Through the end of group play at the World Cup, two countries - Spain and the US - have separated themselves from the pack. They dominated their respective groups, with both teams going 5-0 and winning every game by double digits. The surprise isn’t that the Spanish have looked as good as the Americans, especially playing at home, but that they have had as many highlights and are playing the more entertaining brand of basketball.
With Ricky Rubio pushing the pace and getting anywhere he wants to go on the court and the Gasol brothers stepping out on the perimeter and making pinpoint passes out of the post, Spain spreads the floor and zips the ball from side to side. Everyone in Spain’s rotation is an NBA-caliber player and they can all shoot, pass and make decisions on the fly. If they keep this level of play up, they could go down as the best international team of the modern era.
After a wave of last-minute withdrawals from Team USA, the talent gap between the Americans and their biggest rival is as small as it has been since 2006, the last time they lost a game in a major international tournament. The US would still be the heavy favorite in a seven-game series, but in a one-and-done scenario, the team with more size and skill upfront, more perimeter shooting and more overall continuity has a real chance of winning.
When you watch the two teams play, there’s little comparison as to which is group more comfortable playing with each other. While the US has to essentially build a team from scratch every two years, the core of the Spanish team has been together for more than a decade. Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez and Rubio all played in the Olympics in 2008 - none of the Americans from that team are still around.
After showing his age in his last few seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he didn’t really fit with either Dwight Howard or Mike D’Antoni’s four-out system, Pau appears rejuvenated by playing in his home country and being featured in a pass-heavy two-post offense. He is averaging 21 points, 6 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 2 blocks a game on 62% shooting - through the first five games, he would have to be the MVP of the entire tournament.
And while the US has a first-team All-NBA guard (James Harden) and a guy who may be the third best player in the world (Anthony Davis), Spain may have the more valuable NBA player in Marc Gasol. Marc won the Defensive Player of the Year Award two seasons ago and is one of the best passing big men in the world. He makes his teammates significantly better on both sides of the ball, something you can’t really say about any of the Americans.
With the US starting a 220-pound center (Davis) and a 6’8 power forward (Kenneth Faried), Spain would have a significant advantage in the post in a hypothetical gold medal game. The problem is that the Gasol brothers are looking to pass - if they force the Americans to pack the paint, they will be able to find shooters on the perimeter and you don’t want to give Fernandez, Navarro and Calderon too many open looks from beyond the three-point line.
Rubio and Calderon are their only perimeter players in the NBA, but you can’t overlook any of the guys in Spain’s rotation. Fernandez, Navarro and Sergio Rodriguez all had their moments in the league and none of them looked out of place going against the best in the world. Sergio Llull, their other main perimeter reserve, was the No. 34 overall pick in 2009 and Alex Abrines was taken by the Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 32 overall in 2013.
None of this, of course, means the Spaniards are unbeatable. No one in their group had the team speed to really challenge their perimeter defense and take the ball at the Gasol brothers. Fernandez is also their only wing with the size to match up against guys like Harden and Klay Thompson, so the American guards should be able to make a killing in the post. If Harden can get Pau or Marc in foul trouble, that could really change the dynamic of the game.
When you look at the box scores of the last two times these countries met - the gold medal games in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics - that’s one of the things that really jumps out at you. Fernandez fouled out of both games and Marc Gasol was in foul trouble throughout - he had 4 fouls and played 17 minutes in London. Serge Ibaka is a very capable reserve, but he can’t create his own shot and Spain needs to be able to run offense through their big men.
The referees, who haven’t exactly been playing to rave reviews so far, could end up having a huge role in what happens in the medal rounds. That’s where having home-court advantage at the World Cup could really come into play for Spain. If the Spanish fans pack the gym and create a raucous atmosphere in Madrid, the FIBA referees could feel pressure to swallow their whistles and negate one of the biggest advantages the Americans would have.
There’s still a lot of basketball to be played before Spain and the US would meet and both teams should be challenged in the quarterfinals and semifinals. Nevertheless, it would be a major surprise if either ended up losing. These are two teams playing basketball at a really high level - everyone knows how talented the US is, but if the Spanish national team was playing in the NBA, they would have a good chance of making the Eastern Conference Finals.
As enjoyable as it is to watch Team USA curb stomp other countries, at some point you want to see them challenged. That’s what grows the game, which is really the point of these international tournaments. If the US loses to Spain, they shouldn’t hang their head. The Spaniards are a talented team who play the game the right way and have a ton of flair to boot. If I was trying to sell someone on the beauty of basketball, Spain is the team I’d have them watch.