BILBAO, Spain -- There's only one way to properly prepare for the two-plus weeks of late-summer basketball that starts Saturday all over Espana: A special edition of FIBA World Cup Power Rankings from your trusty and fully international committee (of one). How they rank from No. 1 to No. 24 ...
1. UNITED STATES (Group C)
Who else could sit atop the biggest field in tournament history? The Americans have won 54 games in a row, either in tournaments or exhibitions, since their last loss under Mike Krzyzewski in 2006. And they're widely seen as a lock to win their first eight games in Spain.
That's right: They're a presumed lock to start out 8-0 even after Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Russell Westbrook all removed themselves from the roster ... and after losing poor Paul George, too.
For all the withdrawals and all the USA Basketball-related fretting over the past month, Spain remains the only team among the 23 rival nations assembled here that you'd give a legit shot to beat the Americans, which can only happen if both teams make it to the Sept. 14 final. I think they both will and fully expect the Yanks to take that game, too, but Spain is also the lone opponent in the field against which Team USA can definitively answer the lingering questions about its lack of continuity, big-game experience or go-to guys in crunch time. So you'll have to be a bit patient as well.
2. SPAIN (Group A)
If the hosts are feeling any extra Last Dance pressure, it's been impossible to tell in recent weeks. The Spaniards went unbeaten in their eight exhibition games and just throttled Argentina by a tidy 33 points. So, yeah, they look ready.
Would the likes of Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro and Felipe Reyes all still be playing for the national team if this tournament was anywhere but home? Probably not. But here we are on Spanish soil and all four thirty-somethings have stuck it out for one more ride, hoping they can finally combine with Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio and the rest of this impressive squad to topple the Yanks after near misses in each of the past two Olympic finals.
I actually expect lots of folks to pick Spain to beat Team USA if both teams get to the title game, based on the idea that Spain's huge continuity edge and the home-court advantage can expose a largely untested American squad. I've also already shared why I think that's potentially flawed thinking, but the other big worry for the Spaniards is how fresh and healthy they'll be come Sept. 14. Don't forget that the hosts face a far tougher road to get to the final than the Americans, needing to outlast six other top 10 teams on the A/B side of the bracket.
3. BRAZIL (Group A)
Nothing is going to make the folks back home forget how things ended for Brazil in their World Cup. But maybe the basketball Selecao can ease the pain ever so slightly by going beyond the quarterfinals of a major tournament … something that hasn't happened for this generation of Brazilian stars at the Olympics or on the FIBA stage.
You surely know many of the key names by now. Big men Nene, Tiago Splitter, Anderson Varejao and backcourt speedster Leandro Barbosa are the NBA vets who, along with point guard Marcelinho Huertas and the outstanding coaching of Ruben Magnano, have combined to give Team USA fits in the past. Six of the 12 players on the World Cup roster, in fact, were on Brazil's squad as far back as the 2002 FIBA World Championship in Indianapolis.
The downside there, of course, is that all of those aforementioned stalwarts are in their 30s apart from Splitter ... who is 29. Rest assured that USA Basketball officials are pleased to see Brazil on the other side of the bracket -- stuck in a daunting Group A with Spain, France and Serbia -- but let's see how this crew copes with the added pressure that comes with knowing that it's running out of chances to live up to its lofty billing.
4. FRANCE (Group A)
If Grantland's international-hoops-loving Bill Simmons needs an idea for his next 5,000-word "What If?" column, we've got it for him. Imagine if France, reigning European champions after finally breaking through last summer to beat Spain and Lithuania back-to-back and win the 2013 EuroBasket crown, had its whole team in Espana now. What would happen if Vincent Collet, one of our favorite foreign coaches, had Tony Parker, Joakim Noah, Nando De Colo, Kevin Seraphin and Alexis Ajinca on his World Cup roster?
Led by Boris Diaw and Nicolas Batum, with the likes of Mickael Gelabele and the emerging Rudy Gobert in support roles, France should still be a long and athletic handful in Group A and beyond. But a full-strength France would be right up there with the hosts -- and maybe even ahead of them -- on the list of teams capable of halting a Team USA win streak that stretches all the way back to the third-place game of the 2006 Worlds. As currently constructed, France can't be that sort of threat.
With Parker skipping this event for the third straight time and De Colo having recently suffered a broken hand, it's up to the untested guards Collet does have at his disposal to step up and help Diaw and Batum put France in contention for a top-three finish. That means Evan Fournier, freshly traded from the Denver Nuggets to the Orlando Magic in the Arron Afflalo trade, will be scrutinized much more than usual.
5. GREECE (Group B)
Conventional wisdom holds that the Greeks, who needed a wild card just to get here, are in the midst of rebuilding after several mainstays moved on from the squad that stunned Team USA in the 2006 World Championship semifinals. In reality, Greece still offers up a roster filled with interesting and dangerous talents, even after saying farewell to the likes of Vassilis Spanoulis, Theo Papaloukas and Sofoklis "Baby Shaq" Schortsanitis.
The intrigue naturally starts with the Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo, who, much like Team USA's Anthony Davis, is likely headed for more exposure in this World Cup than he can count on next season in Brewtown. Even better news: The Greek Freak, by all accounts, has been sharp in recent exhibition games to give you the feeling he's ready for this leap onto the biggest stage of his career to date.
It doesn't stop there for Greece, either. The Houston Rockets, remember, just signed swingman Kostas Papanikolaou to a substantial new contract, while Memphis Grizzlies point guard Nick Calathes is poised to play for his country even though his NBA suspension for taking a banned substance remains in effect for 13 more games. One more key Greek to watch is coach Fotis Katsikaris, who has an excellent reputation throughout Europe.
6. SERBIA (Group A)
A reminder of Serbia's glory days is easy to find right there on the bench, where former star point guard Aleksandar Djordjevic now serves as head coach. But the composition of today's squad is thoroughly different than it was in Djordjevic's playing days, since none of Serbia's current NBA players is close to the Stojakovic-Divac-Bodiroga zip code in terms of ability.
This Serbian squad relies on depth and consistency as opposed to those star-driven rosters of the past. Veteran center Nenad Krstic, seasoned guard Milos Teodosic and Phoenix Suns draftee Bogdan Bogdanovic are the closest things to glamour names, but it's also a tougher and more experienced group than the one that made it all the way to the semifinals of 2010 Worlds.
That team was desperately unlucky (some would say robbed) to lose its 2010 semifinal to host Turkey. I'd say getting dumped into the Group of Death with Spain, Brazil and France is an equally harsh dose of misfortune, but rest assured that the Group B winner or second-place team won't relish seeing the Serbs in the round of 16.
7. SLOVENIA (Group D)
A team with two Dragics? You can safely presume the Slovenians will thus be a personal favorite for the committee (of one) despite the fact that this is a younger group than they typically field around Suns star Goran Dragic, who qualifies as the only NBA player on the roster.
I suspect, furthermore, that you'll see some Dragic in all of them and not just younger brother Zoran. It's a scrappy, stubborn squad of battlers that, if nothing else, will always play hard. Edo Muric, Jaka Blazic and Miha Zupan (who happens to be deaf) are three more names who fit that mold and find themselves with a higher-than-expected ranking here because of the dearth of top teams in Groups C and D, as well as the sudden hope of finishing second or even first in D after Lithuania lost point guard Mantas Kalnietis.
Yet it's a small team, too, which will try to compensate for its lack of size and the absence of the injured Erazem Lorbek (whose NBA rights belong to the San Antonio Spurs, courtesy of the Kawhi Leonard/George Hill trade) by firing away from deep. As Stephen Curry shared the other day about a Team USA film session: "A lot of them were joking that I was playing for the wrong team because they shot a lot of 3s and were just shooting them all over the court."
8. LITHUANIA (Group D)
Of the 12 teams in Group C and D, really only one has the personnel and pedigree to truly unsettle Team USA on the road to the Sept. 14 championship game. But even the famously dangerous Lithuanians, who played the Americans so close at the 2012 London Olympics and made it all the way to the 2013 EuroBasket final last summer, would be forced to concede they aren't the same threat USA Basketball officials have come to know all too well.
Not with offensive force Linas Kleiza injured. And not after point guard Mantas Kalnietis suffered a broken collarbone earlier this week. With those two missing, the Toronto Raptors' Jonas Valanciunas will have to do even more than Lithuania's frenzied fans back home expect -- as will Houston's Donatas Motiejunas -- just to get to a semifinal against the Yanks.
In Kalnietis, Lithuania finally had a top-level European point guard to step into the job filled for so long by the legendary Sarunas Jasikevicius, who you'll surely recall was revered in this cyberspace as much as he was anywhere. But point guard is the one position at which Lithuania has zero depth, so the injury is a crusher for a team otherwise stocked with athleticism, size and shooting ability.
9. ARGENTINA (Group B)
The future for mighty Argentina is unavoidably and inexplicably bleak. The present isn't especially sunny, either.
What was supposed to be a last hurrah for a team of champions has been undone by the late-season leg injury suffered by Manu Ginobili and Carlos Delfino's ongoing foot problems. Like the retired Fabricio Oberto and Pepe Sanchez, neither Ginobili nor Delfino is on the World Cup roster to bid an on-court farewell to the international game alongside fellow national-team stalwarts Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni, Pablo Prigioni and Walter Herrmann.
The Argentinians still might be able to muster enough firepower and pride to hold off Greece and Croatia to win a wide-open Group B, but they would then be greeted by one of the beasts from Group A in the round of 16 (likely France or Serbia) even if they do so. And with curiously so little looming in the talent pipeline anywhere close to the standard set by all those vets from the Ginobili Generation, it's fair to start wondering how far this proud nation might fall once this World Cup ends.
10. CROATIA (Group B)
No one in Croatia is waiting for the next Drazen Petrovic because there obviously won't be another Drazen Petrovic. There simply can't be another Drazen. However ...
A modern-day Croat with something approaching Petrovic-level toughness and a Drazen-esque will to win? The folks back home are hopeful that young big man Dario Saric, taken No. 12 overall by Orlando on behalf of Philadelphia in the June draft, can ultimately develop into that sort of leader for his national team.
Of course, Saric is only 20 and will spend next season playing in Turkey as opposed to Philly, so it's not quite fair to expect too much so soon. Brooklyn Nets-bound Bojan Bogdanovic, Indiana Pacer-to-be Damjan Rudez, American-born Oliver Lafayette and veteran big man Ante Tomic (whose NBA rights are still held by the Utah Jazz) will be there for Saric to lean on. (And potential future lottery pick Mario Hezonja -- who, much to the annoyance of NBA types, barely played last season at Barcelona -- will be there to keep the American scouts busy whenever he sees the court.)
11. AUSTRALIA (Group D)
It's truly a shame that a couple of perennial faves at Stein Line HQ -- Andrew Bogut and Patty Mills -- aren't sufficiently healthy to play. Yet even without those two, Australia sports a squad teeming with current or former NBAers, headlined by Spurs center Aron Baynes (who's had a huge summer in warmup games) and the Cleveland Cavaliers' gritty Matty Dellavedova (who's bound to remain one of the most popular Cavs, even after a certain LeBron James came home this summer).
The focus on our shores, mind you, is always going to be Dante Exum when Australia comes up. That's true even if Exum, as it appears, opens the tournament as the first guard off the bench behind Dellavedova and Valparaiso ex Ryan Brokhoeff, just two months after the Jazz made Exum the No. 5 overall pick in the June draft.
The Boomers are clearly trying to lessen expectations for Exum in the 19-year-old's first major competition of any kind. The bigger issue, though, will be mustering enough shooting to make the most of their trademark Aussie toughness. Which is going to be a problem with Mills out.
12. UKRAINE (Group C)
One of my first NBA writing assignments called for your faithful correspondent, at a trembling 20, to interview then-Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Fratello about a young Soviet forward named Alexander Volkov, who was part of a groundbreaking class of rookies that came to the NBA from Europe in the summer of 1989.
Twenty-five years later, Fratello is coaching Ukraine at the FIBA World Cup and Volkov is his federation boss. With Fratello on the bench and Pooh Jeter at the point as a naturalized citizen, Ukraine reached the quarterfinals of last summer's EuroBasket tournament and will try to match that in an even bigger tournament by capitalizing on the more favorable C/D side of the bracket.
Finishing second in Group C would certainly help Ukraine's cause there. And it's not out of the question, despite the potential distraction of all the trouble back home, because there is no clear-cut No. 2 in the pool and since the United States is not on Fratello's schedule until the finale of a five-games-in-six-days cycle.
13. TURKEY (Group C)
If Turkey could flank Omer Asik with Ersan Ilyasova and Enes Kanter, Team USA might have faced a test in this tournament as soon as Sunday. But Milwaukee's Ilyasova and Utah's Kanter aren't playing for the national team this summer, leaving Asik and a slew of young players to try to hang in there when the Turks and Yanks meet this weekend in a rematch of the 2010 Worlds final in Istanbul.
Expect that particular game to be a bit of a mismatch, but Turkey might still have enough to finish second in Group C, given the overall underwhelming nature of that six-team pool and the fact that a few players whose rights are held by NBA teams -- Furkan Aldemir (Philadelphia), Emir Preldzic (Dallas Mavericks) and Cenk Akyol (Los Angeles Clippers) -- join Asik in the squad.
Yet it's an undeniable worry for the Turks that they rarely travel well. When they finished second at EuroBasket in 2001, just as with the Worlds four years ago, it was a tournament played on home soil. Now they find themselves in Spain ... and with only one NBA player on the roster thanks to the international retirements of Hedo Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur on top of the Ilyasova/Kanter absences.
14. PUERTO RICO (Group B)
The way they hung for a half last week at Madison Square Garden made it appear as though the Puerto Ricans still possess some of the magic that infamously floored the United States in the teams' first group game at the Athens Olympics in 2004. The key words there, though, are for a half.
A decade later, Puerto Rico's two best players play the same position. And even when Carlos Arroyo and J.J. Barea manage to click and give opponents fits with their shot-making out of pick-and-rolls, they can't do anything about the fact that top big man Renaldo Balkman (sore left heel) is ailing. Or the fact that long-serving center Daniel Santiago is now 38 with creaky knees.
It also doesn't help that many of Puerto Rico's players show up tired for summer tournaments because local officials continue to insist on a league schedule that runs from March to July. They'll almost certainly place somewhere in the top four of Group B, as long as the ever-active Balkman is healthy enough to play major minutes, but the goal for this historically up-and-down squad is finishing at least third to avoid a likely Round of 16 date with Spain.
15. FINLAND (Group C)
The natural instinct on Day 1 of the tournament will be imagining how much different Saturday's opener might have been if Canada had received the wild-card entry that went to Finland. Instead of a showdown with the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Olynyk and Steve Nash as a GM, Team USA will be focused on stopping Petteri Koponen (whose draft rights belong to the Dallas Mavericks), Cleveland's Erik Murphy and 38-year-old Atlanta Hawks alumnus Hanno Mottola.
Yet it must be said that the initial outrage that greeted Finland's selection by FIBA -- with the wild card apparently clinched by financial support from the creators of the Angry Birds video game franchise -- might prove excessive if the Finns wind up finishing in the top four of Group C. Which certainly seems doable.
Even without Drew Gooden, whose bid to secure a Finnish passport could not be completed in time, Finland has a legit shot to spring a surprise or two and finish ahead of New Zealand and the Dominican Republic in Group C. The keys will be outside shooting and Koponen, who has spent his entire career in Europe to date but can do a little of everything as a point guard with size, range and decent instincts on D.
16. MEXICO (Group D)
The way El Tri recovered to qualify for soccer's World Cup and advance to the knockout stages after so nearly failing to even make it to Brazil means we probably have to retire that line about Mexico looking more like a basketball country in recent months. Yet this trip to Spain for the #12guerreros, as they're known back home, remains a momentous occasion.
For the first time in 40 years, Mexico has qualified for basketball's answer to the Copa Mundial, having uncorked a fairy-tale run to win it all at last summer's FIBA Americas tournament in Venezuela. And Spanish coach Sergio Valdeolmillos will have all of the key contributors from that squad back for this tournament, starting with Nets reserve guard Jorge Gutierrez and, of course, #12guerreros go-to guy Gustavo Ayon.
Ayon still doesn't have a contract for next season in the NBA or abroad -- and Mexico hasn't looked so good in its exhibition games this summer -- but those are small annoyances in the big picture. Our neighbors to the south are back on the hardwood of the world stage for the first time in four decades and, thanks to their spot in Group D alongside the very beatable Angola and South Korea, have a real shot to finish in the top four in pool play and meet the United States in the Round of 16.
17. NEW ZEALAND (Group C)
I can't imagine a team that'll be happier to see the committee (of one) in Spain than this one. Yours truly hasn't covered this event in person since 2002, which happened to be same 2002 FIBA World Championship in Indianapolis at which New Zealand somehow made the semifinals and finished fourth ... comfortably ahead of the sixth-place United States.
The reality, though, is that there's no good-luck charm that can get the Kiwis anywhere near the Final Four again. With Steven Adams choosing to pass on national-team duty to focus on his Oklahoma City Thunder development, New Zealand would undoubtedly settle for a fourth-place finish in Group C to claim a spot in the single-elimination phase for the top 16 nations after pool play.
The Kiwis still rely on Kirk Penney to lead the offense and sport a few more recognizable names: Duke alumnus Nick Horvath, current University of Hawaii forward Isaac Fotu and a former Golden State Warriors summer leaguer named Robert Loe. But if they do end up claiming a top-four spot in the group, you can safely assume it'll be their collective toughness, more than any one player, that makes it happen.
18. SOUTH KOREA (Group D)
Had to turn to trusty colleague Alvaro Martin of ESPN Deportes for some bankable intel on the South Korea squad. The committee (of one) knows what it doesn't know. And it knows whom to call in those incredibly rare situations.
And now, thanks to Alvaro, I can relay to you that South Korea coach Yoo Jae-Hak is known to employ a run-and-gun offense modeled after Mike D'Antoni's old "Seven Seconds or Less" scheme in Phoenix.
The problem? The South Koreans, I'm told, might actually pass the ball too much if that's possible. Their two most accomplished players, furthermore, are both in their mid-to-late 30s. Power forward Kim Joo-Sung, who turns 35 in November, is said to be battling knee and ankle problems. And naturalized American Moon Tae-Jong, who has played in Spain, Turkey and Greece under the name Jarod Stevenson, is 38.
19. IRAN (Group A)
The one and only Hamed Haddadi last played in the NBA in Phoenix in 2012-13, but the sense here is he still has enough of a cult following from his time in Memphis to hook some viewers.
Yet no less a curiosity is power forward Arsalam Kazemi, who was taken No. 54
overall by Washington on behalf of the Sixers in 2013 as the first Iranian ever drafted. Kazemi opted to play in his native country on a lucrative deal last season as opposed to moving into a more competitive league abroad. This tournament, then, is a rare opportunity for Philly (and its fans) to evaluate Kazemi against top-flight competition.
In team terms, Iran has won three of the past four Asian titles despite the fact that China is routinely regarded as the powerhouse of the region. In mighty Group A, though, look for Haddadi & Co. to beat Egypt -- and no one else -- to match its one-win haul (over Tunisia) from the 2010 Worlds in Turkey.
20. PHILIPPINES (Group B)
Any attention this team generates in the States is bound to focus on (A) Andray Blatche playing for the Philippines as a naturalized citizen or (B) Blatche auditioning for a new contract in the NBA as an unsigned free agent reveling in some helpful September exposure.
Yet that's the extremely narrow view. The more significant story here is that the hoops-mad Philippines -- where roundball is religion just like it is in Lithuania -- has qualified for its first major tournament since 1978. And that it did so by beating South Korea, which has dominated Asia for decades.
South Korea is ranked higher here largely because it resides in the cushier Group D with Angola and Mexico and thus has a chance to go farther in the tournament. But no matter. Whether or not Blatche & Co. even win a game in Group B along the way, Filipinos everywhere will rejoice in the fact that their Gilas are back where they've longed to be. Back at the adult table of world basketball.
21. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC (Group C)
The unavailability of Al Horford (who is still recovering from two straight seasons of pectoral injuries in Atlanta) and the ongoing lack of dependable floor leadership (because the Dominicans still haven't been able to develop a safe-hands point guard) suggests that even fourth place in Group C will be out of reach.
Ten-year NBA veteran Francisco Garcia landed a new contract with the Rockets on the very next day after the Dominican Republic's recent exhibition loss to Team USA at Madison Square Garden, but that seemingly upbeat slice of news can't obscure the fact that the 43-point mismatch was the most lopsided of the Americans' four warmup games this month.
With a healthy Horford, finishing ahead of New Zealand and Finland to get out of Group C wouldn't sound like such a mountain to scale. Without Horford? Chances are there won't be much to analyze here beyond the limited minutes incoming Kentucky freshman big man/future NBA prospect Karl Towns gets off the Dominican bench.
22. ANGOLA (Group D)
I'm better off than Charles Barkley was way back in 1992. I do know a little something about Angola.
I know that the Angolans have missed only one FIBA World Cup since 1986 ... and that they don't export their players much despite that status as a perennial African power ... and that the tallest player on the team, Yanick Moreira, plays his college ball at SMU not too far from the power rankings dungeon.
To be fair, though, we all should know a lot more about the Angolans by now than The Chuckster ever did. They were a total mystery heading into the '92 Olympics in Barcelona, but we're only eight years removed from that fun run at the 2006 Worlds in Japan during which Angola won three games, gave Spain an unexpected hard time and dragged Dirk Nowitzki-led Germany to three overtimes before losing to France in the round of 16. Olimpio Cipriano and Joaquim Gomes are among the 2006-ers still on the squad.
23. SENEGAL (Group B)
The worldwide small-ball craze hasn't quite made it all the way to Senegal. This is the one team that surely wishes you could get away with playing four or five bigs at once, since all of Senegal's most accomplished players are centers or power forwards.
The Minnesota Timberwolves' Gorgui Dieng is the standout. Former NBAers Hamady Ndiaye and Seattle SuperSonics lottery draft bust Mohammed Saer Sene are on the roster, too. I've also been assured that Ohio University's Maurice Ndour is going to be studied closely by the NBA teams in attendance ... as long as he can force his way onto the floor.
Humble recommendation: Tune in Sept. 4 when Senegal meets the undersized Philippines in the Group B finale for both teams. Should be quite a contrast in styles.
24. EGYPT (Group A)
In the 1980s and early '90s, Egypt reigned as the kings of African basketball. But it's been a long 20 years since we've seen an Egyptian squad playing at this level, going all the way back to the 1994 FIBA World Championship in Toronto.
Egypt actually won a game in Toronto -- beating Cuba -- but will almost certainly have to settle for happy-to-be-here status after landing in the unforgiving Group A. How it managed crucial wins in qualifying over the likes of Tunisia and Cape Verde, after going winless in the opening round of AfroBasket qualifying, still confounds folks well acquainted with basketball in the region.
But they're here. And they're here carrying at least one player with U.S. ties: Omar Oraby is a 7-foot-2 center who played collegiately at Rice and USC and had a stint on the Rockets' summer-league team.