Is Rio the Boomers’ Best Medal Chance Ever?

Admit it: you don’t actually believe we can medal in Rio.

I get it. Once bitten, twice shy, and your heart is still healing after Emir Preldzic ripped it out two years ago. You’re not quite ready to fall in love with a Boomers team again.

But you’re wrong and here’s why…

Last year’s “Homecoming” team for the Oceania Championship series featured six NBA players and would have had seven if not for Dante Exum’s injury during the warmup tour.

Even with Cam Bairstow returning home to the NBL, that leaves five contracted NBA players in the team bound for Rio, the most Australia has ever had at a major FIBA tournament.

I mean, our team is more stacked than the list of things to fix in the Olympic Village.

In fact, given Ryan Broekhoff, Brock Motum and Chris Goulding have all played NBA Summer League and David Andersen spent two years in the NBA, 10 of the 12 Boomers named have some form of NBA experience.

Clearly, this is our most talented team on paper and there’s plenty of talk about the goal of a medal in Rio, but is this really our best chance to win one?

We’ve come close before, losing the bronze medal game three times.

In 1988 we came up against the last of the all-collegiate US teams, one that decided you can never have too many Charles Smiths. Then in 1996 and again in 2000 we went down to Lithuania. As much as we gave it a crack in Atlanta, losing by six points, a bronze at any of those three Olympics would’ve been a surprise.

But in Rio, assuming Andrew Bogut is healthy enough to play, from looking at the field of teams, we have as much talent as any nation outside the United States.

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Spain has more NBA players listed, but three of them were not in the league last season, leaving the Boomers on par with France and Brazil with five NBA players each.

So let’s explore our chances.

In Group A with Australia are the US, France, Serbia, China and Venezuela. There’s a clear top four in that bunch that excludes China and Venezuela. It looks likely the Boomers will finish somewhere in that top four and qualify for the knockout stage.

Obviously we are unlikely to beat the U.S., so what about the rest of our group?

France has a very experienced team with Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Nic Batum leading the way. They’re missing Evan Fournier, but Rudy Gobert will be one tough matchup, even for Bogut. The rest of France’s squad contains veteran European pros like Thomas Heurtel, Florent Pietrus, Antoine Diot and former NBA player Nando De Colo, so they are deep.

They are also battle-tested having come through the tough EuroBasket and the recent Olympic qualifying tournament in Manila.

However, they just scraped by the Tall Blacks and had a hard-fought battle with Canada before prevailing in Manila, which tells me they’re not as dominant as one might think.

Parker and Diaw have certainly slowed down in recent years—Diaw to enjoy some red wine, while Parker has had his share of niggling injuries. But both are still extremely experienced in FIBA play, so it would be a huge win if the Aussies pull it off. They are certainly beatable, but we’d have to be at our best.

Serbia also punched its ticket to Rio via a recent qualifying tournament, but doesn’t possess the level of talent France does. Nikola Jokic headlines the squad along with Suns draftee Bogdan Bogdanovic, who will remain in Europe this season. Miroslav Raduljica has some NBA experience and will be a load to handle inside, while Milos Teodosic has long been considered one of the best guards playing outside the NBA.

Ranked sixth by FIBA, it’s a nation on the rise with a nice mix of youth and veteran talent, but if we pressure, shoot well and play our game, I would expect us to beat Serbia.

If I’m being conservative, we split the games between France and Serbia and beat China and Venezuela, meaning we’d finish third in Group A. Where would that leave us?

Despite not featuring the US, Group B might be the tougher group, with five teams capable of advancing.

Spain is favourite to win the group, but they’re missing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka for this campaign. Having said that, Nikola Mirotic is a nice replacement as the naturalised player in for Ibaka, and the team still features the who’s who of the ACB.

Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez and Victor Claver all have NBA experience, Sergio Rodriguez is headed back this coming season with the 76ers, while Sergio Llull and Felipe Reyes are veterans of FIBA play. Avoiding Spain in the crossover is a must, meaning the Boomers must finish in the top three in Group A.

Also in Group B is Argentina, but its best days are behind it. Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and Andres Nocioni are not capable of carrying a team for 40 minutes any longer as we saw against the US on the weekend, although Nocioni may be capable of arguing with the refs for 40 minutes. They did give us a tough outing on Wednesday in our first warmup game, but we dominated after quarter time.

Lithuania is in many ways our nemesis, having defeated us for bronze in 1996 and 2000. We beat them in group play at the 2014 World Cup, so it would have been interesting to see how we fared against them on Tuesday morning in our first warmup game. Unfortunately that one was cancelled due to a leaky roof in Buenos Aires. It seems the construction issues in Brazil have spread across the continent.

On paper we have more talent as they feature only Jonas Valanciunas and two rookies in Domantas Sabonis and Mindaugas Kuzminskas as NBA players. However, the rest of that squad (ranked third by FIBA) is made up of Euroleague veterans who have been playing together for years.

The Boomers could go into a game against Lithuania as favourites, but we’d have to play our best against a team that plays a similar style, relying on ball movement and shooting with a big anchor in the paint.

Croatia, like Australia, is a nation on the rise. After a drought of success following the Petrovic/Kukoc/Radja era, they now boast a roster with several up-and-coming talents.

Bojan Bogdanovic will lead the way offensively, but all eyes will be on Dario Saric and Mario Hezonja.

These guys are a tough matchup and, like the Serbs, have a good mix of youth and experience, but I don’t think they’re as deep as the Boomers will be in Rio.

The fifth team that could advance is Brazil. Like the Boomers, the Brazilians were to feature five current NBA players in Leandro Barbosa, Marcelo Huertas, Nene Hilario, Raul Neto and Anderson Varejao.

Sounds intimidating until you realise they’re older than Mike Krzyzewski’s side part.

Four of those five players are 33 and the team’s average age is 30, so it may struggle against the younger, faster teams in this tournament. In addition, Varejao has now been ruled out of the tournament with a back injury. While they’ve boasted headline names for the past decade, Brazil has not medalled at a major FIBA event since the 1978 World Championship, where they took bronze.

So while Group B may be tougher to come out of, there is only one team from that group whom I would be scared for the Boomers to face in the quarter-final crossover game and that is Spain. Lithuania would make me nervous, but is definitely beatable.

If we finish top three, we have a really good shot at making the medal rounds. Assuming we do, then exactly where in that top three dictates our semi-final matchup.

A third-place finish in Group A means we’d face the US in the semi-finals, all but assuring a bronze medal playoff at best. If we finish second in Group A, the winner of Group B (likely Spain) awaits in the semis, and while we’d be underdogs going in, you never know what can happen.

If we lose in the semis, my money would be on a bronze medal playoff against either France or Lithuania. Roll of the dice, folks, but it’s as good a chance as we’ve had since Tony Ronaldson became an unlikely hero 20 years ago in Atlanta.

However, isn’t this campaign in Rio in many ways a warmup for the 2019 World Cup in China and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? After all, Exum will be back and Ben Simmons and Thon Maker could pull on a Boomers jersey for the first time at a major tournament.

If Simmons and Maker are really that good and the likes of Exum, Patty Mills, Joe Ingles, Aron Baynes and Matthew Dellavedova are competing for rings in the NBA, then wouldn’t that squad give us our best shot at a podium finish?

There are many who think so and who could blame them? Simmons is looking like a very special talent who may be not only the best we’ve ever produced, but a generational type star in the NBA.

He, Maker, Exum and co. should be able to carry us to a medal, right?

The problem with that theory is twofold.

Firstly, there are no guarantees that everyone will be available. We were missing Mills and Bogut in 2014 in Spain for example, and Dante got hurt for Oceania last year, so relying on being able to select the best possible squad is wishful thinking.

Even this campaign, Exum is still not ready and Bogut is fighting an uphill battle to be fit, although his Twitter game remains in peak form.

In addition, come 2019, it’s likely that Bogut and Andersen’s careers will be in wind-down mode. Andersen is already coming back from Europe and will be pushing 40, while Bogut would be 34 in China and 35 for Tokyo with a lot of miles on his body. Having him would be a bonus, but again, no guarantees.

The second issue is, as much as we’re a nation on the rise, the same can be said of a number of other countries.

Croatia had three more NBA draftees this year in Dragan Bender, Ante Zizic and Ivica Zubac to add to Saric, Bogdanovic and Hezonja. France already had six NBA players last season and just had five more players drafted in June. And Spain continues to produce NBA talent with the likes of the Hernangomez brothers and Alex Abrines.

Clearly that European talent pool is not shrinking and seems to be concentrated around those three nations right now.

However, the scariest up-and-coming country may be one that failed to qualify for Rio.

Canada could boast as many as 14 players in the NBA this coming season. Headlined by Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and recent lottery pick Jamal Murray, those from north of the border should routinely compete for medals starting in China in 2019.

With the talent that these other nations possess, as well as how tough the US will always be, there should be no talk of a “sure-thing” medal.

The truth is, while we have this team assembled for Rio and the percentages of advancing to the medal rounds are in our favour, we need to take advantage of that.

Success breeds success and if our Boomers can come home with any kind of medal, it could set the program up for a continued run of medal contention for the next two or three Olympic campaigns thereafter.

Government funding, sponsorship dollars, participation and the general profile of the sport would all stand to benefit and only accelerate our future development.

None of those things will change how we play in Rio but the fact remains that we have the most talented team we’ve ever assembled for a major FIBA tournament right now.

Everything Andrej Lemanis has been building since he took over was with Rio in mind and no matter how talented we could be in future, all we should care about is how we utilise our current talent over the coming weeks.

Dellavedova was excited by the talent around him before the team departed Australia recently.

“We’ve got the most guys we’ve ever had playing in the NBA, guys that are playing at a really high level in Europe and winning championships there, the NBL’s going as well as it has for a long time, so the momentum from all over the world and playing against the best, we’re not going to be intimidated by anybody,” he said.

You need luck in any tournament, but you also make your own luck, and if twelve guys have an attitude like Delly’s, I’m guessing our dose is due in Rio starting August 6.


Follow me on Twitter @tomhersz

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Author of the article

When you’re introduced to the NBA as a 6 year old in 1984, staying up late to watch Bird, Magic and Dr. J, it’s pretty hard not to fall in love with the game. I became consumed with the Association, and as my own game was developing, I tried to emulate as much as I could at an early age and learn how to play “the right way”. I have memories as a teenager of being glued to Saturday Basketball on TV and spending every spare cent I had on basketball cards and replica jerseys and so began my obsession with NBA knowledge and stats. I played my first season of Fantasy Hoops in 2002, as my serious playing days were slowing down. I now play in 5 or 6 leagues every year. To say I’m obsessed with Fantasy Hoops would be an understatement. To say I love nothing more than sharing my opinion on a player’s value would be entirely accurate, and I guess, the reason why I’m here. Follow me on twitter: @tomhersz @downtownball

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