The U.S. men’s basketball team is vulnerable, in case you haven’t heard. But if the vital goal of the FIBA World Cup is Olympic qualification, the margin for error expands.
Group play begins Saturday in China. A total of 32 nations (expanded from 24 in the last Olympic cycle) compete in China for not only the quadrennial world title (which the U.S. won the last two times), but also the first Tokyo Olympic qualifying berths.
The minimum task for the U.S. in simple: finish as one of the top two teams out of seven from North and South America to book a Tokyo 2020 spot. The others are Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
The U.S. is notably without NBA superstars. Just one man on the roster has Olympic experience, and two were All-Stars last season. But the rest of the Americas’ best are also not all they could be.
Canada might have the most NBA options of any nation outside the U.S., but Andrew Wiggins, RJ Barrett, Jamal Murray and Tristan Thompson are all absent.
Argentina, traditionally the No. 2 team from the Americas, has been on a slide as its Golden Generation fades away. The lone remaining player from its 2004 and 2008 Olympic medalist teams is 39-year-old Luis Scola. The Argentines went a combined 6-6 at the last World Cup and Olympics.
In all, seven teams from the World Cup will qualify for the Olympics: Africa (1), Americas (2), Asia (1), Europe (2), Oceania (1). Japan is already in as host. The final four teams will qualify at a last-chance event next year, meaning the World Cup is not the be-all, end-all.
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