The FIBA World Cup ended on Sunday in a rather anticlimactic fashion, as the U.S. dismantled a scrappy but over matched Serbian team. Once France eliminated Spain it was a foregone conclusion that Team USA was getting the gold medal and the automatic berth for the upcoming Olympics. But even though we didn't get that Spain-USA final game we were all looking for, this World Cup was exceedingly entertaining and informative about the future of international ball. Here are some conclusions that could be drawn from the tournament.
The U.S. is still a step above everyone
Reading comments about the World Cup, you could see the confidence (or was it hubris?) had returned to the American basketball community after some humbling losses in the recent past. A win was all but guaranteed in the eyes of many and it turns out they were right. Team USA didn't just win, they dominated. A couple of teams managed to hang on for a half, but overall the result never seemed to be in question. Every win was by more than 20 points and the team seemed to play better as the opponents got tougher.
What makes such a dominant performance more remarkable is that the team was incredibly young. This new generation of players is truly special. Anthony Davis was amazing and guys like Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry showed that their game is a perfect fit for FIBA ball. The future of U.S. basketball is bright.
Spain disappointed deeply
The one team that could have legitimately beat the U.S. was Spain. They had the depth, inside edge and veteran leadership to at least make it interesting. They were hosting the event and at times it seemed they were the best team in the tournament as they took care of good teams in the group stage. Coach K was so worried about that potential final game that he carried four centers to battle the Gasol brothers and Ibaka. Yet we never got a chance to see that game because Spain wet the bed.
France deserves credit for playing a great game. They never lost their cool, took advantage of some lackadaisical perimeter defense and rebounding effort by the Spaniards and defended well enough that Spain mistakenly though their best shot was to play one-on-one basketball instead of moving the ball. Diaw and Heurtel were great and Rudy Gobert played like peak Tyson Chandler on steroids. But Spain should have still won that game. It was truly shocking to see them choke so completely.
France seems poised to join the elite
After underwhelming for years, France has finally started to live up to its potential and seems ready to join Spain in that second echelon of teams with serious finals potential. They followed a Eurobasket win with the bronze medal here and they did it while missing a bunch of their core players, including their biggest star, Tony Parker.
France has the right mix of youth and veteran leadership. A Parker, Batum, Diaw, Noah core with a supporting cast comprised of some of the players that were on the roster this year and others that missed time with injury would be as deep as anyone's, not to mention talented and versatile. Look for them to make it far in the Olympics.
For the Argentine Golden Generation, it ended with a whimper
It was predictable. Argentina went into the tournament without Manu Ginobili and Carlos Delfino. There was no front court depth whatsoever, which pushed Luis Scola to the center spot and Andres Nocioni to power forward, further decimating the wing rotation. The majority of the younger players were simply not ready to play at that level. In a way, you can make the case that the Golden Generation had already played its last game in the London Olympics, when they finished fourth. This team had little in common with that one, much less with the powerhouse of the mid aughts.
But there was still some hope that the chemistry and passion that had characterized Argentine basketball for a decade would allow this iteration to overachieve. Alas, it didn't happen. Brazil got his revenge and Argentina didn't make it past the round of 16. Now the transitional phase starts and it won't be easy. But Argentines will always have the memories of a team that made us extremely proud. All we can say is thanks.
Can Australia and Canada challenge European dominance at the second level?
The U.S. proved once again to be the best. But out of the other seven teams that reached the quarterfinals, only one wasn't European. And if the beating they took from Serbia is any indication, Brazil might not have made it there had they faced a European squad in the round of 16.
For the sport to continue to grow, it needs teams from other regions to be relevant. Asian and African basketball seem to have a ways to go before making the leap. And with Argentina fading and Brazil, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic plateauing, new challengers need to appear.
The two teams that could realistically threaten the European dominance at the second level are Australia and Canada. Tanking scandal aside, Australia had a good tournament and could have beaten Turkey if not for a miracle three pointer in the final seconds. And they did it all without Patty Mills. If their young players like Cameron Bairstow and Dante Exum keep improving and if - and this is a huge if - they get Andrew Bogut to play in the Olympics, they could be a dark horse medal team.
Unlike Australia, which will surely qualify to the Olympics, Canada's path is much tougher. The U.S. winning the World Cup helped, as there will be two berths for American teams to qualify to the Olympics and Brazil is already in as host nation. But Canada will have to battle Argentina, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico for it. Their young core of Cory Joseph, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson, Kelly Olynyk, Andrew Nicholson, Tyler Ennis and Nik Stauskas should give them a fighting chance if they all mature in time. And if they make it to Rio, no one will want to play them.
Hopefully these two teams live up to their potential and help make the sport more global.
How did the Spurs do?
Tiago Splitter 7.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game
Tiago played within himself, like he always does. He didn't try to be a hero by forcing the issue offensively and he was a stout defensive presence that often made up for a leaky perimeter D. But he didn't really impress. There were a couple of spotty performances and anyone who didn't know him wouldn't have guessed that he started for the NBA champions the past season. A mostly solid if forgettable tournament for Tiago.
Aron Baynes 16.8 points, seven rebounds and one block per game
Baynes saw his role increase dramatically from the one he had in the London Olympics and made the most of it, finishing eighth in the tournament in points per game and 15th in rebounds and blocks per game. He didn't show anything new but he handled big minutes well without fouling. It was probably not an impressive enough a performance to earn him a big contract but it confirmed he is a viable NBA player.
Boris Diaw 9.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and four assists per game
Boris led his team in assists because that's what France needed after losing Parker and De Colo. He shared the court with good rebounders but still pulled his weight in that department. And he deferred as a scorer when necessary, but also knew when to pull the offense his way. Basically, he was as instrumental to Team France's success as he was to the Spurs last season. I was scared Diaw would revert back to the gun-shy, inconsistent player he was for most of his career, but if this performance is any indication, the new version of Boris is here to stay.