Two years ago, international basketball governing body FIBA switched up how nations reached the World Cup and Olympics. Instead of qualifying through summertime tournaments, there would be three soccer-style windows in November, February, and June/July for round-robin qualification games.
FIBA’s stated intent was to ensure basketball fans in every nation could see the best players the sport can offer close to home. Instead of being forced to travel to a central tournament to support their home nation, fans would get more frequent meaningful games in their own countries. High-level basketball would come to each nation involved.
An obvious problem from the jump is that the NBA is in session in November and February. Plus, the June/July window overlaps with free agency, a time when players chasing contracts are unlikely to risk injury in major competition. The NBA was never going to change its calendar for international qualifiers, and one assumes FIBA understood that.
But FIBA did hope the biggest, best non-NBA league in the world would alter its schedule to accommodate the new system. Instead, EuroLeague, a 16-team European club competition that’s akin to soccer’s Champions League, expanded its competition. It just released the 2017-18 schedule, and there are no windows for international qualifiers.
The 16 best teams in Europe — all of whom also play in domestic leagues like the Spanish ACB, Greek Basket League, and France’s Pro A — feature most of the best players in the world not in the NBA. Those stars will have to decide in November and February whether to suit up for the team that pays their salaries or their national teams.
The coaches of those national teams, one presumes, won’t be able to coach in the EuroLeague unless their bosses work out special arrangements to release them from duty twice during the season. This is a problem because most major national team coaches work for a high-end club, American university, or NBA team. (How USA Basketball is getting around this given Gregg Popovich’s professional constraints is described below.)
EuroCup, a 24-team, second-tier continental league run by the same folks who run EuroLeague, did create a two-week break in late November to ostensibly allow players to represent their nations in FIBA qualifying. FIBA’s February games fall within EuroCup’s typical break between the Round of 16 and the playoffs, so there may be no problems with representatives from EuroCup clubs participating.
But the players in EuroCup are not remotely the best players in the world. The 2017 EuroCup MVP was Alexey Shved, who had a rather inglorious four-year NBA career. If those are the best players participating in crucial international qualifiers, that’s a problem. It undercuts FIBA’s very reason for switching to this qualifying system.
Take Spain, for example. Several Spanish team stars — both Gasols, Ricky Rubio, Nikola Mirotic, Willy Hernangomez, Sergio Rodriguez, Jose Calderon, Alex Abrines — play in the NBA. They won’t be available for qualifiers. The top five Spanish club teams play in EuroLeague. So that likely rules out Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navarro, Felipe Reyes, Victor Claver, and Sergio Llull. Not a single player from Spain’s 2016 bronze medal Olympic team will be available to play in FIBA qualifiers, unless they ditch their professional clubs for a week in November and February.
So, sure: Per FIBA’s grand scheme, the nation of Slovenia gets to host the Spanish national team in November. But which Spanish players will they actually see?
So what about the U.S.?
There are no illusions that NBA players or coaches will participate in the November or February qualifiers. USA Basketball hired Jeff Van Gundy to coach those teams and revealed that G League players, American college players, and Americans playing abroad will be tapped.
The G League, formerly the NBA D-League, typically tips off in late November. It remains to be seen whether that will be moved up to earlier in November with a schedule break for qualifiers, or moved back to December. There is also understandable skepticism that high-end college players will skip NCAA preseason in November and the end of the conference season in February to participate.
Will NBA stars play in qualifiers on the final days of June and first days of July? The stars who just wrapped up their playoff runs won’t. The stars who face free agency certainly won’t. Odds are the players (and coaches) who run the team during this summer’s low-profile AmeriCup and the in-season qualifiers will continue to do so next summer.
Because other top Western Hemisphere teams will be missing big stars as well, Team USA should still be able to qualify with relative ease. Using lower-tier players won’t really build the USA Basketball program up any further unless the powers that be decide to start using high school players.
There will still be participation by top players in the big events. The stars will come out for the FIBA World Cup in the summer of 2019, and again for the Olympics in 2020. In Europe, there will even be some big names participating in this summer’s EuroBasket 2017, a continental tournament that no longer has World Cup or Olympic qualifying ramifications. Pride is at stake, and it appears players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Pau Gasol will participate.
But the other continental tournaments appear unlikely to draw much commitment from big-name players. Even Canadian basketball — a rising international basketball power eager for real success — is sending a B-team to AmeriCup to prepare for sending a B-team to the FIBA qualifiers in November and February.
This dramatically harms the global game
At the most-senior level on the men’s side, FIBA has walked down a path where the best players in the world are only going to show up twice every four years.
FIBA’s aim is to expose the beautiful game to more fans around the world through home-and-home qualifiers instead of centralized tournaments might help on the margins ... if FIBA can draw fans to low-stakes games featuring few, if any, of the world’s best players. Good luck.
FIBA knew this plan would fail to expose more of the world to NBA superstars. Had it known the new system would exclude the top European clubs players as well, you’d hope it would have chosen a different path.
FIBA appears to get the junior levels right — the top young players in the world tend to participate in every major FIBA junior event. But that’s not the case at the senior level, and that’s a problem.
What FIBA ought to focus on is making it as easy and painless as possible for stars to show up. This is a star-driven sport at the highest level. One bridge solution: summer qualification from late July to early September that follows the global round-robin style instead of centralized tournaments. Cram all of those windows into a part of the calendar when more stars are likely to be available.
Instead, FIBA has followed its own plan, trying in vain to be more like cash cow global soccer. It’s turning into quite a lonely path, and basketball around the world will suffer for it.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Spain won bronze, not silver, in the 2016 Olympics.