The point guard playing alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo for the Greece national team is an American who grew up in Florida. And like many Americans, he is scratching his head at the number of defections from the Team USA roster — the latest being De’Aaron Fox of the Sacramento Kings.
Nick Calathes (pictured), who spent time with the Memphis Grizzlies, still sees the United States as the favorites to win the FIBA World Cup next month, but cautioned that their lack of international experience will be a detriment — and could lead to an early ouster.
Once you get to the knockout round (which begins with the quarterfinals Sept. 10 and 11), one loss sends you home.
“It’s not like the NBA where it’s best-of-seven,” Calathes told TheLines.com in a phone call Monday from Athens. “One team that is having a good day can get you that day, any day.”
Why USA is vulnerable this year
Calathes spoke after the Greek national team dropped an 85-80 overtime decision to Serbia. Greece rallied from eight points down in the final 45 seconds and tied the game with 15 seconds left in the fourth quarter on a 3-pointer by Thanassis Antetokounmpo at the Acropolis Cup in Athens.
Serbia played without Nikola Jokic, and Greece rested two starters, but the game was entertaining and showed just how unpredictable FIBA basketball can be. Two missed free throws by Serbia prior to Antetokounmpo’s 3 prevented them from building a four- or five-point lead, and the second was on the rim and about to drop through the net before a Greek player batted the ball out — offensive goaltending in the NBA; a legal play in FIBA.
“For this version of Team USA, a lot of guys have not played international ball, and it’s just a totally different style of play,” Calathes said. “The spacing is different, a lot of offense takes place in the paint, and it’s definitely more physical. Stuff that’s usually a foul in the NBA will be legal in China.”
Team USA arrived in Australia on Monday with 13 players on the roster, meaning there will be one cut before the World Cup opener against the Czech Republic on Sept. 1 (Team USA is favored by 32.5 points). An educated guess on who it will be: Marcus Smart, who has only recently been cleared to play, or Derrick White. Others would speculate toward Miles Plumlee, but you need three centers against Serbia, whose odds to win the World Cup have dropped to +350 at DraftKings Sportsbook and +380 at FanDuel Sportsbook.
“If Marcus’ calf turns out to be 100 percent, he’ll make the team because he can play the 1, 2, 3 or 4,” said his agent, Happy Walters.
Serbia, Greece remain top contenders for the cup
Greece is regarded as the third-best team, with championship odds of +1300 at FanDuel and +1400 at DraftKings. Spain is also in the Top 4 (+1400 at FD and +1700 at DK); and then there is a second tier of quality teams (France, Lithuania, Canada and Australia) priced from +2900 to +6000.
“Team USA does not have the ‘elite of the elite’ from the NBA, but obviously they are still the favorites, and with Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, they still have guys that can go,” Calathes said. “It is not going to be as elite as it could have been if there James Harden was on the team, and it has been interesting to read about how many guys have walked away.
“This won’t happen next summer for the Olympics.”
The departure of Fox was a stunner. He had turned heads with his speed and shooting ability, and up until halftime of Friday night’s game against Spain, he looked like Team USA’s backup point guard behind Kemba Walker. But he withdrew, reportedly shocking USA Basketball federation officials, after playing only six minutes Friday night against Spain.
The American contingent will now be overseas for the better part of a month, with three weeks being spent in China. No word yet on whether Chinese border patrol agents will seize the food the Americans are bringing with them, or the team chef, but let’s just say that with the state of US-China relations these days relating to trade wars, doing anything that will make Donald Trump uncomfortable must be considered a possibility.
If that means Team USA has unexpected hiccups, take the “over” on the gag reflex prop bet.
Whether that hiccup translates into a loss that would snap a 13-year winning streak, you never know. And if that loss happens prior to the knockout rounds, it really won’t matter except for the wounded pride factor.
The goal is to win the championship. Period. Perfection is unnecessary.
And even though Team USA’s odds have dropped to the -225 to -240 range, they are worthy favorites. Just don’t be surprised if their odds continue to fluctuate. With the amount of drama and roster turnover they have endured, and given their relative lack of experience playing under FIBA rules, they will be listed as day-to-day each and every day.
FIBA World Cup odds 2019