The Importance of the 2016 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournaments and 5 teams to watch for.
The Olympics will be here in 2 months and true basketball fans should be excited. It mitigates the pain of waiting until the end of October for professional basketball to start again by pitting the best international teams against a U.S. all-star stacked roster. However, the talent difference between the U.S. and its international competition tends to bore viewers. While it is fun to watch the best players in the NBA join together to form a super team, it is not fun to watch that team beat Nigeria by 83 (An actual box score from the 2012 Olympics).
With that said, this year’s tournament has the potential to be the most competitive in the history of international basketball. The international pool of talent has never been as high as it is now, and a slew of American drop outs from high profile players has opened up the Olympic tournament in unexpected ways.
2015 marked the second straight year in which the NBA started the season with 100 or more international basketball players on opening rosters according to NBA.com. That means that over 20% of the league is comprised of international players. This percentage will almost certainly rise after the 2016 NBA draft featured a record 26 international players drafted. Subsequently, this rise in international, individual talent has led to a rise in international team talent and produced some very powerful national teams.
Unfortunately, there are only 12 bids for the Olympic tournament. In order to qualify to compete in the Olympic basketball tournament you must either win a qualifying tournament, or be the host country. So far 9 teams have qualified for the tournament: Brazil as the host country, the U.S., Venezuela, Argentina, Lithuania, Spain, Nigeria, Australia, and China.
That leaves quite a few very qualified teams left without a bid and only 3 spots left. The recipients of these spots will be determined at the 2016 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournaments from July 4-10. 18 national teams have qualified for the tournament and the tournament is formatted in such a way that those 18 teams will be split into 3 mini tournaments. Each mini tournament begins with 2 3 team round robin rounds, followed by a 2 round tournament. The winner of each mini tournament will receive an Olympic bid.
There is a lot on the line in this tournament and there are major questions to be asked for each of the mini tournaments, but while every team in this tournament would love to represent their country in the Olympics, there are 5 that stand out in terms of talent.
The Greek National team has been a powerhouse in the 2000s. They famously beat a stacked NBA team featuring Lebron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and Dwight Howard in the 2006 FIBA World Championships to finish 2nd in the tournament. They also rose to as high as number 4 in the FIBA rankings during the early 2010s. More recently the team has continued its international success, albeit not on the same level as a few years ago. They currently rank number 10 in the FIBA world rankings and finished 5th in last year’s Eurobasket, qualifying them for this tournament.
The roster is filled out mostly with Euroleague veterans and NBA veterans like Kostas Koufos and Nick Calathes. Bucks small forward multi-positional unicorn player Giannis Antetokoumpo is what makes this team interesting. “The Greek Freak”, as they call him, is one of the most insane physical specimens in the league. It is not often that the league sees a player with no clear precedent, but with Giannis this is the case. He is 6’11 with a 7’4 wingspan and the ability to euro step from the three-point line to the rim. Last season he even took on point guard responsibilities for the Bucks when Michael Carter-Williams went down with an injury. There were even some games where he played the point on offense and guarded the opposing 5 on defense. He has blossomed into one of the league’s premier young players, and he is talented and versatile enough to carry the Greek team to a victory in the Italian bracket.
Croatia has produced a lottery pick in the last 3 NBA drafts. Dario Saric who has not come to the NBA yet due to a 2 year prohibitive opt out clause in his contract with the Turkish club that he currently plays for, Anadolu Efes, Orlando Magic shooting guard Mario Hezonja, the 4th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, and Dragan Bender who was drafted at the 4 slot in this year’s draft. Saric is by all accounts and statistics one of the best players in Europe, and while Hezonja and Bender have not produced the statistics they are still young, 21 and 18 respectively, and scouts are very high on their upside. The team should also field NBA talents like Bojan Bodganovich from the Nets, Ante Zizic, a first round selection in the 2016 draft by the Celtics, and current free agent/2nd year player Damjan Rudez.
From a pure scouting perspective Croatia is a fun team to have in this tournament. Having the opportunity to watch these highly skilled, young NBA prospects go up against top tier international talent will be extremely interesting. If the ceiling of their collective talent is actualized in this tournament they could be a team to watch out for.
Both Greece and Croatia will be competing with each other in the Italian Bracket. Barring an upset by the host country it seems likely that one of these two teams will receive an Olympic bid.
Serbia benefits from being the best team in the least competitive of the 3 mini tournaments. Serbia should be able to come out on top in this bracket for a couple of different reasons. First off, they are the home team and that should amount to an enormous advantage, especially for a country with a prominent basketball tradition. Secondly, their team is sneakily extremely talented. Their only two current NBA players are the Timberwolve’s 28 year old rookie from last year, Nemanja Bjelica, who had a relatively uneventful, but at times quite efficient, first year in the league, and the Spurs seldom used, but PER breaking rookie Boban Marjanovic.
Beyond these two players, a deeper look at the roster sheds light on its upside. For instance, they will have the highly touted Phoenix Suns 2014 first round pick Bogdan Bogdanovic who NBA sources say is slated to come over to the league in 2016 playing shooting guard. Their point guard will be 6’5 Milos Teodosic, a five time All-Euroleague selection, and Euroleague MVP in 2010 that has made it to the Euroleague quarterfinals each of the past 5 seasons and won the cup this year. Teodosic is a top European player and probably the best point guard in the world to never play in the NBA.
Roster aside, the Serbian team has also enjoyed a great amount of success in the last 2 years. They came in second during the 2014 World cup and 4th at the 2015 Eurobasket. They are a team with tournament experience and quality players who are in the prime of their careers, like Teodosic, Marjanovic, and Bjelica. Furthermore, most, if not all, of the players on their roster have been playing for their national teams since they were 17. While this can be said about most international teams, this continuity paired with a talented team can be a dangerous combination.
As stated, their bracket is extremely weak and they should not be threatened by Angola, a Latvian team missing rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis, the Czech Republic, Japan, and Puerto Rico. I would expect to see Serbia in the Olympics.
The Canadian national team is stacked. They the lone non-USA team in the unique position of having too many NBA level players to choose from and may have to cut some players in order to whittle down their roster to the 12-man format, assuming that all of their prospective players will be available. Here are some of the players that they have to choose from:
They will have Tristan Thompson as their starting 4/5. Thompson is coming off of a monster Finals series for the Cavs in which he dominated the Warriors big men on the boards and defensively shut Stephen Curry down on pick and roll switches. Andrew Wiggins again made strides in his second season in the NBA and improved his stats after winning Rookie of the Year last year. If he can develop a more consistent outside shot then he will be one of the best scoring guards in the league. Unfortunately, his defense at this point is purely theoretical. Cory Joseph played his way into big minutes during the Cleveland-Toronto series and proved during his first season with the Raptors that he is one of the best backup point guards in the league, and could probably start for a few teams. This core will be surrounded by a roster of solid, young NBA role players making it a force to be reckoned with.
What this team lacks is experience on the international stage. Steve Nash has admitted that Canada’s international basketball program is inexperienced in terms of age, having just one player over the age of 30, and years of international competition. That being said, Canada has a really solid roster and Andrew Wiggins may be the most talented player in this tournament, so they must be considered one of the best teams regardless of experience.
In terms of pure talent, the only team that competes with Canada is France. France will be fielding a roster of Nicolas Batum fresh off a max contract with the Hornets after having a career year last season as their 2nd option on offense and best wing defender. He will be joined in the frontcourt by Pelicans’ center Alexis Ajinca and do it all, veteran, power forward Boris Diaw. In the back court the French have 6 time All-Star, 4 time NBA champion, and Eurobasket’s all-time leading scorer Tony Parker running the show. He will be joined by Euroleague veteran and one-time San Antonio Spur Nando De Colo who is coming off a final four MVP of the Euroleague championship. Headed by Diaw, Batum, and Parker, this starting 5 is the best in the tournament in terms of talent and experience.
While this team will be without Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier, two of the best foreign players in the NBA, the team should still be the tournament favorite. They are the highest rated team in any of the brackets in terms of FIBA rating at number 5 in the world and they can fill their roster with talented NBA and Euroleague players.
Canada and France might be the best two teams in the entire tournament. Pair these two teams with Turkey, who is also in the Manila bracket and currently ranks 8th in the FIBA Rankings, and you have three of the top 10 teams in the world fighting over Olympic slot. Somehow all of these teams ended up in the same bracket and it’s truly a shame that only one of these teams will be able to make the Olympics tournament, although you cannot feel that bad for Canada after they squandered their best Olympic opportunity at the FIBA America Tournament.
This bracket is going to be a gauntlet for any team, and I would not be surprised to see an upset of some sort, perhaps Turkey over Canada/France, but I predict France comes out on top just based on the superstar talents of Batum and Parker and their recent international success.
Each of the teams mentioned is extremely talented for their own specific reasons, and whoever wins their tournament will join the other 8 international teams hoping to dethrone the USA in the Olympics. The 2016 Olympics may be the best chance any international team has had to do this since 2004, when Argentina disgraced a group of highly skilled NBA All Stars to take home Gold and leave the US with Bronze. Many NBA stars have removed their names from contention due to concerns over Zika, rest, or injuries e.g. Lebron James, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, Lamarcus Aldridge, John Wall, Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin. Now the roster, which has already been set, still carries star names like Carmello Anthony, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, and Demarcus Cousins, but the roster no longer reads like a list of the top 12 players in the world. This team looks more mortal than it has been in the past.
People loved the 92 Dream team because they had never had the chance to see the best players in the NBA come together and assert their dominance as a collective entity. Witnessing this collective talent rain fire on weak international teams was new and exciting, and it came as close to perfection as we had ever seen. But with each subsequent Olympics the luster of dominance has worn off. The Olympic basketball tournament has begun to feel more like a formality for the USA team than a series of competitions.
The 2016 Olympics has the chance to change this sentiment. There are already many talented international teams in the Olympic pool and if 3 of the 5 teams mentioned above win their brackets then the talent level will be improved even further. These teams will have the unique chance to go up against a USA national team composed of mostly 2nd tier NBA stars with little international basketball experience.
In contrast to the desire for Dream Teamesque dominance, what the modern fan now wants to see is a competitive international landscape. The cards are in play for this dream to become a reality, but with 5 of the top 10 international basketball teams still without a bid we will have to wait for the results of the 2016 Olympic Qualifier in order to determine just how competitive this landscape will be.
 This is also the last time that the USA Men’s team lost an international game.
 I would be especially high on Hezonja after Orlando recently traded off Victor Oladipo, opening up a slot in their starting lineup. Bender on the other hand is said to need a couple of years to adjust to the NBA, although people said the same thing about Kristaps Porzingis last year and he was able to contribute immediately.
 Bogdanovic was recently traded to the Sacramento Kings along with two later first round picks for the 8th pick in the draft.
 , Kelly Olynyk has already opted out of playing in the tournament due to the shoulder injury that he suffered in February
 Turkey actually did not qualify for the Olympic Qualifying tournament. Lebanon was originally slotted for the tournament, but was withdrawn due to not being “in good standings” with FIBA according to NBC Sports. Seeing as Turkey has one of the best teams in the world and is one of the largest basketball markets in the world behind China and the US, this replacement reeks of FIBA corruption.
 Canada’s presence in this Olympic qualifying tournament is a result of a one point upset by Venezuela in the FIBA America tournament. Canada had steam rolled their way to the quarter finals only to suffer this upset to a far inferior Venezuelan team. If they had won this game they would have guaranteed a spot in the finals and therefore also guaranteed themselves an Olympic bid, as both finalists get bids. The what if scenario of Venezuela losing is interesting and would have solved the problem of only one of the big three teams in the Philippines bracket being invited to the Olympics.
 This lead to the U.S. hiring Mike Kryzewski