The FIBA Americas tournament kicks off on Friday, and the stakes are high -- the top four finishers will earn a trip to next year's World Cup in Spain. Team USA has already qualified and decided to sit out the Americas tourney for the third time in a row.
This year's field will be lacking in star power -- Argentina will be without Manu Ginobili, Carlos Delfino, Pablo Prigioni and Andres Nocioni; Brazil will be missing Nene, Tiago Splitter, Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa; the Dominican Republic won't have Al Horford; Venezuela lost Greivis Vasquez to injury; and Canada's Anthony Bennett and Kelly Olynyk are rehabbing injuries. But there will be some NBA players participating, including: Luis Scola (Argentina); Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Andrew Nicholson and Joel Anthony (Canada); Francisco Garcia (Dominican Republic); J.J. Barea (Puerto Rico); and Gustavo Ayon (Mexico).
So depth is important in this tournament, especially because the Americas' schedule is as brutal as you will find in FIBA play. Most of the teams in the field will end up playing eight games in 10 days.
Quality depth is also important to avoid the pitfalls of FIBA officiating. The combination of the five foul-out rule and the fact many FIBA refs have little feel for the game can wreak havoc with teams with short rotations.
Puerto Rico is the best team in the field, but by no means an overwhelming favorite. Argentina, Brazil, Canada and the Dominican Republic are closely bunched. These five teams could conceivably finish in any order and are the top contenders for the four World Cup bids.
Upstart Jamaica could sneak into the top four thanks to its athleticism, but right now I have Jamaica in the same range as Venezuela with an outside shot of stealing a World Cup bid. Mexico, Uruguay and Paraguay have little chance of making noise.
Let's take a closer look at each team in the tournament, grouping them by tiers:
TIER I (Contenders for a World Cup bid)
1. PUERTO RICO
Puerto Rico has many things working in its favor to win this tourney. Many of the same players are back from the 2011 team that finished fourth and pushed a stacked Argentina team to the limit in the semis. A ton of FIBA national team experience is on this roster. And the core of Carlos Arroyo, J.J. Barea, Ricky Sanchez and Daniel Santiago has played together for a while.
Puerto Rico usually fares well offensively in Americas tournaments with the combo of Arroyo and Barea -- two of the top scoring threats in the Americas field. The two guards will often play together and opponents can expect to see them in plenty of ball-screen action, although the Puerto Rican offense can devolve into a playground affair at a moment's notice with Arroyo and Barea treating sections of the game as their personal one-on-one showcase.
Larry Ayuso is back on the team, too, which I'm not sure is a good or bad thing. He can score in bunches, but chucks it up with little discretion (he's a Puerto Rican J.R. Smith).
On the wings, Puerto Rico can count on a trio of athletic defenders -- John Holland, Richard Chaney and Alex Galindo -- to cover for its point guards' defensive shortcomings. But the frontcourt rotation is a bit depleted with the absence of Peter John Ramos and Nathan Peavy. The 37-year-old Dan Santiago can still be effective inside but only for about 15 minutes a game.
Sanchez, meanwhile, can flat-out shoot behind the 3-point line but might have to spend some time at center with Ramos gone. Renaldo Balkman should see increased minutes in Peavy's absence and use his activity to get rebounds, steals and garbage buckets.
Puerto Rico should compete for the Americas crown. If it doesn't earn a bid for the World Cup, it would be a major disappointment.
Though Brazil's NBA vets are absent, there is still enough talent on hand to compete for the Americas title. The Brazilians have many players back from the 2011 Americas team that pushed Argentina in the finals and are led by the best coach in the field, Ruben Magnano.
They also boast one of the best point guards outside of the NBA, FC Barcelona's Marcelo Huertas, who is a handful in ball-screen action, where he can change direction quickly. Expect plenty of off-balance floaters from Huertas, not to mention some sloppy plays where he leaves his feet to pass.
Huertas is one of four PGs on the roster. Recent Jazz draftee Raul Neto made the cut, but I wonder how much burn he'll get with Larry Taylor and Rafael Freire fighting for minutes, as well. Both Neto and Freire are fast with the ball and get inside the lane.
The shooting guard combo of Arthur Silva and Vitor Benite gives Brazil terrific outside shooting. And Alex Garcia, a 6-foot-3 guard, will be asked to play minutes at small forward once again. He is a very effective on-ball defender against players a few inches taller thanks to his strong build.
Magnano will also rely on a trio of wide-bodies -- Rafael Hettsheimeir, J.P. Batista and Caio Torres -- in place of Nene, Splitter and Varejao. One of the best low-post scorers in the field, ACB vet Hettsheimeir has piqued the interest of some NBA teams and is very proficient on turnaround jumpers. Both Hettsheimeir and Torres can float out to 17 feet. Former Gonzaga standout Batista, meanwhile, can score with his back to the basket.
The bigs should provide solid offensive production, but their interior defense is a concern. In 2011, Brazil had one of the top defensive units, but that was with Splitter in the middle. This team's lumbering bigs are major liabilities guarding in ball-screen action. Plus, they don't protect the rim.
Brazil's overall depth is pretty good, however. The backcourt rotation is solid and possesses good overall speed. The guards like to get out in transition and should be fun to watch, though they can get out of control sometimes with careless turnovers.
This team is basically Luis Scola plus Argentina's B-Team. But don't sleep on Argentina just because most of the big names are missing. The core of this team (without Scola) went undefeated at last summer's South America tourney, where it beat a Venezuelan team (with Greivis Vasquez) twice. Argentina was also in a similar situation in 2009 when it was basically Scola plus the B-Team, and managed to finish third.
I'm not really sure why Scola is playing, since the 2011 Americas champs are under little pressure to qualify. If they fail to qualify this summer, a wild-card selection would be a mere formality. I imagine the Indiana Pacers are wondering why Scola is suiting up, too, especially since he hasn't sat out a summer for Argentina since 2005.
Nevertheless, Scola is still a major force in national team play and the best player in the field, despite the fact his game has been slowly declining in the NBA. Argentina will likely ride Scola hard, looking for him to carry the offensive load and playing him 30-plus minutes a game. Scola is looking for his fourth straight Americas MVP trophy.
Marcos Delia, a 2012 Nike Hoop Summit alumni, gives Argentina a much-needed dose of length. The 6-10 Delia is a mobile rebounder who can score inside with both hands. ACB veteran forward Leo Mainoldi gives Argentina a dangerous stretch-4.
With no Pablo Prigioni to run the point, Argentina will put the ball in the hands of youngsters Facundo Campazzo and former Temple Owl Juan Fernandez. The diminutive Campazzo gave Argentina quality minutes at the Olympics (when Prigioni was battling kidney stones) and uses ball screens well to hit jumpers or to get into the lane. The 6-4 Fernandez is a nifty passer and capable shooter who can play both guard spots.
This team might not have the talent of a typical Argentina team but it is still a cohesive unit. Many of these guys have played together before and understand the Argentina system of spacing, quick ball movement and finding open spots in the defense.
Canada has not performed particularly well in FIBA ball over the past few years. Much of its problems stem from a serious lack of offensive talent. Without dribble penetrators and anyone who could create offense in the interior the past few years, it's easy to see why the Maple Leafers have been incredibly easy to guard. Canada has been so desperate for scoring that it has resorted to feeding Joel Anthony in the post at times.
But Steve Nash has taken over GM duties for his country's squad and installed his buddy Jay Triano to lead the resurgence.
A World Cup bid might have been a lock if it had all of its stars on hand in Caracas, but Anthony Bennett and Kelly Olynyk are sitting out with injuries, and young stud Andrew Wiggins is beginning his fall semester at Kansas. Still, one of Canada's advantages this summer is its depth, which is on par with Brazil and Puerto Rico.
While dribble penetration remains a problem -- Cory Joseph is not really a creative playmaker -- the team's offense should be improved somewhat this summer with the starting frontcourt duo of Tristan Thompson and Andrew Nicholson taking on larger roles. Thompson's low-post game is still a work in progress, but it's evolving. Nicholson has a clever post game and can also step away from the painted area.
Behind them, Anthony provides a nice defensive presence and can even score a bit around the rim. Levon Kendall is a quality role player who plays tough positional post defense, sets hard picks, runs the floor and can occasionally knock down short jumpers.
Shooting guards Andy Rautins and Brady Heslip are both dangerous from outside and will run off plenty of screens. But the small forward position is a bit unsettled after the recent exit of Carl English, who has been Canada's best offensive option since Nash left. Canada will turn to Aaron Doornekamp and Jevohn Shepherd to fill the void.
This team has the makings of a good defensive unit with Cory Joseph leading at the point of attack, though Coach Triano is not known for getting players to dig in defensively.
Canada really needs to qualify this summer because a wild-card berth might not be easy to get with the way it has underperformed over the past few years.
5. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
The Dominican Republic took a significant hit when Al Horford decided not to play this summer. In addition, John Calipari has handed over the coaching reins to his Kentucky assistant, Orlando Antigua.
With Horford gone, Jack Michael Martinez becomes the team's focal point. A dominant force in national team play, Martinez is always atop the rebounding leaderboard and is an absolute menace on the offensive glass. Expect the Dominican Republic to run more offense through him. He has some nifty footwork and is an underrated passer who likes to methodically back his man down, though he is quite the downgrade defensively from Horford. The high-low action of Martinez and Horford could be missed on offense, as well.
A key addition for the Dominicans is versatile SG James Feldeine, who was the third-best scorer in the ACB this past season. He can create jumpers for himself and is a capable ball handler who can run some pick-and-rolls. Francisco Garcia will provide deep shooting and quality all-around defense.
The Dominicans usually go with a very short rotation as they are woefully undermanned up front. It doesn't help that Charlie Villanueva remains persona non grata with the coaching staff.
Former Kentucky backup Eloy Vargas will be forced into the starting center role and the 6-6 Eulis Baez, who's really a small forward, seems to be the team's only viable frontcourt backup. Karl Towns, who is headed to Kentucky in 2014, is on the roster, but don't expect much floor time for the 17-year-old 7-footer.
What consistently holds this team back is it just can't find a PG who can make sound decisions with the ball, especially in late-game situations. Juan Coronado looks like he will be the starter, but he isn't much of a shooter and tends to play out of control. Edgar Sosa is back after suffering a horrific leg injury at the 2011 Americas, but it remains to be seen if he's the steady influence this team needs. Former Pitt Panther combo guard Ronald "Razor" Ramon is a quality shooter who will handle the ball some and bring a hefty dose of machismo to the proceedings.
The Dominicans can beat any team in this tourney and a Worlds qualifying bid is within reach. But they need steady play from their ball handlers and Martinez has to stay out of foul trouble.
• Click here to read the 2013 FIBA Americas Preview, Part 2