Everyone loves a good, round number. So, here’s one: 2,300. That’s the margin by which Team USA had outscored the rest of the world in the 78 major international games and exhibitions the U.S. had won in a row before getting stunned by Australia in a pretournament friendly Friday. The U.S.’s last loss before that was against Greece, in the 2006 World Championship. That this most recent loss came in an exhibition, however, was in a way even rarer. Saturday’s loss at the hands of a firespitting Patty Mills was only the second exhibition defeat for Team USA since 1992; the first came 15 years ago, when it lost 95-78 in Cologne, Germany, to an Italy team that couldn’t miss from behind the arc.
Team USA is still the favorite to win World Cup gold, but the playing field is more level than it’s been in more than a decade. At its peak, the U.S. men’s national basketball team experience is akin to an Avengers moviegoing experience: big stars, big explosions, big, mind-deadening fun. It’s nowhere near as broad in drought years like this; we’re still engaging in the cinematic universe, but it requires some patience, creativity, and openmindedness to fully embrace the heroes, myths, and joys—some might just come from the other side of the divide.
This is a perfect time to root for the underdog, to root for chaos, to discover a nation’s folk favorite. Because, as if foreshadowing the NBA season to come, it seems as though anything could happen in the 2019 FIBA World Cup. There are a number of teams capable of beating Team USA in a game. With apologies to Germany, Nigeria, Canada, and Brazil (and Australia, though they’ve already done it), here are the U.S.’s five biggest potential threats in the tournament.
Team USA’s biggest threat in China is their 2016 Olympic gold medal game opponent. A lot has changed in the three years since Serbia last saw Team USA on the court. Nikola Jokic, now one of the very best players on the planet, was among the seven youngest players in the tournament pool at age 21. But even then, the world caught a glimpse of the kind of unique force Jokic brought to the game. In Olympics preliminary group play, Jokic dropped 25 points (on 11-for-15 shooting) against Team USA, looking like the best player on the court in a three-point loss to the Americans. This time around, he’ll set foot in China as the second-best player in the tournament, behind only Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. And for the first time in his international career, Jokic will serve as the undisputed focal point of his national team.
With its depth, size, and star power, Serbia has become something of a cofavorite to win the whole damn thing. And that is without one of the most recognizable Serbian stars of several generations, passing wizard Milos Teodosic, who suffered a foot injury earlier this summer in a game against Lithuania.
Serbia’s biggest advantage over the field may lie in its ability to dictate style of play. The team is enormous; half its roster consists of players 6-foot-10 or taller, and both of its point guards are listed at 6-foot-6. All four of its centers have NBA ties: Jokic, of course, is an All-NBA player; Boban Marjanovic has been a per-minute game-breaker in his four NBA seasons (it’s not hard to imagine Boban feasting under FIBA goaltending rules, which maintains that the ball is still live while it’s on the rim); Nikola Milutinov was a 2015 first-round pick by the Spurs and is now a Greek League star; Miroslav Raduljica was that enforcer-looking type who had cups of coffee playing for the Bucks and Wolves. Pairing the preposterously versatile Jokic in a twin towers setting with either a traditional low-post scorer like Milutinov or one of two bruisers like Marjanovic or Raduljica would be enough to do in most of the teams in the tournament, but they also have the ability to space the floor way out with the Kings’ Nemanja Bjelica, an excellent shooter and passer, at the 4, which might just be an international cheat code.
Bjelica’s Sacramento teammate Bogdan Bogdanovic should thrive as a playmaker in the international setting with all the attention paid to Jokic, and will be the team’s go-to perimeter scorer as he shares the backcourt with one of Serbia’s two jumbo point guards. Projected starter Stefan Jovic is the veteran caretaker, but the biggest beneficiary from playing around so much NBA talent will be 25-year-old Vasilije Micic, a rising star in the EuroLeague and 2014 second-round pick by the Sixers, who is the far more dynamic shooter and passer.
The French national team’s NBA intrigue took a bit of a hit in the 11th hour after Tuesday’s loss to Serbia in their final World Cup preparation game: The Suns’ 21-year-old scoring point guard Élie Okobo and Theo Maledon, a smooth 18-year-old guard who has the look of a 2020 lottery pick, were both dropped from the final roster. The veteran team, however, still boasts a balanced roster with some of the best talent in the tournament. Rudy Gobert is the clear headliner, and the Stifle Tower will offer both offensive and defensive structure to a French roster that will largely be determined by its perimeter play. Nicolas Batum (who is somehow only 30 years old) has certainly seen better days in the NBA, but his two-way versatility across several positions and roles should alleviate some of the pressures now put on young Knick Frank Ntilikina, who projects as the team’s starting point guard.
France’s best lineup against Team USA might just be a four-out attack that leverages its massive defensive presence in the paint and perimeter shooting across positions, with Gobert manning the 5, Batum sliding up to the 4, Evan Fournier at the 3, Nando De Colo at the 2, and Ntilikina at the 1. That would put four capable offensive initiators on the floor at once. All five also have NBA experience; De Colo may have played only one season with the Spurs, but he has blossomed into one of the EuroLeague’s best players. Since joining CSKA Moscow in 2014-15, De Colo has shot 45.4 percent from 3. Both Batum and Fournier have been above-average 3-point shooters in their NBA careers; France will need as many release valves from behind the arc as it can get to shock the favorites.
Team USA and the Greek national team are expected to be the leaders of their respective groups E and F, which means they will meet in the second round of competition, barring a cosmic catastrophe in China. The case for Greece is simple: They have the undisputed best player in the tournament, a guy who was named the most valuable player in the best professional basketball league in the world. There’s just not much most teams will be able to do if Giannis Antetokounmpo simply decides to drop 30 points in a game. The hope is that the rest of the Greek team—one with many familiar names like Ioannis Bourousis, Kostas Papanikolaou, Nick Calathes, and notorious NBA flameout Georgios Papagiannis—can hold up its end of the bargain.
Giannis changes everything in a setting like the World Cup; it fully explains the level of attention given to the Greeks as legitimate medal contenders. But 2019 could wind up as merely a preface. It’s not hard to imagine all four Antetokounbros leading the way in the near future.
The average age of the 12-man Spanish national team is just barely on the right side of 30, clinging to a few stubborn tenths. The youngest player is the Nuggets’ Juancho Hernangómez, 23, who has been on the senior team since EuroBasket 2017, but has been on national team practice squads since 2015. An infusion of new blood isn’t coming fast enough, but for the last remnants of Spain’s golden generation, it isn’t over until it’s over. To discount what Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez, and Sergio Llull—all veterans of the team for more than a decade—can accomplish together is to deny the impact of chemistry in major international competition, which is exactly how USA Basketball was done in from 2002 to 2006.
Gasol, now 34, remains the team’s cornerstone, and it will be hard to ever envision a Spanish team not playing in the image of the country’s two best-ever basketball products. The Gasol brothers have all but instilled the synaptic, read-and-react basketball reflexes into the country’s DNA. It’s the through line that will help ease Spain’s eventual transition from the Gasols to the Hernangómezes. This will be Spain’s 12th FIBA World Cup appearance, the most of any European nation in the tournament. It’s no longer the front-runner, but after a decade-plus of watching this team rise to the top of the basketball world with an earnest team-as-family ethos, it’s hard to count it out when a good chunk of the core remains intact.
It’ll be a good tournament for twin towers. Lithuania will be propping its medal hopes on the backs of Jonas Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis, two players who joined the senior ranks in their teens, four years apart, and will now serve as centerpieces. Valanciunas is the established star at this level of competition: At 7 feet tall, with a mammoth wingspan, touch around the basket, and range out to the FIBA 3-point line, Valanciunas is the player most teams will base their game plans around. Sabonis is the wild card, a player who, when given the space to operate, has been staggeringly productive at the NBA level as an inside-outside scorer, rebounder, and facilitator. NBA heads would likely prefer the order of operations to invert. We know what Jonas is; there’s still a lot we don’t know about Sabonis—namely, his ability to take on a much larger load. The Pacers organization has said that Sabonis and frontcourt mate Myles Turner will be spending more time on the court together in the 2019-20 season, but should the two meet in China, we might get some useful fodder for the Which Big Should the Pacers Actually Build Around? debate.
There are other familiar faces on the team: Mantas Kalnietis resumes his post as the trusty no-nonsense point guard, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas of #Knickstape fame will play a role in the frontcourt. But one guy to watch for is 27-year-old wing Edgaras Ulanovas, one of the best players in the Lithuanian league. Imagine a gruffer Joe Ingles who is just as good shooting from distance. There will be plenty of opportunities for him to feast when one of Lithuania’s two star bigs passes out of a double.