For the NBA fan, Olympic basketball is a marriage of the familiar and the strange. The likes of Manu Ginobli, Pau Gasol and Matthew Dellavedova are instantly recognizable, but here, they’ve been transported to a new world of trapezoidal keys and freed from the limitations of their NBA role, making for fascinating – if not a little discombobulating – basketball. Although the United States is fairly guaranteed to win a third consecutive gold medal, the rest of the field may be the strongest it’s ever been. Here are the five teams that you should be watching.
Besides the United States, France is perhaps the most-talented team in the tournament. More, they have Boris Diaw, basketball’s premier stylist who possesses a preternatural chill, lazily shuffling around the hardwood before suddenly cutting open the opposing defense with a pass or a loping drive. Whereas some players seem to be tortured by their ability, Diaw plays with an overwhelming sense of ease; his game is defined by choice, rather than obligation. He does what he wants: he got fat because he likes to eat, he passes because he doesn’t like to shoot. Oh, and he installed an espresso machine in his locker. Beyond Diaw, however, Les Blues has NBA-level players at every position, boasting the likes of Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum and that terrifying mutant giant Rudy Gobert. Even if they aren’t likely to topple the U.S., they’re poised to be the most compulsively watchable team in the tournament. Come for Boris Diaw’s freedom of expression; stay for the dick-punches.
The Australian national basketball team is called the Boomers, which is Aussie slang for kangaroos and hence a good nickname for basketball players since kangaroos have teeny tiny arms. Still, fueled by Matthew Dellavedova and Andrew Bogut, what the Boomers lack in skill they more than compensate for in physical booming-ness. Dellavedova, especially, is an absolute menace on the court, his limbs cycloning into anybody or anything around him. He is a hazardous, hilarious spaz, and a shockingly effective one – as evidenced by the 2015 Finals in which he essentially locked up Stephen Curry and shipped him to a penal colony way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Andrew Bogut, too, has turned basketball goonery into a kind of perverted art form with his assortment of subtle arm-bars and moving screens. International basketball is generally a beautiful game, a symphony of drive-and-kicks, spot-up jump shots, and intricate zone defenses. Nonetheless, Australia spends most of its time trying rather artlessly to jam a rugby-shaped peg into a basketball-shaped hole. In four or eight years, Australia may very well become our basketball overlords on the (out)backs of Ben Simmons and Dante Exum and Thon Maker, but for now, they’re 12 gits trying to find someone to wrestle with them in the mud.
August of 2004: Terror Squad’s “Lean Back” was the biggest song in America, quoting Mean Girls was still something that people did and Argentina was the best basketball team in the world. Now, in the era of farewell tours, Argentina’s Golden Generation is ready to say goodbye. From the gold medal-winning 2004 team, only four players remain: Manu Ginobli, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni and Carlos Delfino. Combined, their mean age is as old as dirt. Even at 39, Ginobli acts as the team’s creative catalyst, snaking passes to teammates and euro-stepping around defenses and generally doing wily-ass Manu Ginobli things. Ultimately, this go-round is just a nostalgia trip, a reality that the team itself even seems to realize. In their most recent “friendly” against the United States, they rocked gold-ish jerseys in a rather on-the-nose tribute to their Golden Generation, placing the focus on their accomplished past instead of the fact that America held them by their ankles and shook them for lunch money. Still, despite the core’s relative dotage, Argentina is a fairly competent, if uninspiring team. Watch them for what they are; remember them for what they were.
Over the past decade, Spain has been the United States’s closest thing to a true rival, losing competitive finals in the previous two Olympics. This year’s squad, however, is without Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, having lost the former to a hurt foot and the latter to hurt feelings. No matter – Pau Gasol will continue to eat in the post and Ricky Rubio will get extra spicy with his passes. Additionally, beyond its big-name NBA-ers, Spain has a remarkably deep and capable roster: the Hernangómez brothers are a generic version of the Gasols, with Wily (pronounced Billy) providing Marc’s physical presence and Juancho (pronounced Juancho) approximating Pau’s skill. Alex Abrines and Juan Carlos Navarro were two of the old continent’s most accurate shooters last season with Barcelona; Rudy Fernández and Sergio Rodríguez have ally-ooped together for the better part of the last decade. Moreover, the Spaniards are a cohesive unit, having played together extensively over the years. They are clinical and calculating and could’ve very well been an honest-to-god dynasty if not for Dwyane Wade’s brilliance in 2008 and Kevin Durant going ballistic four years later. This might be the last cycle for the current Spanish nucleus, but it could be their best one yet.
It’s time to let Mario Hezonja into your heart. Although he spent his rookie season firmly fastened to the Orlando Magic’s bench because Scott Skiles is a sour grump who apparently hates fun, don’t get it twisted: Hezonja can play. The spiritual successor to J.R. Smith (or Kobe Bryant, if you’re particularly optimistic), Hezonja is a true gunner with a truer shooting stroke. And he knows it. A study in brazenness, Hezonja’s main goal on the court to make his opposition feel really, really bad about itself. Here he is nutmegging a defender before throwing down a windmill dunk…with five seconds left in a game that his team is winning by 19. Here he is canning a meaningless three-pointer and then dapping the other team’s coach! Here is an entire Reddit thread titled “Cool Shit Mario Hezonja Does.” In Rio, he’ll be joined by 2014 lottery pick Dario Saric, the soon-to-be Philadelphia 76ers power forward whose heady, genius-level feel for the game masks the fact that he is squarely on the Psycho T spectrum. Croatia is only going to go as far as their two precocious loons can carry them, but it’s going to be fun as hell to see them scorch the earth as they take on the world.