Did FIBA just kill international basketball?

Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

FIBA, the international basketball governing body, released a new calendar on Sunday that completely disrupts what we've come to expect ... and not for the better.

It's always been difficult to get a read on what exactly FIBA is meant to be for global basketball. FIFA, the soccer version, is meant to mint money. That is obvious. I'll direct you to the popular FIFA video games, the billion-dollar rights deals and Qatar 2022. FIBA is different: the NBA is the overwhelmingly dominant brand in basketball here and everywhere, and FIBA competition has always been a bit of a sideshow. For American fans and players, it's primarily the vessel during which countries qualify for the Olympics. Consider the minimal outrage when Team USA fails to win the World Championship (now called the World Cup) vs. when it wins bronze in the Olympics. FIBA is far from dominant -- it's barely relevant.

As such, a shake-up would seem to be in order. FIBA decided to expand the World Cup field from 24 to 32, they moved the World Cup off of the FIFA World Cup schedule and, in an apparent bid to please the NBA, they removed all extracurricular importance from the continental championship like EuroBasket. In the past, these tournaments -- EuroBasket, FIBA Americas, etc. -- were used to qualify teams for the World Championship and the Olympics. No longer. Now the tournaments will be held once every four years, and won't be used to qualify anyone for anything.

Like FIFA, FIBA will now qualify teams for the World Cup and Olympics through a separate system. This separate system includes new qualification windows throughout the year (as in soccer). The windows: February, June, September and November. Weird, because three of those months are during the NBA season. FIFA international qualification works because FIFA is dominant and all of the other leagues adjust to allow players to return to their national teams for qualification. FIBA isn't in that spot. The NBA is not likely to adjust its schedule to have multi-week breaks during November and February where players can go off to play a few games of international ball, and June is certainly out of the question for a) players in the NBA Finals, b) prospects preparing for the draft and c) free agents to be hesitant to risk their contracts.

Here's the thing about this new schedule: it kills Team USA, right? The entire Team USA roster is in the NBA. So that entire roster will be out of luck when qualification hits. Use college kids? OK, let's go tell Roy Williams he needs to give up his players for a couple weeks in February to play for a team they aren't likely to make in the end anyway. That makes sense. So ... are we going to use high school players? Americans who aren't in the NBA? Retired NBA players?

The only solution for Team USA will be to win every World Cup (which qualifies the team for the following Olympics) and win every Olympic tournament (which qualifies the team for the next World Cup). Then Team USA would never need to worry about qualification windows. But lose one tournament and it's mayhem.

Other national teams? They can't rely on that. As such, the teams with NBA or Euroleague players will be at a distinct disadvantage. (The Euroleague could adjust its schedule, given that it's already pretty light. Domestic leagues in Europe may also do the same. But it's worth nothing that the European leagues opposed FIBA's shift.) What's France without Tony Parker, Joakim Noah, Nicolas Batum and Boris Diaw? What's Russia without Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved? What's Montenegro without Nikola Pekovic? These NBA players will be allowed to play in less than half of FIBA's qualification windows, which could seriously squelch their countries' ability to qualify for this expanded World Cup.

So this is what we're left with: primarily second-string teams will compete for spots in the World Cup and Olympics during the traditional league season (when no one will be paying attention), and then the stars might be helicoptered in to perform in those big events, which will be held in back-to-back summers. We're left with a Team USA that needs to win every big tournament to avoid playing high school kids in qualification rounds. We're left with seemingly no one happy, and a product that hardly seems stronger in the wash.

Good job, FIBA. You've really outdone yourself this time.

***

The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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