Serving notice: Marc Gasol, Team Spain ready for USA (image courtesy FIBA)

FIBA World Cup: The case for Team Spain

Sergio Scariolo is a guy who knows. After all, not that long ago he was coaching Team Spain to back-to-back Eurobasket championships in 2009 and ’11 before handing over the reins to his assistant Juan Orenga; thanks to continuity unmatched by any team in this World Cup, some 10 from Scariolo’s last La Roja roster remain.

How far can Team Spain go in the 2014 FIBA World Cup?

“I think they can go for the whole thing,” said Scariolo told us during this week’s Taking the Charge podcast. “I have no doubt about that. [I’m not saying] it will be easy, because they will face obstacles; they will have to [handle] the pressure of being a favorite at least on the level of the USA team. But I believe the level of maturity of the team is the best possible … They will never be [this] good anymore.”

Now we’ve all been here before. In the summer of 2012, the interweb was loaded with warnings of how good Team Spain was: “Good enough to dream large” because at that time “Spain thinks it can take the next step and win it all.” Nevertheless, the end result was similar to 2008: The USA needed triple-figure scoring to win and did. The headlines that followed complimented the tournament favorites with “surviving Spain.”

But the 2012 edition of Team USA had things that this year’s World Cup squad lacks. Like Lebron James, the world’s greatest player. Like Kevin Durant, earmarked as a leader for this team. Like Kobe Bryant, who threw little more than daggers at the Olympics. Like Carmelo Anthony, the guy Americans trot out against accusations that US basketball can’t produce quality international players.

No knock against a team with not even a minor weakness apparent, with its own future Hall of Fame types like Derrick Rose, James Harden and that force of nature known as Anthony Davis, but potentially awaiting in the final is essentially the same team that ran up over 100 points on Team USA in London. The difference? Most of Team Spain – excepting 34-year-old Juan Carlos Navarro, who first cracked the national team roster in 2001 – is two years *better*.

Examples? Since the 2012 Olympics, Team Spain individually boasts an NBA Defensive MVP award (Marc Gasol), an All-NBA Defensive Team nod (Serge Ibaka) and a Euroleague MVP award (Sergio Rodriguez). One-time wunderkind Ricky Rubio has notched over 1½ seasons as a Minnesota Timberwolves starting point guard, while the trio of Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez and Felipe Reyes have led Real Madrid to two consecutive seasons of dominant play in Spain plus two second-place finishes in the Euroleague.

As for Pau Gasol, perhaps his past two seasons with the train wreck-like Los Angeles Lakers are best forgotten. Instead, consider the following list of Team Spain’s finishes in international tournament play since the beginning of what might be called the Navarro-Gasol era.

2001 — Third place, Eurobasket
2002 — Fifth place, World Cup
2003 — Second place, Eurobasket
2004 — Seventh place, Olympics
2005 — Fourth place, Eurobasket
2006 — First place, World Cup
2007 — Second place, Eurobasket
2008 — Second place, Olympics
2009 — First place, Eurobasket
2010 — Sixth place, World Cup
2011 — First place, Eurobasket
2012 — Second place, Olympics
2013 — Third place, Eurobasket

Considering that Pau did not participate with Team Spain in the 2005, 2010 and 2013 tournaments and the record becomes even more impressive. In eight of 10 tournaments with Pau on the roster, Espana earned a spot on the podium. All six of Pau’s last appearances with Team Spain have resulted in gold or silver, and Spain-with-Pau is undefeated.

When FIBA competition is compared with that of the NCAA/NBA style, the ability for teams to stretch the floor thanks to the traditional European skill set much admired since the days of Arvydas Sabonis is typically mentioned: As Zach Buckley of Bleacher Report succinctly summarized earlier this week, “The international stage tends to promote floor spacing, both to take advantage of shorter three-point arcs and to break opponents out of zone defenses.”

Few seven-footers in the game today can distort a half-court defense like Pau; teaming him with a pair of NBA defensive all-stars provides further room to roam. Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final roster for Team USA in 2014 was well-often characterized as a direct response to bigger skilled teams such as Spain.

But while frontcourts composed of some combination of Davis, Kenneth Faried, Andre Drummond, Demarcus Cousins and Mason Plumlee are certainly to give most opposition sides matchup woes – and whoa, just putting Davis and Faried out there together has been impressive enough in exhibition matches – Spain is uniquely equipped to go toe-to-toe on either side of the floor.

Recall that in the 2012 Olympic final, Pau went for a 24-point, eight-rebound, seven-assist game while brother Marc added 17 points in 17 minutes; Ibaka’s 22 minutes of court time got Spain 12 points – including 8-of-10 shooting from the foul line – and nine rebounds. If these three can manage to stay out of foul trouble, Drummond and Plumlee in particular will be in for a long night of finding themselves out of position against a more mobile Gasol – with Señor Swat awaiting on the offensive glass.

What about the daunting backcourt speed of Team USA? The red, white and blue could well be bringing its speediest roster since Everything Changed in 1992, and even the open floor emphasis of Team Slovenia has been exposed as sadly lacking against the lightning quickness of Rose, Stephen Curry et al. On the other hand, Team Spain in 2012 (as well as Eurobasket 2013) showed the willingness to turn the match into a track meet if need be. Say what you will about the temperament and shooting ability of Fernandez and Rubio, respectively, but either guy’s willingness to start the break after a nifty steal is commendable – and can keep Spain in a game with even the USA’s speedsters.

Of course, there is the standing record. Spain sits at a lowly 0-3 against Team USA since 2008 and, like every team in the world except Argentina, has yet to win a gold medal in basketball without going through the Americans in the Gasol-Navarro Era. On the other hand, the USA hasn’t played Spain in its home venue since the Gasols were in elementary school and Team USA had guys called MJ, Magic and Sir Charles on its squad. Wouldn’t the Palacio de Deportes make the perfect venue for the perfect storm?

Call it delusional thinking, superstition, trolling if you must, but this longtime European basketball fan believes the time is now. This Team Spain should be good for at least 90 points against the USA in a final World Cup match and here’s to thinking all the big men in the world won’t be enough to stop the best European international team since Yugoslavia was dissolved.

You read it here first: Spain will win this World Cup.

And, in a basketball world turned temporary upside down, Messina will certainly be proud.

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Tags: FIBA World Cup Pau Gasol Sergio Scariolo Spain Team USA

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