The international basketball landscape is changing. The Spanish team that has given Team USA so much trouble over the years is down to just a single player from the 2008 Gold Medal Game: the now 38-year-old Rudy Fernandez. Argentina, ranked fourth in the world and the only team ever to deprive Team USA of an Olympic gold medal in the post-Dream Team world, failed to qualify for the tournament. Even recent mainstays like France (Victor Wembanyama), Serbia (Nikola Jokic) and Greece (Giannis Antetokounmpo) are missing their biggest stars.
None of this is meant to suggest that Team USA will be able to cruise to victory at the World Cup. Quite the contrary. This tournament has proven far more troublesome to the Americans than the Olympics in recent years, and their struggles have come against teams ranked both high and low. Turkey pushed Team USA to Overtime in 2019, for instance, and the Americans ultimately finished seventh in the tournament. In 2006, it was a little known Greek big man named Sofoklis Schortsanitis, later dubbed "Baby Shaq," to send Team USA home without the gold. There have been five FIBA World Cups in the 21st century, and Team USA has only won two of them.
Steve Kerr's squad will still enter the tournament as minus-140 favorites, according to Caesars Sportsbook, but they are far more vulnerable than their ironclad international reputation suggests. Here are the five teams with the best chance to take Team USA down.
Slovenia has the best player in the tournament, and the team with the best player in the tournament, regardless of the rest of its roster, is the team with the most potential for chaos in a single-elimination setting. How on Earth is Team USA supposed to defend passes like this?
This is what Luka Doncic is capable of on the international stage (or... well... any stage). He led the 2020 Olympics in assists per game (9.5) and ranked second in both points (23.8) and rebounds (9.7). Slovenia has medaled just once in its history of international competition, and that came with Doncic at EuroBasket 2017, when they took home the gold. He took Slovenia to the Bronze Medal Game in 2020 and last summer, he scored the second-most points ever in a EuroBasket game when he dropped 47 on France in a victory.
With Vlatko Cancar injured, Slovenia will have no other NBA players. When Slovenia was forced to play an exhibition against Team USA without Doncic, it lost by 30. But with the All-NBA point guard in the fold, Slovenia is a threat to every team in the field. That includes Team USA.
Australia defeated Slovenia, Doncic and all, to win Bronze at the 2020 Olympics, and this group might have more cumulative talent than that one did. FIBA Patty Mills is far more explosive than his NBA counterpart, topping 21 points per game in his last four major international competitions. Josh Giddey, Matisse Thybulle, Dyson Daniels and Josh Green lead the next wave of Boomers ready to keep Australia in the hunt for the foreseeable future. If Chris Goulding were a bit younger, his shooting likely would have made him a valuable NBA player.
So what's keeping Australia out of the top three? Size. The Boomers have experienced most of their international success with Andrew Bogut and Aron Baynes at center, but held up well in the Olympics with Jock Landale up front. Well, Landale hurt his ankle playing in an exhibition against South Sudan. Size is critical in international competition, especially with rim-protectors empowered by lighter goaltending rules.
Australia should be able to hold up defensively against most of the competition, but Team USA is so loaded with athleticism and crafty finishers that the absence of a single, high-end defensive center is going to prove troublesome. This simply isn't a good matchup for the Boomers.
Team USA has already seen firsthand just how dangerous Germany can be. When the two sides played an exhibition on Sunday, Germany led by as many as 16 points in the second half before the Americans ultimately squeezed out a 99-91 victory. Unless Anthony Edwards scores another 34 points in the rematch, things could get even tougher the next time these teams face off.
Start to familiarize yourself with Swiss Army forward Franz Wagner now, because he's followed up a stellar sophomore campaign for the Orlando Magic with a great set of exhibitions for Germany. Joining him on the national team are brother Mo Wagner, also a member of the Magic, as well as new Raptors point guard Dennis Schroder and Pacers center Daniel Theis.
The combination of size and shooting is lethal in a FIBA setting, and the Wagner brothers offer it in spades. Germany will have lineups with three players 6-8 or taller that can all shoot 3's, and Schroder's speed plays off of that skill and size perfectly. He shined at EuroBasket last summer, averaging over 20 points per game and scoring 38 against Poland. Germany may not have quite as much top-end talent as Team USA, but it has a group of players that fit together well and have far more experience as a group than the Americans.
No Wembanyama? No problem. While France figures to grow far more dangerous with Wembanyama (and possibly Joel Embiid!) in the future, it is bringing the same core into this tournament that it had when it played Team USA for gold at the 2020 Olympics. NBA veterans Rudy Gobert, Nicolas Batum and Evan Fournier as well as EuroLeague star Nando de Colo are all on board for the World Cup, and their track record speaks for itself.
France pushed Team USA to the brink in the Gold Medal Game in 2021, ultimately losing 87-82, and it is not hard to see why. The French roster checks virtually every box. Gobert is the tournament's best defensive player, especially with the ability to grab balls off of the rim thanks to FIBA rules. Fournier, like Mills, is a far more dangerous individual scorer on the international stage, averaging around 19 points per game in the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics. They get ball movement from just about everybody, they have plenty of shooting, and no team in the field has as much experience playing together as this one.
France will likely never catch Team USA in terms of raw talent, but no team ever has. This team has already proven capable of hanging with an Olympic-caliber American roster, so beating a World Cup team seems entirely doable.
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Canada has never won gold in any international competition. It hasn't qualified for the Olympics since 2000. Jamal Murray dropped out after winning his first championship. Andrew Wiggins isn't playing either, and from the sound of it, there's a good chance he never will. Canada lost exhibitions to Germany and the Dominican Republic. There are plenty of reasons to doubt this team.
But then you look at the roster, and doing so becomes significantly harder. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander isn't Doncic, but he's more accomplished than any American player in the tournament. Joining him is a roster full of proven NBA talent: RJ Barrett, Dillon Brooks, Lu Dort, Dwight Powell and Kelly Olynyk will all participate. So will national collegiate player of the year Zach Edey.
No team in the field has as many defenders capable of stifling the American perimeter stars. No team in the field has such variety in its front court, as Canada can play a stretch-big in Olynyk, a pick-and-roll finisher in Powell or a post threat in Edey. And of course, only Slovenia has a superstar as dangerous as Gilgeous-Alexander. Few teams can go into a game against Team USA confident that it has the best player on the floor. Canada can. There are plenty of kinks to work out, but this is likely the most dangerous team Canada has ever sent to an international tournament. Beating them will be no easy task.