But basketball is a funny game. It's not uncommon for great teams (playing badly) to be humbled by average ones (playing as well as they can). And international basketball tournaments have been very open in recent times, mostly due to the number of foreign players who now play in the NBA. Not many people would be able to tell you that the defending Olympic champions are Argentina and the defending World Champions are Spain. However, the U.S.A. are still ranked number one in the world and one glimpse at the above line-up reminds you why.
The starting five for the U.S. will likely be Paul, Bryant, James, Anthony and Howard. In this bunch you have three of the NBA's top four scorers (James, Bryant and Anthony) and the league leaders in assists (Paul) and rebounds (Howard). That's the complete package right there. If these guys have an off night you've got plenty of options on the most star-studded bench in world sport.
So who can stop Team U.S.A.? Argentina are ranked number two in the world and are renowned for their great team play, which was on display for all to see during Athens 2004. MVP of those games was San Antonio Spurs star Manu Ginobili. Ginobili and his injured ankle are in a race against time to be fit for Beijing. Losing their best player would be a bitter blow for the Argies as they have also had two other key players retire from the international arena. A definite medal chance nonetheless given their ability to play as a team in synch with one another and the game plans of coaching staff.
Spain are represented by the brothers Gasol (Pau and Marc) as well as NBA players Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro and Jorge Garbajosa (no relation to French Rugby star Xavier). There is talent in the Spanish squad but I'm not sure the depth is there to win the gold. I wouldn't try telling that to a Spaniard though as they are passionate about their country to the point of being totally crazy.
Russia are the defending European Champions. They are very much a mystery as nearly all of their players play in Russia. Only Andrei Kirilenko and Viktor Khryapa ply their trade in the NBA. The heart and soul of their team, a guy that epitomises everything Russia (when I think Russia, I think of vodka and this guy) is:
Comrade J.R. Holden
Others with solid medal hopes are Greece and Lithuania. The Boomers (Oceania Champions!) are roughies for a medal but definitely not out of the reckoning. The player to watch is Patrick Mills, an NBA star of the future and probably the most talented player Australia has produced. Hopefully he is given plenty of court time despite his youth. The Boomers have a very handy squad and certainly won't be outmuscled by anyone with Andrew Bogut, Chris Anstey and David Andersen inside.
China and Yao Ming will be looking to completely ruin another NBA season for himself and the Houston Rockets by playing at Beijing. There are massive doubts as to whether he will be 100 percent fit and the likely outcome is further damage. To heal properly, stress fractures need time, but it would be a hard man to begrudge the big guy a tilt at an Olympic medal in his home country. Especially when you consider that they will spend most of the tournament at the free throw line while watching numerous key opponents being fouled out of matches. Australia have dodged a couple of bullets by avoiding both China/hometown refereeing and the U.S. in the group stage.
It would be remisce of me not to mention the World Champion Opals. They will be fighting it out for the gold with the U.S.A. and Russia, who joined the battle by stunning the U.S. in the semi finals at the Worlds. Led by the best female player in the world in Lauren Jackson, and with most of the Opals playing in the WNBA, they should take a heap of beating. It's optimistic to see any other country taking a medal off these three...
Go the Boomers! Go the Opals!