U.S. best bet in Olympic hoops

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The NBA Finals might be ending, but the summer of basketball continues with the Olympics. On Sunday, 12 teams begin their journey, and the U.S. is an enormous favorite to take gold for the fourth consecutive Games. However, basketball is now a global sport, and as the Americans learned in the four exhibitions in Las Vegas, this will not be a cakewalk despite being as high as -525 to win.

But remember, the FIBA game is different, and the format for the Olympics has changed this season. Bettors expecting a game similar to the one they have watched for eight months will be very surprised.

 

The format

 

This year the Olympic basketball tournament takes on a new look. In the past, the group stage consisted of two groups of six teams, but this year it will be three groups of four teams. Like any other competition of group play, the top two teams from each group will advance to the knockout bracket, as will the two best third-place teams. After that, a draw will take place to produce the bracket, and it will be classic tournament style from that point on. The change in format has reduced the number of games played for an eventual gold-medal game competitor from eight to six.

 

The game 

 

Olympic games are played under FIBA rules, so bettors tuning in for the first time might need to make some adjustments. Games have 10-minute quarters and a five-foul limit, as opposed to six in the NBA. On the court, there is no goaltending and there are no three-second violations. The FIBA 3-point line is closer, checking in at 20 feet 6 inches instead of 23-9 in the NBA. 

The way fouls are called is different as well. Gone are the days of pump-faking a defender into the air and jumping into him. Touch fouls are not called on this stage, and the game takes on a very physical nature. Generally, besides a player winding up and bringing down his or her arm, it’s game on in FIBA hoops. 

 

The teams (odds via DraftKings) 

 

U.S. (-320) 

The odds on Team USA to win gold have been steadily dropping over the last 10 days. The exhibition losses to Nigeria and Australia did not help, but this adjustment has been mostly due to the status of the roster. Bradley Beal is no longer with the team after he entered coronavirus protocols last week, Kevin Love pulled out due to injury concerns and Zach LaVine will miss at least the beginning of the tournament with his own COVID-19 issues. Keldon Johnson and JaVale McGee were brought in to replace Beal and Love, but the depth has taken a massive blow. Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker are on their way after the NBA Finals, but they will not arrive in Tokyo until the day before the tournament begins and must acclimate themselves to FIBA basketball.

Still, the situation is not as dire as some would have you believe. The price of -320 (76.2%) is apt and, one could argue, cheap. Team USA is the best team in this tournament, and a gap exists between the U.S. and the competition when firing on all cylinders. Gregg Popovich has implemented a switch-all defensive scheme that is perfect for a team with this size and length. That was apparent Sunday in the Americans’ win over Spain, as they forced 20 turnovers and held the Spaniards to 38.3% shooting. Team USA might have trouble covering the big numbers it is laying early, but as the Americans get comfortable, expect them to look better the further they advance.

 

Australia (+ 750) 

As reflected by the odds here, the Boomers (slang for adult male kangaroos) are the biggest threat to Team USA. The roster includes six NBA players, and the Aussies can shoot and play defense. Patty Mills leads the way, but with him are Joe Ingles, Matisse Thybulle and Aron Baynes. Josh Green, coming off an underwhelming rookie year in Dallas, is a solid rim runner who can attack the hoop, and Dante Exum, when healthy, is a rangy defender who can guard multiple positions. Remember Jock Landale? He played 41 games for Melbourne in NBL Australia and averaged 16.4 points on 54.5% shooting. He has improved his shooting stroke as well, hitting 38.9% of his 3.6 3-point attempts per game. Landale will be a force inside and outside.

DraftKings has Australia as the second choice, but I cannot stress enough to shop for futures on this team. As of Tuesday, William Hill had the Boomers at 20-1 to win gold, very far from the market consensus. They are the odds-on favorites to win Group B against Germany, Italy and Nigeria, and with a favorable draw they can find their way to the gold-medal game.

 

Spain (+ 900)

La Roja was once a basketball power, even in the FIBA World Cup in 2019, but the best days are behind this geriatric basketball squad. Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez and Marc and Pau Gasol are all still major role players for this team, and all are 35 or older. Ricky Rubio is the young gun of the starting lineup, and he turns 31 in October. The roster has plenty of talent, but it’s hard to ignore the gap in age between this squad and its opponents. However, Spain does have some youth. Alberto Abalde, 25, is a massive 6-foot-7 guard who can shoot the lights out (42.6% for Real Madrid in the 2020-21 season), and Usman Garuba is a 19-year-old NBA prospect who will likely be drafted in the first round while he is in Tokyo. Spain has size and shooting ability, but when the Americans were running up and down the floor in the second half Sunday, it was pretty clear this is not the Spain of years past.

The market has seemingly priced Spain as if it is that team, though. For a while, the Spaniards were the second choice to win gold, and while they covered with a 3-point shot as time expired, they were priced as just 8-point underdogs at the open of their exhibition against Team USA. There should be some value in betting against Spain on a night-to-night basis, especially in group games against Argentina and Slovenia.

 

Slovenia (+ 1500)

The Slovenians have Luka Doncic, so they have a chance, but bettors are getting a watered-down price due to his presence. Slovenia ran through its Olympic qualifying tournament, hitting one speed bump in Lithuania. In that contest Doncic had to play 33 minutes, dropping 31 points on 56.5% shooting with 13 assists and 11 rebounds. Doncic’s efforts allowed Slovenia to clinch its first spot in the Olympics, but the competition it will face will be similar to Lithuania. Can Doncic keep up that kind of play for three group games and a potential run to a gold medal?

However, Doncic will have some help. Former Virginia Cavalier Mike Tobey starts at center for Slovenia and is a quality player. He averaged 9.6 points and 5.0 rebounds for Valencia in the EuroLeague and put up 15.0 points and 7.5 rebounds in the qualifying tournament. Jaka Blazic shot 46.6% on 5.5 3-point attempts per game in the most recent EuroCup and averaged 16.9 points for Cedevita Olimpija in the ABA league. After that, the roster lacks depth, which will ultimately lead to its downfall. Bettors should be looking for much more than just 15-1 on a team built like this.

 

France (+ 1600) 

The French team will be a problem because its roster is best suited for the rules of FIBA basketball with Rudy Gobert. With no three-second violations and the ability to rebound inside the cylinder, Les Bleus will be a nightmare to score on. They also have legitimate perimeter talent. Evan Fournier and Frank Ntilikina provide dynamic defense at the point of attack, and Nicolas Batum is still as crafty as ever on that end of the floor, as shown in his postseason performances for the Los Angeles Clippers. Add Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who is a fine defender, and this group has the potential to be the best defensive team in the tournament.

But it is not short on offense either. Batum and Fournier are solid shooters, and Gobert provides a legit lob threat that will provide the edge in many matchups. However, the glaring weakness at point guard will likely be what holds this team back. As great as Ntilikina is on defense, he is not a threat on offense, even as a ball-handler. Andrew Albicy is the best option to run the offense, as he averaged 7.8 points and 4.0 assists in Liga ACB last season, but at 5-10 he is small. The defensive style for France, paired with FIBA rules, make Les Bleus a threat, but at some point the offense has to operate at a high level. There is value here, though, as they are more likely to win a gold medal than Slovenia, which is ahead of them in the futures market. 

 

Nigeria (+ 3000) and Argentina (+ 3500) 

This is where we get to teams that need almost everything to go right for a shot to win gold. Nigeria got the attention of the basketball world by beating Team USA in an exhibition, but many did not notice when Nigeria got crushed by 39 points by an Australia team resting four starters. Nigeria has some quality athletes and seven NBA players on its roster, but this team has some major limitations. The 20-for-42 performance from 3-point range against the U.S. was an anomaly, supported by the 8-for-31 night against Australia. The presence of Precious Achiuwa, Chimezie Metu and Josh Okogie will make D’Tigers a scrappy defensive team, but they will likely be pressed for consistent offense. Bettors can still find 100-1 on them to win gold, by far the best price on the board, if so inclined.

As for Argentina, I don’t find much to like in the big picture. Luis Scola is playing 20 minutes per game, and Facundo Campazzo is a major role player. Luca Vildoza is a decent shooter but has hit only 35.9% of his 3-point attempts in his international career. Marcos Delia is a quality big man but offers nothing in terms of stretching the floor. It will be fun to see a salt-and-pepper-haired Scola ball out for a bit, but this team is not a legitimate threat to win gold, or even to medal.

 

Italy (+ 4000), Czech Republic (+ 10000), Germany (+ 15000), Japan (+ 30000), Iran (+ 50000)

Given the landscape of this tournament, these teams are unlikely to make it out of group play. They have a smattering of players to watch, but these squads likely will be on the wrong end of lopsided results. Nicolo Melli, Danilo Gallinari and Nico Mannion make up Italy’s core, so the Italians will sometimes turn in competitive performances. Tomas Satoransky will be a key cog on a sneaky solid Czech team, and Rui Hachimura will have his time for Japan. However, any money spent on futures here is better off donated to your favorite charity.

 

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