Ever since Jerry Colangelo took over USA Basketball as the program’s managing director, the U.S. men’s senior national team has completely dominated the competition, winning three Olympic gold medals and two FIBA World Cup gold medals.
For more than a decade, Colangelo and head coach Mike Krzyzewski have helmed the top basketball program in the world from the youth program all the way up to the senior men’s team. The only blemish on their impeccable record was a stunning loss to Greece at the 2006 World Cup in Tokyo.
Coach K racked up a mind-boggling 75-1 FIBA record. That’s a .987 winning percentage. He had a perfect record in Olympic competition and ended his run in style by leading Team USA to a gold medal in the 2014 World Cup in Spain. When Coach K finally stepped aside, the torched was passed to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Popovich’s NBA record is nothing to sneeze at — winning five championships in 20 years — but he has some work to do to catch up to Coach K as USA Basketball’s new caretaker. And the last time Popovich was part of Team USA, it didn’t go so well. He was on Larry Brown’s coaching staff during the 2004 Olympics where the U.S. settled for bronze and finished with a pedestrian 5-3 tournament record. That U.S. squad had Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire.
Popovich will have some reinforcements, however. He’ll have Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr to lean on. It’s kinda nice to have a three-time NBA coaching champ as a lead assistant. Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce and Villanova coach Jay Wright round out the coaching staff.
Pop and USA Basketball will have a huge challenge ahead in the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China, which runs from Aug. 31 through Sept. 15. The United States is still the betting favorite to win gold, but it will be sending its weakest NBA-led roster since the 2002 world championships when it failed to win a medal and suffered stunning losses to Argentina and Yugoslavia. It has been almost two decades since the U.S. entered a FIBA competition not having the best player in the tournament. Arguably the three best players on Popovich’s squad are Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell and Khris Middleton. Only Walker and Middleton have been named to All-Star teams, and Walker is the only one to make an All-NBA team (third team in 2019).
The gap between USAB and the rest of the world appears to be closing, and there are several contenders eager to knock off the Americans.
Here are the five teams that could dethrone Team USA in China.
Greece – Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo and Hellas could be the ones to watch in the tournament. Greece enters the tournament as the No. 8 team, but they have the No. 1 player. Giannis is the reigning NBA most valuable player, and he’s coming off a season where he averaged career highs in points (27.7), rebounds (12.5) and assists (5.9). But being MVP comes with a price. The Greek Freak will have a big target on his back. The 24-year-old basketball superstar will try to prove to the world that he deserves to be called the “best player on the planet.” Giannis will be a matchup nightmare for Team USA or for any team in the tournament. Joining Giannis on the squad is his older brother, Thanasis. Thanasis, a 27-year-old forward, was recently signed by the Bucks. When Giannis is not running point, former University of Florida standout Nick Calathes will handle ball-handling duties. Veteran center Ioannis Bourousis is a bit long in the tooth (36) but he can still clog up the middle. Greece goes as Giannis goes. They will go as far as its superstar can take them.
Serbia – If Giannis is arguably the best player in the tournament then Serbia boasts the second-best player in Nikola Jokic. The Denver Nuggets All-Star center leads a loaded Serbia squad looking to avenge the loss to the U.S. in the 2014 gold-medal game. Serbia is massive up front, with Jokic (7-0), Philadelphia 76ers center Boban Marjanovic (7-3) and Miroslav Raduljica (7-0), who had stints with the Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves. The 24-year-old Jokic is coming off a sensational season for the Nuggets, averaging nearly a triple-double during the NBA regular season (20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists).
Jokic, who was only a teenager the last time he played in the World Cup, presents a matchup problem for any team in this year’s tournament. He can destroy defenses with his post-up and passing skills, and has a tremendous feel for the game. But Jokic is not a one-man show. Serbia possesses a boatload of snipers: Bogdan Bogdanovic and Nemanja Bjelica. Bogdanovic made 134 3-pointers for the Sacramento Kings last season. His Kings teammate, Bjelica, is a 40 percent shooter from behind the arc as a stretch 4. Teodosic, who had an up-and-down season with the L.A. Clippers, remains one of the top guards in FIBA when he’s fit. Serbian national team head coach Aleksandar “Sasha” Djordjevic made it clear that his team is ready for Team USA. “If we meet, may God help them,” he said. Shots fired.
Spain – The Spaniards are ranked No. 2 in the world. Their core group may be a bit older but they’re still very formidable. Guards Ricky Rubio and Sergio Llull can give teams fits on both ends of the court, with their dribble penetration and pesky defense. Rubio is well known around NBA circles, but Llull is a bit of a mystery. The 31-year-old guard has spent his entire career in Europe playing for Real Madrid, winning the EuroLeague title in 2015 and 2018, and MVP in 2017. Most scouts believe Llull can start for most NBA teams, and the Houston Rockets bought his draft rights. Marc Gasol is the anchor of Team Spain. He won’t have his brother, Pau, beside him so the 34-year-0ld skilled big man will have center stage all to himself. Shooting guard Rudy Fernandez has played in more than 200 international games for Spain, and even though he’s past his prime (34) he can still stretch the floor with his 3-point range and can get hot in a hurry. Center Willy Hernangómez, 25, is one of Spain’s younger players and head coach Sergio Scariolo may lean on the Charlotte Hornets big man to log heavy minutes at center or power forward to keep Marc Gasol fresh. The last time a non-U.S. team won the World Cup was 2006 when Spain, led by the Gasol brothers, hoisted the trophy.
France – The Stifle Tower, Rudy Gobert, anchors a veteran French national team coming off its best World Cup performance. Les Bleus enter the tournament ranked No. 3 in the world, and Gobert likes where they are grouped with Dominican Republic, Jordan and Germany. “We want to have a great run and show that France is one of the best national teams in the world. This is going to be a great competition, we are all very excited to go to China and compete on the world stage and we will be ready to give our best,” said the 7-1 Utah Jazz big man, the reigning NBA defensive player of the year. Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier gives France a versatile perimeter scorer, while New York Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina provides France with a rock-solid perimeter defender. Nic Batum, one of the holdovers from the French team that took home the bronze medal at the 2014 World Cup, can play multiple positions and isn’t afraid of the big stage.
Australia – Despite not having 76ers superstar Ben Simmons, who decided to skip the World Cup and get ready for the NBA season, the Boomers remain strong contenders to medal. When teams play Australia, they better bring their hard hats because the Aussies play basketball like it’s rugby. The Boomers are tough and rugged. Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova are both scrappy guards who can knock down big shots. Mills was part of the Aussie unit that gave Team USA scare in the 2012 Olympics. Even at age 31, Mills is still one of the quickest guards in the world. Dellavedova became a cult favorite in Cleveland for the way he defended Steph Curry in the 2015 NBA Finals. Veteran centers Aron Baynes (32) and Andrew Bogut (34) bring a good mix of physicality and skill. Baynes is a solid defender who can knock down threes. Bogut, who has been battling injuries the past few seasons, can still anchor the middle of a defense and his leadership is a huge asset for Australia. Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with anyone. Just ask Paul George.