There’s some star power there.

    The NBA is definitely the pinnacle of the basketball world; that much is certain. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that European or South American or Asian leagues can also bring the heat. Just because we never hear about them doesn’t mean they’re categorically inferior.

    Lithuania has Jonas Valanciunas, Australia has Andrew Bogut and then what? Delly? So one or two guys and then some non-NBA guys. Really?

    Yes, really. As it turns out, those teams with guys who ply their trade over in Europe are also pretty damn good at basketball. What’s more, they’ve played together. These guys know each other very well and can hop into roles seamlessly in short-term tournaments like this. It’s easier to integrate, say, Nikola Jokic into a roster of four other guys who play together frequently than it is to jam a small forward, center and point guard into a lineup.

    Yeah, I’m talking about France. It helps that Tony Parker has been around forever to ease the transition somewhat but you can’t realistically expect three guys from different NBA teams to jump in with teammates they haven’t played with in a while.

    That integration versus talent issue seems like a double edged sword: would you rather have more NBA guys and throw chemistry out the window or take a group of decidedly less-talented players who’ve competed in countless competitions together?

    It’s possible that the balance between continuity and talent infusion altered some rosters; Spain might have preferred the deep shooting prowess of Mirotic enough to trade off Serge Ibaka’s rim protection. Maybe France felt like Nando De Colo and whatever guard depth they could scrounge up was better than introducing Evan Fournier to the mix. There’s a lot that goes into roster construction that we’re not privy to, and frankly even more that we’ll never ever know.

    That’s not to say that the two are mutually exclusive; in fact the ideal is a mix of both. It’s just increasingly difficult to accomplish, especially if you’re carrying older players who need their minutes managed. Obviously you want Tony Parker, Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili ready for the medal rounds, but it does make it more difficult to hit your rhythm as a five man unit.

    The type of rapport you need to challenge for gold only comes through reps; reps which teams like France might not get beyond their training camps and practices before the games kick off. And if a veteran guy is on a tight minutes schedule, you better figure it out quick.

    That’s just a stab at the struggles of teams like Spain and France in Rio so far. There’s been some bad defense and horrendous decision making out there. France in particular seems to shrug off turnovers like they’re just a part of doing business. There’s no singular answer for any issues in this tournament, but they just look a step slow in pretty much every facet of the game.

    It just sort of looks like time has passed the usual stalwarts by. For lack of a better term, some of these traditional contenders just look old. Their cores have aged and there aren’t clear replacements in place just yet.

    On the flip side you’re seeing young players like Dario Saric, Nikola Jokic and Bogdan Bogdanovic come up big. Euro leaguers like Miroslav Radujlica, Mantas Kalnietis, Facundo Campazzo are taking control and playing huge roles on successful teams.

    The Spanish group of Pau Gasol, Felipe Reyes, JC Navarro and Jose Calderon are at the end of the line. France doesn’t have a good point guard ready once Tony Parker goes and Rio is the final hurrah for Argentina’s Golden Generation.

    The countries we’re used to seeing on the podium besides the Americans are quickly moving past their primes and are staring down the barrel of a little bit of a retooling period. Who out there is in their prime in the non-USA division? Australia looks like the pick. Canada, maybe? Beyond that it’s fairly wide open. It’s exciting to see some fresh faces on the cusp of the international scene.

    The transition to the next set of contenders will be a fun one; half celebration of the stars who will leave and half spectacle as the new wave emerges. It’s sad for the old guys but it’s great for the game.

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