This is the weakest USA basketball roster I’ve seen in my lifetime. Which is expected. Many of the league’s top talent switched teams this offseason and are getting acclimated to their new surroundings. The remaining superstars have decided that if they’re going to sacrifice a summer of training for Team USA, it’ll be next summer for the Olympics. So we’re left with borderline stars and career role players. Still, the cumulative talent on the roster should supersede any other roster in the tournament, as per usual. This year is different, though. Why? The two best players in the tournament do not play for Team USA. I don’t think that has ever happened before. Nikola Jokic finished in the top five for MVP voting this past season and his team, Serbia, looks primed for a deep run. In fact, the most recent FIBA Power Rankings actually has Serbia at number 1, over the US. So why don’t I think they’re the biggest threat? I’m going to default to the best player in the tournament every time (plus a sprinkle of homegrown bias).
The Main Players
The reigning MVP. Come on. Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t just the best player in the tournament, he’s the best all around player. He scores, passes, defends, and elevates his teammates. He’s the kind of player that can take over the game on both sides of the court. There isn’t a single player on Team USA that can guard him and frankly, the Greek Freak has beaten better rosters on his own before. That alone gives Greece a massive advantage over America’s team.
However, we should talk about the rest of the roster. I watched a number of the Acropolis tournament that served as a warm up for several European teams in the FIBA World Cup. Greece finished in second to Serbia (who else). In watching, you see that Greece runs a very disciplined offense that is focused almost entirely on the pick and roll. Their PnR maestro is Nick Calathes, who is quite possibly the best non-NBA point guard in the tournament. He was an All American in high school and has won the past three Greek League MVP awards. He can run a pick and roll very well, shoot the ball, and stays in front of his defender. He finished #1 in assists for the tournament. Giannis’ brother, Thanasis, has also shined in this tournament, often appearing to be the most energetic player on both ends of the court. He averaged 11 points and 5 rebounds for the tournament. He supplied lots of highlights throughout as well, with at least one chase-down block or put-back dunk a game. It appears that the ‘Antetokounmbros’ may have a symbiotic Morris twin-like relationship, where both of their games are elevated by the mere presence of the other.
Other Guys that Can Step Up
A young guard by the name of Koniaris likes to spot up from Curry range, and he can hit them. They have big bodied guys like Georgios Papagiannis and Ioannis Bourousis who corral rebounders, the latter exploded for 17 rebounds against Italy. Kostas Papanikoloau was drafted by the Rockets a couple of years ago and actually played in the Rising Stars Challenge. Since then, he has been dominating the Greek league. At 29, he’s in his prime and ready to contribute. One last player I want to mention is Georgios Printezis. Watching him play the best comparison would be PJ Tucker. He sets hard screens, finishes well inside, and can pass from the block. He’s the type of player that can win you games in this tournament.
The Way They Play
As previously mentioned, the Greek team focuses primarily on the pick and roll. They do it well. Calathes gets a screen set by one of his massive centers (usually Papagiannis or Bourousis) and easily slips past his defender. From there, he has three options. Kick it to a corner if the defense collapses, toss an alley oop to either of the Antetokounmpo brothers should their defender help, or throw up a floater. This is very similar to how Australia plays (Patty Mills pick and rolls from Aron Baynes) and he destroyed Team USA with this in their historic win against them. You’ll see that kind of play in a majority of the Greek half court sets. They also like to have some triangle action where one of their forwards (often Giannis or Printezis) has the ball at the elbow while other players make off-ball cuts. I’ve seen this play result in an alley oop more than once in every game I watched. The only action I would like to see more is Giannis running the pick and roll, or being the screener.
The Greek team isn’t the best defensively. What they do well, is take away the three point shot. Only one team (barely) surpassed 30% three point shooting against them in the Acropolis tournament. They are susceptible to mid rangers, however. Bogdan Bogdanovic especially killed them in the final. They also get lost in their rotations and will give up a handful of layups due to this. Their centers are very good blockers, but they aren’t always in position to do so. Personally, I would be running a reverse box and-one, with Giannis being the low man. He can recover quicker than anyone and would be able to freelance defensively (what he does with the Bucks) in this position. With quick guards and forwards on Team USA, you’re going to want Giannis meeting them at the rim. They’ll need to clean up their defense to compete with the Americans, but taking away the three point shot does a lot for them.
Greece had the number three scorer in the Acropolis tournament, the number one and five rebounders, the top assist man, one and three in steals, and the top FOUR block leaders. They can clearly play. Keep in mind that Giannis has been playing right under 20 minutes a game in all these contests, you can bet that’ll crank up in the real tournament. Greece isn’t a shoo-in to beat Team USA and win the tournament, but they need less things to go right than any other team in the tourney.