The World Cup is about to start! Actual high-caliber basketball is almost back! Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are not participating in the event starting this Saturday, to the relief of most Spurs fans. Cory Joseph's Canada and Marco Belinelli's Italy didn't qualify and Patty Mills will miss the tournament with injury. But Boris Diaw, Aron Baynes and Tiago Splitter will be there, so let's look at their teams and what their roles will likely be.
Group A (in order of projected finish. The top four teams qualify)
The Brazilian big man rotation of Tiago Splitter, Nene and Anderson Varejao is only second to Spain's at the international level. Those are three proven NBA contributors with size, athleticism and experience. They are also all better suited to play center in FIBA ball. That's the problem with Brazil, which would happily trade one of those guys for a solid wing given the chance: their three best players are all bigs.
Marcus Vinicius, who had a cup of coffee with the Hornets in 2006, starts at the three and is a good shooter but can't create off the dribble to save his life. Alex Garcia, who was a Spur for a minute, is a defensive specialist who can't shoot. And Leandro Barbosa will be the biggest black hole on offense in the tournament, now that Linas Kleiza is out.
So Brazil's best bet to stabilize its attack rests in its point guards. Marcelo Huertas is one of the best players not in the NBA right now, a passing savant who can pick apart even the best defenses when he is operating at his highest level. Then there's Raul Neto, a Jazz draftee who fearlessly attacks the rim and hounds ball-handlers. Those two --along with Larry Taylor, when his number is called -- will need to play at a high level for the South Americans to be as dangerous as they can be.
Brazil has the talent of a medal hopefuls but their lack of shooting, iffy effort on perimeter defense and the overlapping skills of its best players could doom them to an early exit.
Splitter will start and play a lot of minutes, simply because he is the most disciplined player on the team and has great chemistry with the point guards on the pick-and-roll. He will have a slightly bigger role than he does with the Spurs, with the occasional post-up called for him. But his contributions won't be flashy, which is something Spurs fans have learned to accept. He will set screens and roll hard for easy finishes on offense and try to cover for a leaky perimeter defense on the other end.
A full French team is up there with Spain in the second-tier behind the USA starting lineup of Parker-Gelabale-Batum-Diaw-Noah with Nando De Colo, Evan Fournier, Florent Pietrus, Alexis Ajinca and Ian Mahinmi backing them up has talent to spare. Unfortunately, that's not the team that will be playing in Spain. Tony Parker decided to take the summer off, as did Noah. Ajinca and De Colo, who are injured. That leaves France severely weakened after their Eurobasket championship.
As it stands, France will go as far as Nicolas Batum and Boris Diaw take them. With Parker and De Colo out, the point guards on the team are the steady but underwhelming Antonie Diot and the talented but inexperienced Thomas Huertel. Down low Joffrey Lauvergne is a heady, tough bruiser with a nice touch but he is no defensive anchor and Mahinmi and Rudy Gobert are fearsome shot-blockers who nonetheless are not disciplined enough to come close to matching Noah's defensive impact.
Fortunately for France, Batum shows much more assertiveness in the international game than he shows in the league and his multiple talents mask a lot of weaknesses. Diaw missed some friendlies due to insurance problems but he should be ready to try to lead his team to the medal stage once more after they got their first great triumph in recent history in Eurobasket.
Boris will play a lot and be a key contributor on both ends. Defensively he will need to be a vocal leader and on the other end he will be trusted to create for others and to score himself. Because of his big role on offense, I am fully expecting his efficiency to suffer. But as long as he can put points on the board he will be doing his job. A tentative Diaw could really hurt France's chances. But last season showed Boris is not that guy anymore.
Australia and Canada are next in line as basketball superpowers, just as Argentina's star fades and some key Spaniard players begin to show their age. Dante Exum, Thon Maker, Cameron Bairstow and Ben Simmons are ready to join veterans Patty Mills, Chris Andersen, Matthew Dellavedova, Joe Ingles, Aron Baynes and (ideally) Andrew Bogut to form a true powerhouse. There will be a time in the near future when Australia will be a medal hopeful. But that time isn't now.
With Patty Mills out, the team lost its best offensive weapon. Mills played shooting guard for the Boomers next to Dellavedova during the Olympics and salvaged dead possessions in his way to the scoring championship. Without him, there's no one to carry an offense that can become very predictable. Ingles is crafty, Andersen versatile and Exum is an exhilarating bundle of talent and limbs but they simply don't have that ability to create shots Patty has. So they will have to rely on physicality on defense and hope for offensive explosions from unlikely sources to truly be a threat in the knockout stage.
Australia has the length and talent to advance on a weak group and could upset an overconfident contender in the round of 16 but it's highly unlikely they make it to the medal round. And that's okay for now. Their time will come soon enough.
Aron Baynes' role
Baynes remains unsigned but could get a permanent spot with the Spurs if he so chooses by signing the qualifying offer that was tended to him. But so far there are no indications he intends to do that or, for that matter, make any commitment to a team previous to the Wolrd Cup. And that decision could end up paying off greatly for him.
Baynes has been fantastic in the friendlies leading up to the World Cup, starting next to Andersen. His ability to catch and finish or post up and throw that soft righty jump hook makes him a very interesting option for Australia on offense. Andersen will draw the other big out, which also means Bangers could attack the offensive glass, as he did against France. It wouldn't be surprising to see Baynes near the top of the rankings in rebounding and even scoring.
A great showing in the World Cup could get another NBA team interested enough on him to sign him to an offer sheet, which would force the Spurs to match or let him go. A bad showing would force him to choose between the qualifying offer an European offer. For those reasons - and because he very likely will run over some people - Baynes will be one of the most fun players to watch in Spain.