Canada’s World Cup showing a familiar mix of improvement, frustration

Basketball insider Michael Grange joins SN Today to discuss his optimism that the Canadian Men's team will still be able to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, even after their frustrating showing at FIBA.

How to judge Canada’s showing at the FIBA World Cup, which wrapped up with an 82-76 loss to a competitive German team in Shanghai on Monday, dropping Canada’s record to 2-3 in the 32-team competition? Well, in the very big picture, it’s an improvement. Canada’s two wins matched their best total at a global championship since 2002. It finished 21st out of 32 teams, compared to 22nd out of 24 at their last worlds in 2010.

But it’s still hard to get over the frustration at what was not accomplished, compared to what was. With 15 NBA players either injured or not making themselves available, Canada missed a chance to compete for a medal and the valuable collective experience that would go along with it. It also missed out on pre-qualifying for the Olympics — the U.S. and Argentina grabbed the two spots available for the Americas — or the chance to significantly improve their world ranking.

It came to China ranked 23rd and will likely stay somewhere around there as it didn’t win any games against a higher-ranked opponent, including Germany ranked 22nd.

There were some positives. Several, actually — head coach Nick Nurse is the right man for the job and Canada’s player pool extends well beyond the NBA — but a lot of questions, too.

With Canada’s tournament in the rearview mirror, here are some final takeaways:

What is next? The minimum Canada needed to get out of its trip to China was a spot in one of four six-team Olympic qualifying tournaments that will be held next summer prior to the Tokyo Games, which begin on July 24. It needed to finish in the top 23, which covers off the next 16 teams after the seven pre-qualifying spots available at the World Cup, so mission accomplished.

But the battle to get in the Olympics will be incredibly competitive. Exactly which countries Canada will have to go through the last-chance qualifying won’t be determined until the World Cup is completed a week from now, but if the rest of the tournament plays out according to form and current rankings, the likes of France (ranked 3rd), Lithuania (6th), Slovenia (7th) — defending European champions, home of Luka Doncic and Goran Dragic — or Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Greece (8th) could be top seeds.

There would be land mines everywhere. For example: Germany is no one’s idea of a basketball superpower, but it had three current and one recent NBA players in their starting lineup against Canada, which only had two. In the end, the difference-maker Monday was Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dennis Schroder, who finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists and illustrated that without more of their top talent, Canada would be very unlikely to advance next summer.

Canada’s Khem Birch, right, looks to take the ball past Senegal’s Youssoupha Ndoye. (Xiong Jia/AP)

The group that was in China was a collection of solid pros — had they shot better than 9-of-39 from three they would likely have won and come home 3-2, and likely finished in 17th or 18th place — but against the top teams, they needed a little extra and didn’t have it.

So, can Canada have more of its best players participating next summer? I had an interesting conversation the other day with Mike George, founder of One Legacy Sports Management and probably the largest single power broker in Canadian basketball, given he represents 13 Canadians either in the NBA or adjacent to it, including the likes of Jamal Murray, Dwight Powell and Khem Birch, as well as top European pros such as Melvin Ejim.

His analysis of the country’s representation problem came down to two issues: One was that given so many of Canada’s NBA players are so young in their careers, it was no surprise that so many of them didn’t make themselves available.

“Our guys, our ‘Golden Generation’ are young kids. Our oldest guys are Cory (Joseph), Khem, Kelly (Olynk), and those guys were all playing or going to play — and Tristan (Thompson) would have, but he’s entering into a contract year and he was injured all last year, so anyone who says he should play has lost their mind. So you understand why he didn’t play,” George said.

“But Cory, Khem, Kelly — they are ready to play because they’re older, they’ve been through it, they’re established.

“But Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) a second-year guy, just traded to OKC, Nickeil (Walker-Alexander) is a rookie, R.J. Barrett in his first year,” said George. “It (was) very unlikely they were playing.”

The other issue George pointed to was that Canada Basketball — in an effort to build in enough preparation time prior to the long trip to China — asked for too much time from their players.

Would the likes of Murray or Powell have been available if the commitment was shorter? Or if they could have done what Joseph did and skipped the trip to Australia and met the team in China? George didn’t say specifically, but reading between the lines the impression I got was going forward the question for Canada may be: What do they value more? Continuity and preparation? Or talent? It may be difficult to get both.

“It really comes down to bad timing and our guys are stupid young,” said George. “Next summer (the Olympic qualifying tournament) is in July and they’ll all be in.”

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Given Canada’s talent base and Canada Basketball’s ambition, it is hard to sugarcoat it — the men’s program failed to execute on its plan at the World Cup, and given it was men’s team general manager and Canada Basketball executive Rowan Barrett who signed off on the plan, where does the accountability lie?

He was asked point blank on a conference call from China on Monday if he should resign, following up on a recent column by longtime Toronto Star basketball voice Doug Smith, who suggested Barrett should fall on his sword for his failure to pull together more of Canada’s top players.

Barrett responded: “I don’t have a plan to resign at this point. We’ll be going home and looking at what we’re doing. What we’ve seen is something that is going on across the world and in the Americas this a challenge that every team buoyed by NBA players is dealing with.”

Should Barrett resign? There is an argument for it and to this point not a lot of evidence he would be missed, particularly if the measure is the performance of the team — which was the criteria used by Barrett to justify moving on from former head coach Jay Triano earlier this year.

I will be surprised if he does resign (unless he manages to crack an NBA job, I suppose) and given he was only officially provided his title on Feb. 20 — he was assistant general manager before that, with Steve Nash having the GM role, on paper anyway — I’d be stunned if he was fired. Canada Basketball simply doesn’t have the money to be paying people to go away.

But there are some issues that need to be addressed. Among them is Barrett’s contention that he’s new in the job, which was his defence when Canada was eliminated from medal contention after its loss to Lithuania.

It is completely disingenuous for Barrett to imply that he’s new around here. Nash has been a ghost around the men’s program since 2015 and Barrett has been running it almost exclusively since, and was very hands-on even before that, given Nash was still in the NBA when he took on the GM role in 2012.

It was Barrett who was signing off on the coaches during Canada’s qualifying process and in theory recruiting the players, and who was working to replace Triano long before he was officially made general manager. To say anything else is simply not accurate, and that he would use his official hiring date as a point of demarcation in his own evaluation is an example of where Barrett sometimes loses people, frustrates them or simply ticks them off. They know better.

And while getting Nurse to sign on as the head coach would seem to be a significant feather in Barrett’s cap, the reality was that Nurse came into the picture very late, well after he had failed to nail down several identified candidates, and at a point where the search to replace Triano had stalled. Barrett would like to make the argument that landing Nurse as he was leading the Raptors to an NBA title was the end result of a carefully calibrated coaching search, but it’s an oversell at best.

Nick Nurse is introduced by general manager Rowan Barrett as the new head coach of Canada Basketball’s senior men’s team. (Nathan Denette/CP)

So to be clear: The men’s team’s struggles since 2012 are every bit as much Barrett’s issue as anyone else’s, and maybe more, given he’s been a constant.

Going forward, another issue for Barrett is the potential pitfalls of running a program in which his son, RJ, is an up-and-coming prospect.

The potential for conflicts are plain. How can Barrett appeal to the fathers of, say, Murray or Gilgeous-Alexander (each of whom have a guiding role in their respective son’s careers) to have their offspring play for Canada when they can look at Barrett and ask why his son didn’t play this summer? It simply adds one more layer to an already complicated situation.

And then there are the obvious challenges that could arise when the younger Barrett is available along with a wider selection of Canada’s NBA players for an Olympic qualifying tournament next summer — who would decide RJ’s fate if there is more than one candidate for a roster spot?

While the elder Barrett is partially correct when he says that the lack of participation by Canada’s NBA players is simply part of a systemic problem, it’s too easy an answer.

His job isn’t to fall victim to circumstances, it’s to anticipate them and overcome them better than his competition. That’s how you win. Sure, Australia had several NBA players skip the World Cup, including Ben Simmons, but it still had five play in the event. Germany had three of its four NBA players suit up, Serbia has five, Spain four, France six.

The USA, of course, was somehow able to scrape up 12 really good ones. Canada didn’t need all of its NBA players to play, but it needed more than two (not including Olynyk who left the team with an injury).

Where did Canada fall short? Has Barrett done everything he can to develop relationships with the right stakeholders in key players’ inner circles? How consistently is he communicating with key decision-makers? Is Barrett a barrier or a bridge?

If Barrett is going to continue to lead the national team program he needs to be frank about where his strengths, weaknesses and accountabilities lie.

“I’m new” fails that test.

Nurse had some really interesting comments in his interview with the two Canadian reporters that covered the World Cup on the ground in China — Lori Ewing of The Canadian Press and Mike Ganter of Postmedia. It’s pretty clear he’s deeply committed to the program at least through next summer, despite falling short of qualifying for the Olympics this summer. He’s only getting started:

“From a logistics or tactical thing, (this trip) has been a really good learning experience for me to figure out where we’re going. I’ve learned a lot about the setup, the team, the structure of FIBA, just everything. I’m ready now,” he said.

“I see where we need to go and I’m really ready.”

Is he confident he can procure a commitment from a player such as Murray?

“I don’t think we’re a million miles away from those (NBA) guys. It’s not like I’m looking up this huge Jamal Murray mountain to climb, and figuring out how I’m going to get there — with a number of guys,” Nurse said. “I don’t think it’s going to be as big a mountain to climb as everybody thinks.”

Oh, and to any of the NBA players thinking that they’re a lock for the program next summer? Think again:

“A big chunk of this group (at the World Cup) has earned their way forward, right? So, I think that there’s not going to be that many spots available next spring,” Nurse said.

So, who out of this group of 12 players may have earned their spot on an Olympic team next summer, or at least at the chance of qualifying?

I would have to say Kyle Wiltjer, the lanky sharp-shooter who led Canada in scoring at the World Cup is a must-have — his offensive versatility fits in any lineup. Orlando Magic big man Birch led the tournament in overall efficiency — Canada’s best rebounder and shot-blocker, he looked much more comfortable offensively than his reputation would have suggested, and has been totally committed to the process in word and deed.

He’s a lock and is likely ahead of, say, Thompson on the depth chart.

Kevin Pangos proved his pure point-guard skills might be the best Canada has, even if he’s been in Europe for his career and — importantly — he and Joseph found some rhythm together. Nurse praised him routinely. Versatile big man Melvin Ejim started all five games and Nurse found lots of opportunities for European veteran Phil Scrubb. He also gave a lot of responsibility to 19-year-old Florida sophomore guard Andrew Nembhard. And you figure Olynyk would get a nod given he was in for the World Cup before he was hurt.

That’s seven or eight names right there, leaving just four or five spots available for next summer.

Let the competition for them begin and Canada’s never-ending Olympic quest start its next chapter.

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