With Olynyk out, reality is setting in for Canada and it’s not pretty


Canada's head coach Nick Nurse is pictured before FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 exhibition game action against Nigeria, in Toronto on Wednesday August 7, 2019. (Chris Young/CP)

If happiness is reality without expectations, then no wonder the mood of Canadian basketball fans is somewhere between despondent and walking into oncoming traffic.

This was supposed to be the moment when Canada’s basketball future arrived. When years of promise were realized and the country’s exploding basketball scene coalesced on the world stage, ideally on a podium with anthems and a medal around everyone’s neck.

After years of hoping and various forms of disappointment, the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China was supposed to be Canada’s breakout party and a preview of what was to come at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Looking ahead, it was to be the start of what could be an extended run as USA Basketball’s chief global rival.

Coming on the heels of the Toronto Raptors NBA championship and the reverberating passion a so-called hockey country showed for the team and the sport, Canadian basketball was finally going to have its close-up.

Those were the expectations. Instead, the lead-up to the World Cup has felt like a slow-motion Canadian basketball disaster movie: James Naismith’s Zombie Apocalypse.

Reality has set in and it’s not pretty.

The latest blow came Tuesday night when it was confirmed that Kelly Olynyk — the veteran Miami Heat forward, a national team cornerstone and arguably most accomplished NBA player on the Canadian roster — was withdrawing from the tournament.

Olynyk slipped on a wet court during Canada’s first exhibition game against Nigeria in Toronto last Thursday, went down hard and suffered a bone bruise on his knee.

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Initially, he was supposed to be out a week, but was ruled out of the competition by Heat doctors when the examined Olynyk in Miami on Tuesday.

It was easy to predict that the Heat – otherwise one of the more supportive NBA franchises when it comes to international basketball – would take the conservative route when diagnosing one of their key rotation pieces, and that’s just what happened.

There is no questioning where Olynyk’s heart lies – his father coached in the national team program and he grew up hoping to play in three Olympics over his career – but when the medical staff of the team paying your salary speaks, only a fool doesn’t listen.

That leaves Canada’s NBA representation at two, at least in theory: Olynyk’s long-time national team running mate, point guard Cory Joseph of the Sacramento Kings and Orlando Magic big man Khem Birch – as the team gets set to kick off a five-game exhibition series in Australia with back-to-back games against the home team in Perth on Friday and Saturday.

Why in theory? Because according to ace Australian hoops reporter Olgun Uluc, Joseph hadn’t joined the team in Australia, missing its practice in Perth on Wednesday.

No one with Canada Basketball would comment on Joseph’s absence.

Given that Joseph was wavering about joining the team for the World Cup as the first wave of withdrawals hit the roster, it’s a situation that has to be concerning.

It’s hard to blame Joseph if he’s wondering what he’s signed up for. Considering there are 17 Canadians with NBA deals heading into the 2019-20 season – the most Canada has ever had and the most NBA players ever from any country other than the United States – the rate of attrition is staggering: Canada now has three starting lineups of NBA players not playing in China.

Injuries to Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray (ankle) and highly touted New York Knicks rookie RJ Barrett (calf) cost Canada its best player and a future centrepiece before training camp even started, while Toronto Raptors forward Chris Boucher, who has shown the ability to dominate in the G-League and against lesser NBA competition, dropped out due to personal reasons after two days.

Canada’s other 12 NBA players?

They never showed up.

Canada isn’t alone in this. The team the United States is taking to the World Cup could fairly be described as its “D” squad, or maybe even its “E” version, based on the number of withdrawals its dealt with.

Ben Simmons – the Philadelphia 76er star and Australia’s best player – isn’t playing this summer and is catching heat for it at home. Australia – who Canada plays in its first game of the tournament – is also without Thon Maker and Dante Exum. Spain is without some of its top names.

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But in many ways, other teams’ roster challenges only makes Canada’s issues more frustrating – with a fuller representation of the country’s best talent the chances of a medal would be that much better.

Which is not to disparage the team Raptors head coach and first-time Canadian national team boss Nick Nurse will be able to draw on.

Canada’s rapidly growing talent pool extends into European basketball as well – according to Canada Basketball president and chief and executive officer Glen Grunwald the cost of insuring the international pros on the national team has never been higher, indicating the level of salary and the quality of leagues Canadians are playing in overseas.

Kevin Pangos, Kyle Wiltjer and Melvin Ejim, as well as Phil and Thomas Scrubb, are the at or near the top of the game in Europe, and all would have been strong contenders to play for Canada regardless of which NBA players signed on for this summer.

And it’s worth noting that when Canada last played in the Olympics, they went 5-2 with wins over defending world champions Yugoslavia and powerhouse Russia with only two NBA players on the roster and a group of European pros with less pedigree than the current group.

Granted, it helped that one of Canada’s NBA players was eventual two-time NBA MVP and Hall-of-Famer Steve Nash.

So, what are realistic expectations for a successful showing for Canada at the World Cup?

Advancing out of pool play has to be considered a longshot given the quality of Canada’s competition in what has rightly been called the “group of death” – Australia and Lithuania are legitimate medal threats and would have been formidable tests even if Canada had a something closer to a full squad.

And hey, if this version of the national team can advance out of pool play and earn an Olympic berth – they would have to finish first or second among teams from the Americas – they’ll deserve a parade.

It will be one of the great underdog stories in Canadian sports.

But a more realistic goal is for Canada to show well in the classification rounds and finish somewhere between 17th and 23rd in the 32-team event and thus guarantee a spot in the last-chance qualifying process for Tokyo next summer, and hope their best players can show up then.

It’s not the moment Canadian basketball fans were expecting at the World Cup – there are no medals or anthems for finishing 17th – but it’s the reality.

Set your expectations accordingly.


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