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Team USA favored to win basketball gold at Tokyo Olympics despite setbacks

Profile Picture: Rory Breasail

July 20th, 2021

Despite a flurry of recent setbacks, the USA Basketball Men's National Team are heavy betting favorites to come away with a fourth consecutive gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

But should they be? The team is facing a great deal of uncertainty as the games begin on Friday, so let’s dive in and see if Team USA really has anything to worry about and where the best value lies betting on Olympic basketball.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics men's basketball odds

TeamOdds
USA
-250
Spain
+600
Australia
+650
Slovenia
+1500
France
+2000

COVID LOSSES AND ROSTER CHANGES

The place to start is with the American’s greatest advantage, their unparalleled depth of talent. Even with All-World players like LeBron James and Steph Curry opting not to participate, the U.S. team is by far the deepest team in the competition.

But that talent depth has taken a beating even before the games begin. The greatest opponent Team USA is struggling with so far is their own health, as they’ve been hit hard by COVID-19 and COVID-19 related absences.

The first dominoes to fall were the twin losses of Bradley Beal and Kevin Love. Love’s inclusion on the roster raised eyebrows in the first place, and now he has had to remove himself from the team because he couldn’t return effectively from his calf injury.

Then Beal entered health and safety protocols on July 14, and will not join the team in Japan. The same incident also had Jerami Grant sidelined for a number of days. For a brief period, with the combination of health absences and players yet to join, Team USA's roster had thinned to just six players.

Losing Beal was a big blow. He was a starter for the team, and losing his ball-handling and off-ball threat genuinely hurts Team USA's chances.

Zach LaVine, who has been one of the team’s best players in the exhibition rounds, then entered health and safety protocols on July 19. While the team hopes he’ll rejoin the squad soon, he has not yet traveled to Tokyo, and his outlook remains cloudy.

In place of Love and Beal, the U.S. added forward Keldon Johnson and center JaVale McGee. While neither are star players, McGee in particular adds an element previously missing from the U.S. squad. McGee is an effective rim roller, rebounder, rim protector, and one of the few American players that does not need the ball on offense. Johnson, meanwhile, is a bit more difficult to justify. While he’s a fine player, the likes of Trae Young and Julius Randle, All-NBA level players, were apparently keen to play.

Even with all that said, this is a team that still has Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, and Jayson Tatum among its starters. Durant might be the best player in the world right now and Lillard and Tatum have outside chances at chasing an MVP next season. The U.S. team remains stacked, notwithstanding their losses to date.

DISCOMFORT ON THE FIBA STAGE

Team USA has always required a tune-up period as it adjusts to the FIBA ruleset and refs. One of the more striking things in their game against Nigeria was how a lot of the foul-baiting that NBA stars thrive on these days was not well-rewarded by the FIBA refs. They also have to adjust to the lack of defensive goaltending calls and no three-second violations, allowing their opponents to camp their big man at the rim with impunity. The geometry of the court is different too. It's more cramped than NBA players are used to, but also features a shorter 3-point line.

Historically, the talent gap has been so wide that these things haven’t mattered. But these Olympics might be the first since 2004 where the Americans will have to win some possessions on the margins to bring home gold.

TAKEAWAYS FROM THE EXHIBITIONS

The basketball world went into a minor frenzy when Team USA lost to Nigeria 90-87 in its first exhibition. In years past they’ve pummeled teams like Nigeria, but the Nigerians now field six current or former NBA players, including Precious Achiuwa and Josh Okogie. They beat the U.S. with size, creating massive rebounding issues for the U.S. as well as using interior pressure to create a ton of open outside looks. 

Nigeria shot 20-for-42 on 3’s and got a game-sealing rebound to pull out the win. It was the first time that the U.S. has lost to an African team in international competition, and a landmark moment for the globalization of the game.

In the next game, the U.S. again lost narrowly to Australia, who are among the better teams they could face at the Olympics. Losing by a single possession to Australia is no great indication that the U.S. team is in trouble, but coming as their second consecutive loss, it looks worse than it really was. Australia is a team deep with NBA-level talent that has significant experience playing together as a cohesive unit.

The main takeaway from the exhibitions is that the talent gap is not as wide as it used to be, and the American decision to bring a relatively downsized team had immediate consequences. The  U.S. was outrebounded in three of the four exhibitions in Las Vegas, including both their losses. Their lack of size could be their undoing, particularly as they seem committed to running a switch-heavy defensive scheme, allowing opponents to create easy mismatches in the post.

DOES BETTING ON TEAM USA MAKE SENSE?

Overall, the U.S. team should remain heavy favorites to win gold (they do have Kevin Durant after all). But even as their line has tumbled from (-370) on July 14 to where it sits now at (-250), the value to bet on their outright victory is tough to argue for. Yes, they should win gold, and they probably will, but if ever there was a tournament to take a chance on an upset pick, this would it.

To that end, do not overlook Spain. They have an experienced group laden with NBA talent and have the best national league outside the NBA. Sitting at +600, there is real value to be had betting on the current reigning FIBA World Cup Champions to win it all in Tokyo. 

Tokyo 2020 Olympics Basketball PICK: SPAIN (+600)

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