Team USA rolled easily through the World Cup, winning gold and no team getting closer than 21 points to an American squad lacking a lot of the top stars of the NBA.
That brought out some sharp knives from the anti-FIBA crowd — a group usually led by owners who don’t like their players taking risks when they don’t profit, and quality college coaches like John Calipari on the outside of the Mike Krzyzewski/Jerry Colangelo circle of power. Taking up their banner in an aggressive, must-read column was Adrain Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, who wrote this in the hours after Team USA was dancing on the podium.
Outside of Derrick Rose using FIBA as a Double-A rehab assignment and some sportswriters beefing up on Marriott points for post-summer vacations, this tournament was a waste of everyone’s time and resources. They used to call it the World Championships. Now it’s the World Cup of Basketball. This is certain: It has outlived its usefulness for the NBA, and owners and executives will be wise to petition FIBA to reshape the future of international basketball.
As one GM told Yahoo Sports, “[Outside of the U.S. team], there’s more talent and more interest from basketball fans in the NBA summer league than this event.”
First off, Marriott points are important. Never underestimate what traveling NBA writers will do for them. Also the statement about American fans caring more about Summer League than the World Cup is fact.
Wojnarowski advocates not sending our best players to international events anymore.
There certainly are some legitimate concerns about the grind FIBA events puts on NBA players — particularly international players. For the USA Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and LeBron James can all stay home and it doesn’t matter, we win easily. The real pressure is on the Pau Gasols and Tony Parkers (and other non-NBA stars) where the country doesn’t have the depth of talent and their chances to do well fall fast when a player begs out.
(I’m not going to get into Wojnarowski’s anti-Kryzyzewski rant, that’s a power play for college coaches that has land mines of biases and agendas on every side. And it is moot to my point.)
But the other side is it’s not just up to NBA owners and GMs — the NBA stars want to do this. Kevin Love reportedly was near tears when he called Colangelo and had to say he would not join Team USA this summer. Yes, part of it is those players get pressure from their shoe companies (Nike still has a lot of sway with Team USA) and other sponsors to step on the biggest international stages. But also some guys really want to represent their country and want that gold medal on their resume — DeMarcus Cousins kept coming back year after year to prove he and his game had matured to the point USA Basketball needed him. And he got it. Giannis Antetokounmpo raved about playing for Greece. We could go on and on here. Who cares if fans back stateside don’t really care about the World Cup, the players and the rest of the world does.
Some want to see a standoff.
But basketball and the NBA are not the first sport or league at this crossroads — soccer has been there. And come out with a plan that works for them.
Soccer has one major tournament every four years (the World Cup) and the qualifying that runs up to it, but the Olympics are an under-22 showcase event. Other international tournaments get spotty participation.
FIBA and the NBA (not to mention the top leagues in Spain, Italy, Turkey, etc…) could come to a deal here. For marketing reasons and the platform here in the USA, it would make more sense to have the Olympics as the showcase event (and expand that to a 24-team tournament) and have the World Cup become the under-22 event. (Yes, I realize FIBA would not love this arrangement, I’m just saying from the American perspective this makes the most sense. Switch the World Cup and Olympics standing and you get the same result.)
Will there still be injuries and risks? Of course. Paul George’s injury was a fluke but the kind that will happen again. It’s happened in soccer: As a Newcastle fan I watched Michael Owen blow out his knee in the 2006 World Cup and knew we’d lost him for the season. It’s part of it.
The idea is to lessen the demand on players to go home and play seemingly every summer for their national teams and wear themselves down. However, once every four years they can don the uniform of Lithuania or Greece or wherever and represent their country with pride. Let the players pick their spots. The idea is finding a balance that doesn’t currently exist. The NBA owners don’t control the players, nor does FIBA and their national teams.
FIBA itself will make finding that balance hard. They benefit from a major tournament on each continent plus a World Cup plus Olympics and they have about the same moral compass as FIFA.
The NBA may have to take unilateral steps first. That’s fine — so long as it is a negotiated deal with the players. The owners and the NBA don’t get to decide if and when the players can represent their country. That’s a negotiated deal.
Still, the model is there to make this work better. It’s just a matter of getting everybody on the bandwagon.