This one’s obvious: the United States. They trounced every team in their exhibitions and they’ve got enough of a mix of big and small they should be able to pound teams offensively regardless of how they are defended. With sharpshooters such as Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony in the mix, the United States should easily pick apart zone defenses. If an opponent chooses to go man-to-man, DeMarcus Cousins should annihilate the interior.
Defensively, the U.S. can go big or small depending on matchups. Draymond Green has proven time and time again that he’s a reliable defensive center in small-ball lineups, while Cousins and DeAndre Jordan should easily handle the majority of bigs in the tournament.
This is one is much tougher, but France looks poised to jump to the number two spot in the Rio Games. Outside of the United States, they have one of the best starting fives in the Olympics. Seasoned NBA pros Tony Parker, Nic Batum and Boris Diaw will be joined by up-and-comer Rudy Gobert and 2016 Euroleague MVP Nando de Colo to make up a formidable lineup. The Parker/Batum/Diaw trio should put on a passing clinic against lesser opponents while possessing the veteran savvy to control the pace in tougher matchups.
Gobert is the best defensive center in the tournament, including the U.S. bigs. The French Rejection makes even the best rim-attackers think twice before entering his domain. France will struggle against quick guards though. Parker lost a step defensively years ago and will struggle against the likes of Kyrie Irving and Spain’s Ricky Rubio.
One storyline to watch for France is the exclusion of Evan Fournier. Fournier opted to skip the Olympic Qualifying Tournament to sort out his contract situation as he was a free agent this summer. French coach Vincent Collet explained that he thought his backcourt was well balanced in the qualifying tournament without Fournier and that he wanted to honor their commitment to the team by keeping the squad intact. Fournier is clearly a better talent than many of the players on the team and his presence will be missed when France is in need of buckets.
Spain will fight with France for a place in the gold medal game, and may even prevail, but the absence of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka will loom large in Rio. Coming off back-to-back Olympic silver medals, Pau Gasol remains one of the most skilled big men in the world, but his presence alone will not be enough to push Spain past the United States. Gasol will be accompanied by proven pros Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon, Nikola Mirotic and former NBA player Rudy Fernandez.
Another player to keep an eye on is Willy Hernangomez, who will make his NBA debut next season with the New York Knicks. The powerful 6-foot-10 center should provide Spain with another NBA-caliber big to backup or play alongside Gasol.
Spain is a team full of capable players, but devoid of any stars still in their prime. Rubio is a nice player who first made a name for himself in the U.S. on the Olympic stage back in 2008, but eight years later he has yet to reach the potential many saw back in Beijing. If Gasol can muster an ageless performance for three weeks, we may well see a rematch of Spain and the United States in the gold medal game.
Argentina: Playing with the final remnants of the Argentine golden age of basketball, Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola will have to harness the fountain of youth to make the podium in Rio. It’s possible and it would make for a great story, but it’s unlikely as Father Time remains unbeaten.
Lithuania: A team that consistently challenges the United States, Lithuania can play with any team in the tournament. Unlike a seven-game series in the NBA, all you need is one game in the Olympics to knock out a power like the U.S., Spain or France, but it’s a tall task. It’ll be up to Jonas Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis, son of Basketball Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis, to bring the Lithuanians to new heights.