After some early FIBA struggles, can Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell and his Team USA squad still be considered the tournament favorites?
It was essentially common knowledge this summer that the Team USA that would be representing the country in the FIBA Basketball World Cup wouldn’t be the nation’s A-team. After several players either declined an invite or withdrew from international play, Team USA Chairman Jerry Colangelo and head coach Gregg Popovich were forced to put together the best team they could muster composed of the best players available.
In so doing, they formed a squad led by Utah Jazz rising star Donovan Mitchell, Boston Celtics newcomer Kemba Walker, promising young big man Myles Turner and a combination of other young bucks and veterans such as Jayson Tatum, Harrison Barnes and Khris Middleton, to name a few.
Those are some formidable guys, to be sure, but still many have argued (and justifiably so) that this year’s rendition of Team USA is very much a B-Team when compared to the immense talent advantage that the United States typically enjoys. And, unfortunately, their performance thus far would very much prove that statement accurate.
First of all, Team USA lost their first international contest in their last 78 tries in an exhibition match against Australia. Sure, the American team had won just the time before and the defeat came in a meaningless friendly competition, but it was still a shocking loss. Even worse, though, was how Team USA performed against Turkey in the first round of FIBA group play.
What most presumed should have been an easy victory turned out to be an enormous challenge from which Team USA just barely escaped. With mistake after mistake, they ultimately found themselves being taken to overtime. And even then, it took four consecutive missed free throws from Turkey for the Americans to miraculously come out on top.
If they could barely get past Turkey, what does that mean for the rest of the tournament?
Sure, it was just one bout and, quite frankly, Donovan Mitchell, who has been one of the leaders of the team, and the rest of the squad didn’t play well at all. But if they’re capable of slipping that much against a team that was ranked just 17th in the world, they will definitely be at risk against the more prolific talent they are bound to face.
Even though the American team entered the field somewhat depleted, they were still considered by most to be the favorite. After all, they’re the only squad with an entire roster comprised of NBA players led by a coach believed by many to be the best in the world. But after what we’ve seen out of them so far, can we truly say they are the favorites?
There are several teams that remain undefeated alongside the US that have looked absolutely formidable. Save for a complacent second half against Germany, Rudy Gobert‘s French team appears to be among the best. Joe Ingles‘ Australia has also taken care of business in a big way to the tune of a 3-0 start. Brazil, who the US will face on Monday, has been incredible as well and even teams like Argentina and Poland, who are also undefeated, have looked strong.
And that’s leaving out two other undefeated groups. One is Spain, though Team USA admittedly made light work of them in the pre-tournament exhibition. The other, however, is Serbia, who has looked nigh unstoppable thus far in FIBA play.
Not only is Serbia undefeated, but they have absolutely demolished their opponents. First they beat Angola 105-59 and the Philippines 126-67. Sure, neither of those two are much to write home about, but I’d say it’s meaningful that Serbia took care of business against lackluster opponents whereas Team USA was nearly toppled by Turkey. Yes, they did much better against Japan and the Czech Republic, but Serbia has still looked unyielding compared to the USA.
Even more impressive, in Serbia’s final game of the first round of group play, they took on a much more competitive Italy team and still won handily by a score of 92-77. After advancing to the second round, they got things started off strong with a 90-47 win over Puerto Rico on Friday.
Again, you could definitely argue that Serbia’s performance has had more to do with their lackluster opponents than it has with their flawless execution, and there would definitely be a significant amount of truth to that. Their next contest will be a far greater challenge as they’ll take on Spain on Sunday, which could shed further light on just how foreboding Serbia truly is.
But, personally, I believe Serbia will beat Spain and, unless Team USA turns things around considerably in their next two contests, you could easily make the case that Serbia has surpassed the Americans as the 2019 FIBA favorites.
Not only have they been absolutely decimating opponents, but they have a number of talented NBA players in their ranks who have all played very well internationally. That group is headlined by Denver Nuggets All-Star Nikola Jokic, but he’s also joined by Bogdan Bogdanovic (not to be confused with Bojan Bogdanovic from Croatia who is the one the Jazz signed this summer), Nemanja Bjelica and Boban Marjanovic.
Even the less heralded guys on their squad have played well, and the chemistry Serbia has shown has been undoubtedly helpful. You can tell from the mere way they’re putting up such a high number of points and blowing opponents out of the water that they are simply firing on all cylinders.
Like the US squad, who has tough battles ahead against Greece, Brazil, then most likely one of either France or Australia, Serbia is about to be challenged as well. First against the aforementioned Spain, then next versus either Argentina or Poland. Personally, I’d say Team USA’s path is considerably more difficult, but that’s besides the point. The fact is that the United States team needs to play much better than they have regardless of opponent and that we should get a much better idea of how truly daunting Serbia is in the next week.
Regardless of what we see there, assuming Team USA picks it up and finds a way to play up to their potential, they could very well be on a crash course to face Serbia down the road. And as long as neither faces an unforeseen elimination, it’s entirely possible that the argument of which one is the deserving favorite won’t be settled until the pair of them actually face off on the court.
Based on what we’ve seen thus far, though, and considering the more difficult path facing Team USA, it wouldn’t be the slightest stretch to say that Serbia appears to be the favorite as FIBA play progresses into the second round.