The journey to the 2019 FIBA World Cup is beginning with dozens of important international qualification games scheduled over the next five days. Exactly zero current NBA players will participate in any of them. A limited number of players from EuroLeague, the world’s No. 2 club competition, will play in the games.
That means Giannis Antetokounmpo won’t be in uniform for Greece. Kristaps Porzingis will be playing for the Knicks this week instead of Latvia. The United States will rely on G League players instead of stars like Kevin Durant or Anthony Davis.
Not surprisingly, there has been exceptionally little buzz around the games except for the complaining done by various parties about the timing.
How did we get here? Is this the death of international basketball as a going concern?
The state of international basketball is a convoluted, complicated situation that, to be honest, few American hoops fans care about. But it’s going to potentially have huge impacts on the global sport in the short and long terms. As such, it is our duty to try to unravel it all.
Here are some answers to the questions you might have about what is going on in international basketball this holiday weekend and beyond.
So, why do these international games matter?
Beginning Thursday and running through Monday, 38 games will be played in the first window of qualifiers for the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Seventy-two national teams will be in action, from powers like the United States and Spain to emerging programs like Latvia and Philippines to basketball unknowns like Rwanda, Chile, and Hong Kong.
These games won’t be played at a central tournament: They will be played in these 72 nations or territories, for the most part. Some teams’ “home” games will be played elsewhere for safety or logistical reasons; Iraq, for example, is hosting opponents in Amman, Jordan. Puerto Rico was supposed to host Team USA on Thanksgiving; but that game will be played in Orlando as the island territory remains devastated by Hurricane Maria.
Results from this round of games plus similar matches played in February 2018 and in late June/early July 2018 will serve to cut the current 80-team field down to 60 teams. More games next November and in February 2019 will get us our 32 qualifiers for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, which is set for August and September 2019 in China.
Don’t NBA teams play Wednesday, Friday, and all weekend?
Are any NBA players joining their national teams for these games?
Because NBA players are paid exceptional amounts of money to play in the NBA. Some franchises already bristle at allowing their players to participate with national teams in the NBA offseason due to injury and rest concerns. Releasing players — many of them quite valuable — midseason is out of the question. It would need to be negotiated into the league’s collective bargaining agreement, and the current deal is set until the middle of the next Olympic cycle.
12 #NBAGLeague alums represent @USABasketball in the @FIBAWC Qualifiers 1st Round games Thursday (7:30 pm/et) & Sunday (5 pm/et)!— NBA G League (@nbagleague) November 21, 2017
What you need to know: https://t.co/TzACsD0yXI pic.twitter.com/YzArabjpHf
Are any EuroLeague players joining their national teams for these games?
Yes, a limited number of EuroLeague players seem to be participating, making decisions at the last minute. The pressure from FIBA, national federations, and even politicians in Europe has been fierce. In response, it appears that teams that can afford to release players for this weekend’s games are doing so. In many cases, these are less important players — not necessarily stars. For example, reigning European champion Slovenia won’t have its top two players who play for EuroLeague teams, Anthony Randolph and Luka Doncic. (Slovenia also will not have Heat star Goran Dragic.)
What about lower-tier European leagues?
There are two more notable European competitions outside of the domestic leagues: EuroCup (run by the people who run EuroLeague) and Champions League (run by FIBA). EuroCup is off this week, so those players are available. FIBA also made sure to give its own Champions League a window to allow players to represent national teams.
What about elsewhere in the world?
Based on foreign reports, it appears Asian and African national teams are having less trouble securing their best players. Yao Ming runs the Chinese Basketball Association, and the reigning league MVP is playing in China’s qualifiers. Of course, there are fewer players from these nations in the top leagues in the world.
Central and South American nations have more players in the NBA and EuroLeague, which is posing some roster problems for them as well.
So, is this right — 72 nations are competing for a chance at the WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP OF BASKETBALL this weekend and very few of the best basketball players in the world are participating?
Has it always been this way?
No! Until this cycle, teams qualified for the World Cup (previously called the World Championship) through continental championship tournaments like EuroBasket, AfroBasket, Asia Cup, and AmeriCup. These tournaments were held every odd-numbered year and qualified teams for the Olympics and World Championship, depending on which major global competition was up next. FIBA also held last-minute wild card tournaments to fill in final spots.
Why did FIBA switch things?
Good question. Goooooood question.
How is this system better? What’s the rationale?
FIBA argues that allowing national teams to play meaningful, competitive games in their home countries will build grassroots fandom and grow the global sport. This is a good theory: if, for instance, kids in Seoul can go check out their South Korean team battle the mighty Australians without traveling to Tokyo or Shanghai for a big tournament, they might build an attachment to basketball. Bringing global basketball stars to Warsaw or Montevideo or Helsinki or Lagos could definitely do wonders for the grassroots.
But is that going to happen?
It doesn’t look like it. The problem is that because of when these windows fall, no global basketball stars are participating. Rising hoops power Canada is playing its game against Dominican Republic in Santiago. But Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Olynyk, Tristan Thompson, Trey Lyles, Cory Joseph, Jamal Murray, or even Nik Stauskas won’t be in Santiago. Sorry, Dominicanos: you’re getting Anthony Bennett and a 35-year-old Joel Anthony. No offense to those guys or anyone playing in these games, which is a big honor and worthy of pride. But let’s be real: it’s hard to imagine these rosters inspiring a grassroots embrace of basketball in countries in love with other sports.
Didn’t FIBA see this coming?
It’s impossible to imagine that FIBA really thought the NBA would release players a month into its season for international games. But FIBA appears to really have believed it could pressure EuroLeague to build windows into its schedule. That didn’t work, and the federation is now pushing policy levers at the European Union to get its way.
There’s reason to believe national teams will be able to pull in bigger names in the June/July window when the NBA and EuroLeague are in the offseason. The February window might also allow for a wider swath of European players — and other internationals who play in Europe’s top league — to play. We’ll see.
Isn’t this how FIFA qualifies teams for the soccer World Cup?
So ... is FIBA trying to be more like FIFA?
Yep. It’s pretty obvious that FIBA sees FIFA, the international soccer federation, as a cash cow worthy of emulation, not the corrupt, greed-ridden cautionary tale it actually is. Hence renaming the FIBA World Championship to the FIBA World Cup and mimicking the qualification system.
Is there a better way?
Merging FIBA’s plan with the traditional summer qualification period is workable. Instead of huge continental tournaments in July, August, and September, FIBA could cram these home-and-away qualifications games into mini-tournaments all over the world. Instead of three windows for six games, condense that into four weeks. You could schedule it to minimize long travel. You could even break out of the continental scheme so that we could have, for example, Klay Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins sliding into Ljubljana for a huge battle against Dragic, Randolph, and Doncic. You could have the Gasols in Accra, or Ben Simmons in Havana, or Porzingis in Halifax, or Joel Embiid in Moscow. Think of the memes we could create.
What is the worst that could happen with this whole thing?
Team USA is being led by a group of G League players. They have a tough game against Puerto Rico on Thursday. (Puerto Rico just added Gian Clavell, recently cut from the Dallas Mavericks, to their roster.) What if this collection of players can’t cut it and Team USA fails to qualify for the 2019 FIBA World Cup? What if that causes Team USA to miss the 2020 men’s Olympic basketball tournament?
What if this happens to Spain, too? And Australia? And Argentina? And Slovenia? And France? What if global basketball competitions stop elevating the best nations on Earth, but instead reward the best nations who don’t have enough good players in the top leagues on Earth for this format to hurt them?
Is there a silver lining in all of this?
Andray Blatche, star of the Filipino national team, is available and will play against Japan on Friday. At least we have that.