Spain are biggest threat to Team USA for Olympic basketball gold
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics begin on Friday. The U.S. Basketball Men's National Team is heavily favored to win gold again, but it could face a very stiff challenge from longtime rival Spain.
Tokyo 2020 Olympics men's basketball odds
What makes Spain the biggest threat to Team USA at this year's Olympics? Let’s dive in.
SPAIN'S UNPARALLELED INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS
This is the list of Spain's accomplishments in international competition just since 2000:
Eurobasket: Gold: 2009, 2011, 2015; Silver: 2003, 2007; Bronze: 2001, 2013, 2017
FIBA World Cup: Gold: 2006, 2019
Olympics: Silver: 2008, 2012
That is, to put it mildly, a staggering set of achievements for one generation of players. And make no mistake, a lot of Spain’s current roster played in those tournaments. They are, by far, the most experienced and decorated international team of basketball players in the world. This will likely be the last Olympics for much of that group, and all they are missing is an Olympic gold to add to their collection.
Spain will not be rattled, nor surprised by anything, and experience with international competition strongly favors them. In very recent history, they went 6-1 in exhibitions in 2021, with their sole loss coming against the U.S. team in Las Vegas, a result that was very much in doubt for much of the game.
SPAIN'S TALENTED GROUP
Spain's most well-known players are still Marc and Pau Gasol, with Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio running point. While that trio might not strike fear into an NBA team, as a FIBA squad they are battle-tested and lethal.
Marc Gasol, despite seeing limited action during the NBA playoffs for the Lakers, is the fulcrum of the Spanish team on both ends. He remains an immovable wall in the post, and a canny interior presence, more than capable of bully-balling non-traditional bigs and drawing fouls. While Pau is nearing retirement, his skill level remains extremely high, and the nature of the FIBA game means he can’t be exploited to quite the same degree that he might be in the NBA.
NBA fans might not think that highly of Rubio, but on the international stage he has proven himself time and time again as a championship-caliber starting point guard. While his outside shot has never become a threat in the NBA, the FIBA line is shorter, and Spain’s offense is predicated on having plus playmakers at multiple positions and pushing hard off defensive stops. Rubio is elite as a transition player and has been a defensive stopper in past tournaments. Against teams without a true rim protector, he is more than capable of slicing to the basket and finishing inside, as he did innumerable times during the recent exhibition against the U.S.
The trio of Rudy Fernandez, the Sergios (Rodríguez and Llull) give the Spaniards real floor spacing with their quick trigger release from the perimeter. It’s just a team that is deep at every position.
Rodríguez, Lull, Rubio, and Marc Gasol are among the most cerebral players at these Olympics. This, combined with their innate talents and years of chemistry, make them a difficult cover. Their game can be predicated on the kind of read and react work that made the Warriors' Splash Brothers so deadly during their dynastic run.
And the Spaniards continue to build their depth. The Hernangomez brothers, Willy and Juancho, both current NBA players, have grown with the program and fill vital roles. Willy plays power forward in super big lineups, while Juancho is their spacing wing.
Spain has an older roster, with their best players all in their mid to late 30’s (Pau Gasol is 41). They’ve played as an intact unit, with very little turnover, in innumerable World Cups, Eurobaskets, and previous Olympic Games. While age has sapped their athleticism somewhat, they also benefit from greater cohesion than any other team at the tournament.
And the Spanish are getting a boost from their youth as well, with projected 2021 lottery pick Usman Garuba also filling in as a Swiss Army Knife player for them. Garuba is an intriguing prospect, capable of filling a Draymond Green-like role for Spain.
THE MATCHUP WITH TEAM USA
It goes without saying that the U.S. team will have massive advantages on the perimeter, with athleticism and individual shot creation. They have the greatest singular talent in Kevin Durant, and perhaps have the best starting five. But that does not mean the Spanish are scrubs. They count among their number multiple EuroLeague MVPs and players who have been champions at the top level of their sport nationally and internationally.
Spain's advantages will come from their continuity, the complexity of their playbook, the intuitive chemistry born of years of game time. The U.S. is seeking to manufacture enough chemistry and feel to get by on their skill, and Spain can take advantage of their lack of continuity.
Spain plays with two traditional bigs at almost all times, and these are not stiffs that the U.S. can simply hide their weaker defenders like Damian Lillard or Zach LaVine on. They are skilled post players, capable of using their size and footwork to seal a smaller player and either draw help and kick out, or simply turn and score. Team USA is determined to run a switching defensive scheme, but a post-heavy one like Spain’s could cause problems for them should they match up later in the tournament.
In Las Vegas, despite being older and slower than the U.S., Spain had great success inside. Even Pau, who would struggle to get up and down an NBA court, was comfortable on the FIBA one, and used his rebounding and passing to repeatedly flummox the U.S.
Make no mistake, the U.S. are rightly favored, but Spain is a talented group with unrivaled chemistry and collective feel. I believe the value is there to bet on a Spanish upset.