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Coming off a silver-medal finish in the 2011 EuroBasket tournament, the French men's national basketball team had its sights set on another visit to the medal stand at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. But its path to a top-three finish, already complicated by a severe left eye injury that could force starting point guard Tony Parker out of the competition, was made even more difficult Wednesday when starting center Joakim Noah announced he will not suit up for the French side this summer.
[ Photos: NBA pros who withdrew from Olympic consideration ]
In an interview with French newspaper L'Equipe, Noah revealed that he is not far enough along in his recovery from the severe left-ankle sprain he suffered while playing for the NBA's Chicago Bulls during Game 3 of their first-round playoff loss to the Philadelphia 76ers back on May 5 to be able to participate in the Olympics.
"I'm absolutely not ready, not ready to run, not ready to jump. And even less to play," Noah said, according to a translation by international hoops site BallInEurope. "I need more time and work. I'm not in form for someone who wants to compete in the Olympics. And given the problems that I have with my ankles, not going to the Games seemed to be the most reasonable decision."
While that's certainly true for Noah, the 26-year-old big man's absence is a huge blow for the French team.
Les Bleus do have other big bodies to slide into the starting five spot in London; Kevin Seraphin of the NBA's Washington Wizards would be the most likely choice, followed by EuroBasket reserves Ali Traore and Ronny Turiaf. But Noah was France's best post defender, expected to anchor the squad's defense against interior threats like Argentina's Luis Scola and the Spanish tandem of Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol. Expecting Seraphin (talented and athletic, but young and raw), Traore (who's got size and strength but isn't considered much of a defender or rebounder) or Turiaf (a capable defender, but by no means elite and possibly less-than-sharp after playing just just 342 NBA minutes this season) to hold down players of that caliber might be a bit much to ask. And it's not like Boris Diaw's going to do it.
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Still, with Diaw, swingman Nicolas Batum and highly touted combo guard Nando de Colo on-side, France looks to have enough talent to do damage in London. But with Noah out and Parker's participation still an open question, depending on their matchups, the French could find themselves sweating out the preliminary stages of the tournament.
Two groups consisting of six teams each will begin play in the preliminary round on July 29, with the top-four teams in each group moving on to the quarterfinal round. France is slotted in Group A, along with favorites Argentina and the U.S., the first-time Olympians from Tunisia, and two qualifiers from the 2012 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament, which started Monday and ends Sunday. Without their two best players, the French are a clear third choice in the group, and several qualifiers in the FIBA tournament could give them a lot of trouble on the inside.
Would a short-handed France want to see a Lithuanian side led by a front line of Linas Kleiza, Robertas Javtokas and Jonas Valanciunas? Or maybe a Russia squad that can throw out a raft of big bodies, including Andrei Kirilenko, Timofey Mozgov, Sasha Kaun, Victor Khyrapa and Sergei Monia? Or even a Dominican Republic squad featuring low-block bangers Al Horford and Jack Michael Martinez? Maybe — a guard-and-wing-heavy France attack can certainly oust any of those squads, especially if Parker's on the floor — but maybe not.
If nothing else, it makes the results of the FIBA qualifying tournament, and the resultant Olympic group placement of the three qualifying nations, worth following for the French. Maybe not quite as interesting as the results of Parker's follow-up visit with an eye specialist — which, last we heard, was expected to take place Thursday in New York City — but interesting nonetheless.
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