Blame for World Cup no-shows falls on FIBA, not Canada Basketball

With an unprecedented number of players from around the world skipping the FIBA World Cup, Donnovan Bennett breaks down why FIBA is to blame and not the players.

This past long weekend a bunch of pro basketball players underwent spirited competition in Toronto. Unfortunately, there were more NBAers hooping at Drake’s OVO Bounce tournament than were competing at the OVO Athletic Centre as a member of Team Canada.

Full credit should be given to the four NBA players who did commit. Shout-out to Cory Joseph, Kelly Olynyk, Chris Boucher and Khem Birch for putting on the red and white once again.

At most times of our existence four players with NBA contracts on Team Canada would be a huge win. But when three times that many players with guaranteed money from the biggest league in the world opt out, it feels like a loss.

There has been lots of dialogue and disgust about the number of players from Canada’s golden generation that have said ‘Thanks but no thanks’ to competing for gold at the FIBA World Cup. For a long time, the overarching conversation related to Canada Basketball has surrounded who isn’t playing, not who is.

But this time, in this situation, this is a FIBA issue not a Canada Basketball issue. Point your anger not at the players but the organizers who put them in an unenviable position.

The problem is FIBA is essentially trying to be just like FIFA. And FIFA’s chief mission has always been profit over everything. Having a World Cup in Qatar is the latest example of FIFA’s model — if it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense. The difference is FIFA has the power to persuade the rest of the world to abide by their rules and get on their timeline.

FIBA isn’t there yet. Basketball’s governing body removed any qualifying significance from continental championships like EuroBasket, essentially watering down some of their best events. Previously, EuroBasket and the FIBA Americas were used to qualify teams for the World Championship and the Olympics.

Instead of qualifying through summer tournaments, they’ve instituted three soccer-style windows in November, February, and June/July for round-robin qualification games.

Jamal Murray leaves the Canadian men’s basketball team practice at the OVO Athletic Centre. (Cole Burston/CP)

The problem is the majority of the windows are during the NBA season so the world’s best players are excluded from the majority of the qualification and feel less part of the process as a result.

Unlike with FIFA and the world’s domestic soccer leagues, NBA players on the national team don’t get exemptions and encouragement from their professional teams to play in international competition.

Even EuroLeague, a 16-team European club competition that’s akin to soccer’s Champions League, expanded its tournament rather than take time off to accommodate the new FIBA qualifying schedule.

The thought process is they could bring these games to nations all over the world and charge for an opportunity to see the world’s best players rather than having all of it take place in an abbreviated tournament in a centralized location. And they thought the World Cup tournament would trump the Olympics, as it does in soccer.

In trying to sell off the sport to the highest bidders, FIBA is blowing an opportunity to sell the game’s stars on the biggest platform.

Jerry Colangelo, the architect of the Team USA basketball senior men’s program, explained FIBA’s motivation to Ben Golliver of The Washington Post: “FIBA got exactly what they wanted. They’re getting a lot of games, a lot of attendance. There’s more interest in a lot of countries. Personally, I didn’t like the change. I knew it would have a negative effect on us.”

This isn’t just impacting the teams fielded in North America and their chances of being in the Olympics. Luka Doncic will not appear in the 2019 FIBA World Cup and is a risk to miss the 2020 Tokyo Olympics because Slovenia wasn’t able to qualify without him. Doncic led Slovenia to European gold in 2017.

The main issue is not just how the World Cup has evolved, it’s the timing of it.

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The FIBA tournament had been on a four-year schedule for Worlds that happened to coincide with FIFA’s World Cup. Trying to get out from under soccer’s global shadow they moved the FIBA World Cup to 2019, rather than 2018, placing it a year before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Any player playing now has to be ready for the trip to China, finishing in the middle of September right before the 2019-20 NBA season and then (hopefully) playing in the 2020 Olympics just before the start of the 2020-21 NBA season. The gold medal game is Sept. 15. So, players will be returning on a 15-hour flight from China on Sept. 16. International team players will have less than two weeks between their return and the opening of training camp, or even less if you are on a team making the league mandated trip back to Asia for early-October exhibition games in Japan and China.

The players opting out are playing the long game. They’re not looking at just the six-week commitment, but also the cascading impact over the next couple seasons.

For teams that don’t qualify this year, a last-ditch effort could be made to get a wild-card berth in a tournament that will start shortly after the 2020 NBA Draft. Next year’s Olympics start July 25. The gold-medal game of the Olympics takes place the morning of August 9. The NBA season in 2020 starts on October 20.

The players seem to have made the calculated decision to push the workload of playing internationally over one long summer in 2020, impacting the 2020-21 season, rather than over two off-seasons.

In the load management era, the sacrifice is not just about giving up free time, it’s about ignoring preventive maintenance. C.J. McCollum explained that thought process to Adrian Wojnarowski: “I don’t want to run around in Australia or China and then come back and have to get ready for the season when I can be strategically planning my workload.”

McCollum proves this isn’t an issue unique to Canadians. All the best Americans made similar decisions as their North American counterparts. Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Eric Gordon, Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, Zion Williamson, Paul Millsap and McCollum all decided to skip the Aug. 31-Sept. 15 event in China.

In fact, the volume and ratio of players declining is much higher in the USA than it is in Canada. There were originally 35 players named to the 2018 mini-camp, in preparation for the World Cup and Olympics. Only 14 of them were on the 20-man training camp roster for the World Cup. Nine of those 14 have since dropped out. At that point, 12 more players were added, only to have three of them drop out.

That’s a total of 33 players who have decided not to play, not including players who were offered a spot but declined before being named to the team — like J.J. Redick — or players who declined an invite to the select team, like Landry Shamet.

Tired of hearing the word ‘no,’ Team USA had to name Torrey Craig as a replacement for Shamet. That’s how far down the list they’ve gone.

Of the 11 Americans on the 2018-19 All-NBA team, only one is participating in the World Cup — Kemba Walker. Of the 20 NBA All-Stars this season who are American, only three made it to training camp — Walker, Khris Middleton and NBA champion Kyle Lowry.

Instead of being upset at Canadian players who aren’t playing, Raptors fans might want to be concerned that Kyle Lowry is playing after a long NBA season, a wrist surgery that isn’t fully healed and before he’ll be asked — at age 33 — to carry more of the load to make up for the absence of Kawhi Leonard.

Stars opting out of the World Championships wasn’t always the case. In fact, it’s unique to this tournament. The USA Basketball roster from the 2010 World Championship in Turkey boasted Derrick Rose, Eric Gordon, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Kevin Love.

The 2014 USA roster at the World Championship in Spain had Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Rose, Curry and DeMar DeRozan.

Things have changed so much that five years ago, Lillard was cut from a World Cup roster because Team USA had so many stars. Now Lillard is one of the many names uninterested in playing.

Many were ready to crush Andrew Wiggins for not playing, even though it had been reported he had committed. In fact, Wiggins did everyone a favour in declaring early he’d be willing to play in the Olympics but not this summer, so Canada Basketball and the public could have ample time to move on and plan accordingly.

Despite Wiggins being the poster boy for this issue, the sheer number of Canadian players who made the same decision on the eve of camp shows this isn’t just a single-player issue.

After being invited to camp Jamal Murray, Tristan Thompson, Dwight Powell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dillon Brooks, Trey Lyles, R.J. Barrett, Brandon Clarke, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Mfiondu Kabengele and Nik Stauskas all won’t be in Beijing.

When longtime stalwarts who have been outspoken about their allegiance to the program like Powell and Brooks aren’t playing, it shows the issue is systemic and not just a reflection on the program.

In Canada’s group, Australia will be missing Ben Simmons.

So, unless you think that all of these players, from both sides of the border, lack pride and competitiveness and they happened to catch the unpatriotic flu at the same time, you have to acknowledge that there are bigger factors at play here.

Scheduling inconveniences are just that, inconvenient — but not impossible to overcome if motivated and incentivized to do so.

Serbia might be the best team in the tournament thanks to MVP candidate Nikola Jokic playing, while Bogdan Bogdanovic, Milos Teodosic, Boban Marjanovic, Marko Guduric and Nemanja Bjelica all committed.

But the country is basketball mad and the legacies of those players will be told by how they fare internationally, not in the NBA.

That certainly isn’t true in the USA. Is it true in Canada? I’d love that to be true but I have my doubts. The qualification games in Canada were far from sold out and I’m not sure how many people are going to create Jurassic Park-like scenes for our national team, unless it’s at the Olympics. As of writing this, tickets are still available to watch the tune-up game vs. Nigeria in the country’s biggest city, on a night when no other pro team sporting event is taking place head-to-head.

As Canadians, we don’t care about international competition unless it’s the Olympics or hockey. That’s not unique to basketball. BMO Field routinely sells out for TFC and never does for the men’s national team. It’s true both for consumers and as corporate partners. If the apparel brands and sports drink companies cared about this tournament, more of the top level athletes would be getting on a plane heading to China.

So, if we aren’t willing to inconvenience ourselves to cheer on our national team unless it’s at an Olympics, don’t be surprised that our players aren’t willing to inconvenience themselves to get us there.

If you personally disagree with the players’ choices, that’s your right — just know their methodology has deductive logic, even if you and I are disappointed with the final conclusion. Many are mad at Canada Basketball, but in truth, they are just playing the hand they are dealt.

The truth is there is probably enough blame to go around, but most of it lands at the feet of FIBA. The players are making sure they take care of their long-term health and fiscal future above all else — and make no mistake, FIBA is doing the exact same thing.

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