During Sunday's exhibition game between the USA men's national team and Argentina, NBA TV's duo of Steve Smith and Larry Smith repeatedly noted that Argentina is ranked third in the world. But what does that mean? FIBA's rankings are based on performance over a two-Olympic cycle, which means that Argentina's lofty ranking--behind only the USA and Spain, the two favorites to win gold over the upcoming fortnight in London--is based in part on Argentina winning gold in 2004 in Athens.
The Argentinean roster is actually strikingly similar to the group that played in Athens, but eight years older. Besides Carlos Delfino, Argentina's core is aging, which is why our friends at The Painted Area rated them sixth entering the Olympics, behind South American rivals Brazil.
The problem with rating international squads statistically is the tradeoff between a reasonable sample size and specificity. National teams play only a handful of games each year and tend to change dramatically from summer to summer. The FIBA rankings go one direction in terms of this tradeoff, so I wanted to go the other and look strictly at games played this summer.
This presents its own issues, certainly. The only truly meaningful games played this summer were during the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, held earlier this month in Venezuela to decide the last three spots in London. Everyone else has been preparing with friendlies, which they approach with varying levels of seriousness. Even in the group stages of major tournaments, international teams frequently hold something back, and players will sit out exhibition games due to minor injuries for precautionary reasons.
Still, I think there's something to be gained from how teams have actually performed thus far. So, with the help of FIBA's list of run-up games and some additional research to determine which were played with B-level lineups, I compiled all the results among teams playing in either the Olympics or the Qualifying Tournament and treated them as if they were part of a self-contained league, using the same schedule-adjusted point differential I've calculated for NBA teams in the past.
The one adjustment I made was for home-court advantage. I found that a six-point advantage for home teams made for the most consistent game-to-game ratings. That's about double home-court advantage in the NBA, but given the travel involved, it makes sense that home-court advantage would be more meaningful in international play.
Here are the results:
Country G PD adjPD SOS
United States 5 +26.6 +27.9 +1.3
Brazil 6 +11.8 +15.8 +4.0
Russia 10 +17.8 +14.1 -3.7
Spain 8 + 9.3 + 5.7 -3.5
Australia 8 + 4.5 + 3.7 -0.8
Argentina 2 -13.0 + 1.8 +14.8
Lithuania 10 + 0.7 + 1.4 +0.7
Nigeria 9 - 2.8 + 0.6 +3.4
China 4 - 1.8 + 0.1 +1.8
France 5 - 2.8 - 3.2 -0.4
Great Britain 8 -15.6 - 8.7 +6.9
Tunisia 2 -35.0 -30.8 +4.2
Based on these numbers, watching several of these teams, history and scouting reports, here are my tiers heading to London.
Gold Tier - United States
Despite a scare from Argentina on Sunday and a poor start against Spain on Tuesday, the USA has generally dominated as expected during its brief preparation for the Olympics. The biggest challenge for the U.S. will be consistent help defense. During the first half Tuesday, the USA broke down time and again, failing to help the helper, which led to easy Serge Ibaka buckets. Those attempts went away after halftime and the USA dominated the second half. To me, the bigger issue is not so much size as instincts. Players like Kevin Durant and LeBron James aren't used to being relied on for help defense, which requires them to change how they play. If that means the USA defense improves over the course of the Olympics, opponents should look out.
Silver Tier - Spain
Aside from an easy win at home against Argentina, Spain's performance over the last month has been underwhelming. The Spanish beat Great Britain by just four and won a pair of six-point games against Australia at home that were essentially ties when adjusted for home court. Even their loss to the USA, which started so well, ultimately rated no better than average. The Spanish reserve backcourt will have to play better to match the American second unit. Still, Spain has proven too much over the last six years to slip out of second, and the return of Marc Gasol (who has sat out with a shoulder injury) will strengthen the world's best post rotation.
Bronze Tier - Brazil, Russia, Argentina
These numbers only reinforce Brazil's status as top sleeper heading to London. Everyone saw Brazil challenge the USA behind a great performance from Marcelinho Huertas, but Brazil also benefits from crushing Nigeria at home before the Olympic Qualifying Tournament and topping Australia by 16 in France. The only blemish on Brazil's record is a relatively minor one - a four-point loss to France in Strasbourg last week. The Brazil-Spain clash on the final day of group play will likely decide first place in Group B - and the chance to avoid the USA until the final.
Russia is the only country besides the USA that can boast playing better than average (which is defined here as the average of all 21 teams, including those eliminated in the Qualifying Tournament) in every game it has played this summer. Russia breezed through qualifying in Venezuela and crushed a strong Lithuania team at home by 22 points in its final tuneup. Russia has not contended in recent major competitions, finishing ninth in Beijing and seventh in the 2010 World Championships, but behind the Minnesota-bound duo of Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved and several other players with NBA experience, Russia could challenge for a medal.
The numbers tell us less about Argentina than any other team. Argentina played just two tune-up games with its full squad, losing to Spain and the USA. Naturally, Argentina's strength of schedule is far and away the highest of any country. At the very least, this summer has yet to raise the kind of questions about Argentina as other teams.
Medal Round Tier - Australia, Lithuania, France, Nigeria
Aside from a 16-point loss to Brazil, the Boomers have been impressive since arriving in Europe during the middle of the month. In addition to their aforementioned tests of Spain, they also beat a French team playing near full strength on Monday in Strasbourg. While Australia boasts just two players with NBA experience (Patty Mills and David Andersen), there are plenty of competent role players around them.
Lithuania needed a late push to overcome a feisty Puerto Rico squad before blowing out the Dominican Republic to book a spot in London. Overall, Lithuania's results have been nothing special, though the depth and high-end talent on the roster make Lithuania a fringe contender.
France is coming off an impressive runner-up finish in last summer's EuroBasket competition, but has struggled more than any other power during friendlies. In fairness, the French have been without Tony Parker and Nicolas Batum at times, but that can't explain the home loss to Australia or losing at home to Belgium. (That result is not included here because it was Belgium's only game against high-level opposition this summer, making it impossible to rate the Belgians.) Maybe the French will come together when the competition matters, which is why I can't drop them any further, but we've seen this team underachieve in the past--including a 13th-place finish in the most recent World Championships--and this might be another example.
The Nigerian team was the feel-good story of the Qualifying Tournament. Typically, African teams have struggled to keep up against competition from other continents, but Nigeria has proven dangerous after adding Ike Diogu and Al-Farouq Aminu. Nigeria defeated a Greece team that was playing extremely well (+14.4 rating, which would be third among Olympic teams) in the quarterfinals of the Qualifying Tournament, then defeated the Dominican for the last spot in the Olympics. Nigeria's rating suggests the team could easily advance to the medal round.
Group Round Tier - China, Great Britain, Tunisia
A handful of recent results suggest China might be more competitive than expected in London. The counterpoint is that three of the four games came against Australia and the other against Tunisia, so we have yet to see China against an elite club. The biggest problem for China is the draw. With just one of my bottom five squads also in Group B, China will have to beat out Australia for the last spot in the medal rounds.
I'm confident based on recent results that Great Britain will not make FIBA regret allowing the host country a spot in the elite 12-team field. In fact, with home-court advantage Great Britain rates ahead of France. Still, beating anyone but China is probably too much to ask of the British.
Tunisia played just two friendlies against full national teams, losing both by 30-plus points at China and at Spain. Even accounting for home-court advantage, those results do not suggest Tunisia can be competitive in London.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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