A weakened U.S. basketball team believes it’s still the strongest one in the Olympics. LeBron James, Stephen Curry and enough other stars to fill an all-NBA team passed on playing, leaving the Americans with a roster that falls short against the Dream Team comparisons they always face. But the U.S. doesn’t need to beat the Dream Team, or to be one. It just has to be the best in Brazil. “I respect the guys that declined the opportunity, but I think we still have a great team here, a lot of talent,” center DeMarcus Cousins said. “We still have the same goal in mind, winning the gold medal.” The Americans remain favored to do that, which would give them three in a row. Some things to watch as they try:
There will be two six-team groups, and each team faces the others in its pool. The top four teams in each advance to the quarterfinals.
Group A: United States, Serbia, France, China, Australia, Venezuela.
Group B: Spain, Lithuania, Brazil, Argentina, Croatia, Nigeria.
Group A is more top-heavy, with the U.S., Serbia and France finishing 1-2-3 in the Basketball World Cup two years ago. But Group B appears to be deeper, with Spain (No. 2), Lithuania (3), Argentina (4), Brazil (9) and Croatia (12) all among the top dozen ranked teams in the world.
Competition begins Saturday, and the medal games are Aug. 21, the day of the closing ceremony.
Olympic basketball follows the rules of FIBA (International Basketball Federation).
Best first-round day
Group B has some intriguing games on Aug. 13. Spain meets Lithuania in a rematch of the 2015 EuroBasket championship game, and Brazil and Argentina renew a fierce rivalry that’s seen one knock the other out of the last three major international tournaments. Argentina eliminated Brazil in the 2010 world championship and 2012 Olympics, while the Brazilians — coached by Ruben Magnano, who led Argentina to its 2004 gold — ended the Argentinians’ stay in the 2014 Basketball World Cup. Croatia and Nigeria meet in the nightcap.
U.S. has different look
This isn’t the same group coach Mike Krzyzewski had in 2012, when Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook helped the U.S. romp to an 8-0 record and score an average of 115.5 points a game. The withdrawals of James, Paul, Curry and others will make this team’s style different. But though the rest of the world has made huge strides, Team USA is still a heavy favorite for a third straight gold medal.
Carmelo Anthony will become the first U.S. men’s player to appear in four Olympics and will become the most decorated men’s basketball Olympian ever if the U.S. wins a medal. He has a bronze from 2004 and golds in Beijing and London.
The center spot has almost been an afterthought on recent U.S. teams, but that will change with Cousins on the squad.
Krzyzewski, 69, had initially planned to make 2012 his Olympic finale but agreed to make one more run. He has lost just one game with Team USA. One of his assistants is Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau.
The U.S. has won 45 straight games in FIBA competitions.
Other teams to watch
Spain hopes this is the year it can break through, after pushing the U.S. deep into the final minutes of the last two gold-medal games. The Americans emerged with a 118-107 victory in 2008 and held on to win 107-100 in London. The Spanish bring back veterans such as Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro for a final shot.
This certainly seems like the end for Argentina’s greats, who won gold in 2004, bronze in 2008 and narrowly missed another medal when they finished fourth in 2012. Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and Andres Nocioni are back, with Scola chosen as Argentina’s flag bearer.
Heavy NBA influence
In total, there will be 47 NBA players, representing 10 of the 12 countries and 24 of 30 NBA teams, at the Olympics.
There are 13 NBA teams that will have multiple players in Rio, led by the San Antonio Spurs with five: Ginobili, Patricio Garino, Pau Gasol, Patty Mills and Tony Parker.
Point guard Ricky Rubio (Spain) is the only Timberwolves player in the tournament.