11th appearance (6 consecutive)
Looking for sweet revenge
Four years after a close loss in the finale, Argentina's golden generation is looking for the title that could have been theirs long ago.
They're on their way into their thirties. Some are there already. Argentina's squad is filled with veterans, champions, rich and famous. Olympic gold medallists. But the quest is not over yet. For every one of them, one more trip with the "Azulblanco" is priceless. Playing the game "as it is meant to be played", as Larry Brown would say. Argentina are back, and they're as hungry as ever.
"We will be in Japan to get the title that's missing", Andrès Nocioni said three months after he won the Olympic tournament in Athens, nearly two years ago. Watch this team while it's there, because nobody knows if they'll ever be back again. What more can be said about this team, one of the few which stays mostly unchanged year after year?
This year, though, the roles may change a little. While Manu Ginobili has been the main man over the past few years, people will now be waiting for Nocioni. After a promising second NBA regular season, "El Chapu" literally took off during the playoffs. No. 5 was the top scorer and leading rebounder for the young Chicago Bulls squad during the post-season - something few would have expected from the forward. With a 56.0 percent field goal percentage, Nocioni was a nightmare all series long against the Heat. His combination of raw power and aggressiveness took Miami by surprise and almost drove Pat Riley's team off the road. Bulls coach Scott Skiles feels so comfortable with Nocioni on the court that he often used him as a power forward during the playoffs. Sometimes, he would even leave "El Chapu" on the court as the tallest player at 6-7. Just as his character, Nocioni's game is larger than life. And contrary to many NBA players who fell in that trap before, the former Vitoria standout will have no problem adjusting his physical game to FIBA regulations.
Right now, Nocioni has an edge over Ginobili. "El Manu" is coming off a disappointing season in many aspects. First, he was not his true self due to injuries. Second, he basically ended the Spurs' season on a terrible play. Up three at the end of regulation in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semi-finals, San Antonio was about to win the game before Ginobili committed a foul on Dirk Nowitzki who scored and converted the extra free throw, sending the game into overtime. The Spurs never recovered from that play and went on to lose the game. That play will probably come back to haunt Ginobili a few times this summer, even if there were many other reasons why San Antonio lost that game. Whether he will say it or not, Ginobili will be looking for redemption, anywhere he can find it. The sooner, the better. So why not start in Japan with Argentina? The good thing is he had almost two months off.
Aside from Nocioni's coming out, Argentina will receive help from an unexpected face. At almost 30, Pablo Prigioni had an amazing year with Tau Vitoria. The Spanish club didn't really know how to replace Jose Manuel Calderon, who left for the Toronto Raptors. But they found just the right profile within their team. A substitute during most of his career in Spain, Prigioni emerged as a leader on the court and an incredible pacemaker. He seemed able to set up Luis Scola for a basket with his eyes closed. Priginoni finished the season as the assist leader in both the Euroleague (6.9 per game) and the ACB (6.8), high averages considering those two leagues don't give out assists that easily. During the Euroleague regular season, he had two more assists per game than any other player. On top of that, he was a decent defender and could hit the occasional three-point shot with a decent percentage.
Considering that Alejandro Montecchia, an essential piece to the 2004 Olympic squad, retired after winning the gold medal, Prigioni could be a nice fit to replace him. He will probably share duties with Pepe Sanchez. National team coach Sergio Hernandez had a scare when he learned that Prigioni was suffering from an unknown virus during the ACB playoffs. But he recovered pretty quickly and was able to report to the national training camp ontime.
Prigioni is not really new to Argentina's national team because he's been training with them on and off for years and played in some of the lesser tournaments such as the South American championship. With Prigioni in, Argentina's style could be even more fluid, moving from side to side with backdoor cuts all day long. His long-time working relationship with Scola at Vitoria will also help. It's hard to find liabilities on that team. The only strong question mark is probably linked to coach Hernandez, who has yet to coach at a world level competition and has never led the "golden team" in any competition. A psychology enthusiast, Hernandez will probably adopt a low profile position, leaving the stage to the 2004 heroes who could probably play without a coach as they know each other's game by heart. This team is the favourite until someone proves them wrong.