Storylines from the FIBA World Championships in Japan

Storylines from the FIBA World Championships in Japan
Aug 28, 2006, 02:23 pm
Favorites Meeting Expectations

Four teams were penciled in advance as the consensus favorites for the Gold in this World Championships: Argentina, USA, Spain and Greece. All of them have fulfilled expectations so far by going undefeated in their respective groups and advancing to the quarterfinals without much trouble. It’s hard to find any dark horse among the rest of the squads, especially since France is dealing with the absence of Tony Parker.

Argentina raised doubts in the preparation games. Several losses, eventually questionable effort, little trace of their great team-oriented offense, Ginobili looking out of shape, the head-coach change… there was room for concern. However, once the Worlds were on the way, things started to work significantly better, often even resembling the same old fantastic squad that played awesome basketball in Athens. They have faced quite an easy group, tough, only finding real opposition in Serbia and Montenegro in the last and meaningless (for Argentina) game of the preliminary round.

Still, Argentina is missing a better version of Fabricio Oberto, clearly out of rhythm after spending one season on the bench of the San Antonio Spurs, but they have found in swingman Carlos Delfino a valuable creative force for their second unit, while Ginobili is perfectly assuming the leadership as expected. Despite their solid shooting showing in the preliminary round, the eighth-final game against New Zealand, even if easily resolved, has exposed the problems this team can find with their perimeter accuracy. They will surely miss now-retired reserve point guard Alejandro Montecchia, a shooting specialist that usually sparked the team’s perimeter scoring, but this is a very competitive squad that will likely step up in the most difficult games. It’s no coincidence that they are the Olympic champions.

The US Team seems to be back on track, and arguably stands as the consensus favorite right now to win the gold. But that’s actually very far from being a given. Although having solved all their games comfortably (only the always combative Italy put on a fight), they are yet to face a really strong team. So far, their game has relied mostly on strong one-on-one defense and transition production. Also, their perimeter shooting is much improved since the Olympic Games, with Carmelo Anthony excelling from any range and guys like Shane Battier or Kirk Hinrich taking advantage of any open look they get; meaning that those ridiculously closed zone defenses that we saw in Athens are history. However, still the set offense lacks fluidity and activity; there is little movement without the ball, not good enough ball circulation and it’s clearly not the situation where the Americans feel the most comfortable.

It’s also important to note that their defense isn’t as good as it might initially appear. Once the rivals handle the man-to-man and passing-line pressure, it’s not that difficult to score. There are few defensive helps, actually not being a very team-oriented defense. Indeed squads like Italy or Puerto Rico have been able to improve their field-goal accuracy playing against the US Team. Also it’s still to be tested the way they’ll react in close games. The pressure is very high on this team to bring back the gold for the most powerful basketball nation.

Along with USA, Spain has looked like the strongest team so far in the tournament. It’s hard to find weak points here: Spain is delivering on both ends of the court; in the set offense and (even better) in transition, passing the ball well and finding options in individual plays, from the perimeter and from the post, with the starting five and with most of the reserves… most, but not all. Here come the first concerns. PG José Manuel Calderon (so far outstanding in this tournament) doesn’t have a reliable replacement off the bench, as Sergio Rodríguez is looking very inconsistent and Carlos Cabezas is really playing bad. Also, the decision to pick only four bigs for the Worlds might come back to haunt this team now that Felipe Reyes is injured. Fortunately, center Marc Gasol is not playing poorly and SF Carlos Jiménez is being used as the reserve PF. At the end of the day, it’s hard to keep up with the scoring rhythm of this team, led by Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro, while the defense works well whenever it’s needed, with excellent efforts coming from Jorge Garbajosa or Calderón. Gasol is also delivering increasingly better defenses as the competition advances.

All in all, mentality arises as the main concern for this team. It’s not the first time that Spain looks very strong, just to fall too early in the decisive rounds, and it’s been over 20 years that this country hasn’t advanced past the quarterfinals round in a world tournament. Half of the team (Gasol, Navarro, Calderón, Reyes, B.Rodríguez and Cabezas) belongs to a generation that won the European and World Championships at the junior stage; they were meant to break with history in order to achieve something big at the senior level, but they are yet to prove it.

Greece is the team that has suffered the most to keep a perfect record, although they were placed in the strongest (and by far the most entertaining) group. They even needed a miraculous finish with back-to-back three pointers coming from the hands of Antonis Fotsis and Nikos Zisis to beat Australia. For many stretches, their game has severely lacked fluidity. Greece is back to the slow paced basketball that they are used to playing, looking for Lazaros Papadopoulos in the low post as the first offensive option, trying to take advantage of their physical superiority. It has been fuelled by the coach’s decision of lining up many minutes with three bigs (with a center and two combo-forwards), quite an unusual scheme in international competition, and contrary to what ended up happening last year in the Eurobasket (the small ball worked wonders for them then). Whether this has been a temporary or a permanent strategy for the tournament, it seems like there are less chances of returning to that now that Zisis is injured.

Anyway, it’s typically Greek these relative struggles in what should be easier games considering the strength of the squad, and don’t really reflect the current level of the team, although their frequent problems with perimeter shooting can lead them to eventual offensive collapses. What is not misleading at all is their wining character when the game is on the line; we’re talking about arguably the team with the highest ability to get the job done in the last minutes of every game. They are a bunch of talented and very experienced players at the highest European level, very used to playing under pressure. Regardless, just as has happened in the eighth-finals against China, expect Theo Papaloukas to take over in these decisive games.

Four teams and one title; it’s all but decided.

Africa Improves, South America Disappoints

There has been plenty of discussion about the format of this competition. FIBA’s intention to spread basketball worldwide by giving the opportunity to exotic teams such as Venezuela, Qatar or Lebanon a chance to participate in the World Championships has been criticized heavily by some European sides that didn’t make the cut. Still, the World is getting closer, probably not at as fast of a pace as some would like, but it is still progress nonetheless. After all, we saw Lebanon beating France, Nigeria upsetting Serbia on its way to the 2nd round, as well as a very good performance by Angola.

There is no doubt that Africa has the most raw basketball potential in the world after North America, something we could see very well in Japan. Senegal for example, a team that finished winless, has numerous athletic freaks on it’s roster. They can look great during some stretches when they crash the glass and play transition basketball, but just like most African teams they lacked guard play, especially since their only steady playmaker Babacar Cisse wasn’t at his best. Julius Richard Aw is swingmen with nice size and athletic ability, that moves very well off the ball, makes perfect cuts to the basket and finishes well in traffic. With his performance he should earn a move to more prestigious league then Qatar’s.

Nigeria doesn’t have as much raw potential as Senegal, but they enjoyed a more successful Championship, coming one basket shy of making the quarterfinals in a match against Germany. The reason for their steadier play is Ime Udoka, an NBA journeyman that played very well as their lead guard, providing solid playmaking and scoring ability. Their cornerstone under the basket was 6-9 PF Ekene Ibekwe from Maryland, while also featuring some talented youngsters in Chamberlain Oguchi and Josh Akognon. Angola also left a good impression, being competitive in all the games they played, even against a very impressive Spanish squad. They don’t have any very well known players, but showed a good level of athleticism, and unlike other African representatives featured excellent perimeter shooting ability with Olimpio Cipriano as a leader.

Despite missing some important pieces such as Matt Nielsen (Lietuvos Rytas) or David Andersen (CSKA Moscow), Australia had a nice tournament being in a tough group and advancing to the 1/8 finals, where they were crushed by Team USA. They beat Brazil and Qatar, lost a close game to a surprising Turkish team, and were on a verge of beating European champions Greece, before amazingly losing a 5 point advantage with 29 seconds to go. Youngster Brad Newely had a nice tournament, while Bogut proved himself as team leader showing uncanny ballhandling ability for a 7-footer. Oceania counterpart New Zealand’s semifinal 4 years ago was huge surprise, they weren’t anywhere near that achievement losing to powerful Argentina in first knockout game.

And this is where it stops, positive performances by 2nd tier teams. Despite somehow winning against France in a very odd game, Lebanon proved that they don’t belong at this level. Fadi El Khatib is very decent scorer, but others players are of amateurish quality. What to say about Qatar, a team that was not a challenge for anyone. They were thrilled after losing by 7 points against Turkey, just to lose by 47 to the Australians in the next game.

The biggest disappointment were the South American and Caribbean teams, with the exception of Argentina, none of the other 3 were able to qualify for the Top 16. Brazil came to the Championship with high hopes (some even mentioned a medal) and two established NBA players in Leandro Barbosa and Anderson Varejao, as well as top prospect Tiago Splitter. Still, they were only able to beat Qatar; having just too many holes in their game, mainly revolving around their lack of structured coaching. They lacked more reliable playmaking, perimeter shooting and defense. Puerto Rico came up short in a battle for the last 1/8th finals place with China and Slovenia, while Venezuela had just one win.

Hosts Japan had a decently educated and disciplined team, but their lack of athleticism and size especially hurt them. They will likely not achieve anything significant in basketball in the near future. There appears to be very little potential for this sport in Japan at the moment. Panama also disappointed heavily, not being able to win a game despite having some proven players at the European level such as Ed Cota, Jaime Lloreda, Ruben Garces and Ruben Douglas. They did not look well prepared the start of competition, were selfish on the offensive end and disinterested on defense, which resulted in an embarrassing performance for them.

There were an excessive number of weak teams in this tournament. FIBA should definitely keep searching for an ideal competition model, since the format with 24 teams is definitely not a solution unless they increase the number of European participants - all nine European teams qualified for the knockout stage, and six of them are in the quarterfinals. There is no point in giving three spots to Asia when--except China-- there is obviously no competitive team in that area currently. South America also doesn’t justify having 4 teams in the competition, 3 would be enough. Africa is the only continent that has made significant improvement in recent years. They are making notable strides in their game, and based on their physical tools, somewhere in the future they should be close to the level of European sides. What all of these teams have in common is that they are tactically and fundamentally nowhere close to the level of European teams, Argentina and USA. Poor National leagues and lack of quality coaching staff in these countries are preventing them from developing faster.

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