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Over the past 50 years, basketball has grown exponentially in popularity and is now the second-most popular sport on the planet. As a result, the global talent pool continues to expand, and American domination is no longer a foregone conclusion.
Still, Team USA has won seven of the past eight gold medals in men’s basketball. When the Americans are able to assemble a team full of their best superstars, they remain difficult to beat.
After a five-year break, EuroBasket returned this month and gave the best European basketball teams a chance to play for one of the most coveted awards in hoops.
But the tournament also provided the basketball world with a chance to reconsider the power structure of European basketball ahead of two major upcoming global tournaments: the 2023 FIBA World Cup and the 2024 Summer Olympics.
Team USA remains the top dog within the entire international field, but the gap between the American program and other national teams continues to shrink. It was just three years ago that the U.S. men’s national team finished seventh at the FIBA World Cup, a result previously unthinkable.
And while Team USA’s focus has always been more on the Olympics than the World Cup, there are a number of teams that could potentially threaten the Americans’ return to the top of the medal stand both next year in Manila and in 2024 in Pairs.
Tier 1: The most legitimate threat
Simply put, outside of Team USA, France is the most complete national team on the planet.
While France came up one win short of a EuroBasket title, it did nearly beat Team USA at Tokyo in the gold-medal game in 2021 after eliminating the American squad in the quarterfinals at the 2019 World Cup in China.
Here’s the scary part: The French team that just won silver in Europe will likely have a lot more talent in these next two big international tournaments. Joel Embiid, the NBA’s reigning scoring champ and one of the best big men in the game, is now eligible to play for Les Bleus. So is Victor Wembanyama, the likely No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA draft and the most coveted draft prospect in years.
The trio of Gobert, Embiid and Wembanyama could form the most dominant frontcourt in the world, and that spells trouble for an American team that has a relative dearth of talent up front. Team USA easily has the best potential talent among guards and wings, but the best bigs in the world are almost all international players, and France has at least two of them.
We will learn more about which big men will suit up for the Americans as Team USA builds its roster for the 2023 World Cup, but in Tokyo, it was Bam Adebayo, Draymond Green and JaVale McGee who split time in that center spot. Other candidates should include Jarrett Allen, Robert Williams III, and Myles Turner. Those guys are all quality players, but Embiid is a legit MVP candidate for a reason. He’s one of the best players in the world right now.
The added presence of Evan Fournier and Nicolas Batum means that the French team could trot out lineups that feature five significant NBA players simultaneously.
As the hosts of the 2024 Paris Olympics, it’s fair to expect all of France’s top players to show up for this once-in-a-generation opportunity to win a gold medal in the City of Light, in front of their home crowd. However, that same Parisian allure works both ways. It’s also fair to expect many of Team USA’s best players — Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and others — to jump at the chance to spend a few weeks in Paris and win their fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
Tier 2: Top contenders
Canada is not just for hockey anymore, and its national basketball team is arguably the most improved program in the world over the past five years. Like the French side, the Canadians are loaded with NBA stars — 21 Canadian-born players were active in the NBA in 2021-22. Add in Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who also heads Canada’s squad, and this team is ready to contend for the biggest prizes in international basketball.
If players such as Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Andrew Wiggins and RJ Barrett are all available for these next two tournaments, the sky is the limit.
Murray gives them an elite scorer, while Wiggins, Barrett and Gilgeous-Alexander might represent the best supporting cast outside of Team USA.
There’s only one reason Slovenia is in this discussion, and his name is Luka Doncic. Despite an upset loss in the quarterfinals at EuroBasket, Doncic is one of the only players in international hoops who can carry a team all the way to a title.
Doncic illustrated this potential in Cologne on Sept. 7 when he put up 47 in a masterpiece win over Gobert and France at EuroBasket — France’s only loss of the tournament.
After winning EuroBasket in 2017 and winning bronze in Tokyo, Slovenia has established itself as a major player in international competitions, despite a relatively tiny population of just 2.1 million.
The Gasol brothers might be gone, but Spanish basketball just proved that the program is still in great shape by finishing winning EuroBasket gold. That feat is more impressive considering Ricky Rubio, who led this team to gold at the FIBA World Cup in 2019, did not even play.
The current iteration may lack the star power of the Spanish team that gave the Redeem Team a run for its money in the gold-medal game at the 2008 Olympics, but this program is still capable of beating any team in the world on any given day.
Tier 3: Wild cards
EuroBasket gave Giannis Antetokounmpo a chance to help Greece prove this national team was a threat to compete for major international titles. However, after breezing through pool play undefeated, Greece lost in the quarterfinals, giving up 107 points to Germany in just 40 minutes of play. Antetokounmpo might be the best player in the world, and his presence presents a challenge for any opponent on a nightly basis, but the lack of depth elsewhere on this roster prevents Greece from being a real threat to win major global tournaments.
The Serbian team had a very similar arc at EuroBasket. Nikola Jokic’s team entered the 24-team as slight favorites to win it all. After going undefeated in their five group phase games, they immediately got upset in their first game of the knockout phase, losing to Italy in one of the biggest surprises of the tournament. There were only five active NBA players from Serbia last season, and Jokic was the only one of that quintet who played at EuroBasket.
Like Spain, Australia has become one of the most sustainable teams in the world. Patty Mills scored 42 points and outdueled Doncic to help the Aussies upend Slovenia in the bronze-medal game in Tokyo. But Mills and Joe Ingles are both in their mid-30s. While other contenders boast significant young stars, it’s unclear whether Australia can extend its recent success much further.
Ben Simmons is a clear candidate to take the reins, but as the Sixers and Nets have learned, his reliability is questionable. Simmons last suited up for Australia at the 2013 FIBA Oceania Championship, withdrawing from both the Rio and Tokyo Olympics and the 2019 World Cup.
The Germans were one of the biggest surprises at EuroBasket, eliminating Antetokounmpo’s Greek squad and reaching the semifinals before losing to Spain in a close game. Dennis Schroder, Franz Wagner and Daniel Theis all played well throughout the tournament, and if players such as Maxi Kleber and Isaiah Hartenstein become available for these big global tournaments, it’s fair to expect this program to go far in future events as well.