The Dominance of USA Basketball is in Peril

You may not remember this, since the U.S. has won the last three Olympic Games and the last two World Championships (now called the World Cup), but there was a time when USA basketball struggled in international competition. They won no major international tournaments from 2001 to 2007. They finished as low as sixth in the worlds. In 2008, they won the Olympic gold medal and have not looked back. Still, it's important to remember that the years 2001-2007 taught us that basketball dominance by the USA cannot be taken for granted, and that even mid-tier NBA players are not a slam dunk gold medal choice.

Now, thanks to a decision by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), and a reaction to that decision by the Team USA, means a return to those dark days is now quite plausible: that after winning gold in the 2014 FIBA World Cup, the U.S. might not even qualify for the next one, which will be held in China in 2019.

First, the decision by FIBA: qualification for the tournament will not be done during the continental championships of the NBA offseason. Instead, it will be done in the style of the soccer World Cup, with match dates taking place against other teams in a country's region over the course of two years. These match dates will occur during the NBA season.

That seems to be a pretty hard-line move by FIBA. In soccer, the World Cup is the be-all, end-all. Not so in basketball, where the NBA is more popular worldwide than even the biggest international competitions. FIBA is trying to employ the FIFA model to a decidedly non-FIFA sport with a non-FIFA culture and atmosphere.

But, fine. The NBA, I am sure, wants to continue to grow the game internationally, so they can just do like soccer leagues around the world do during FIFA match dates, and take a break. That could arguably benefit the NBA. If the best players in the world are playing all around the world for a week, and then immediately returning to their NBA teams, that in turn could put more eyes on the NBA. This is one way the NBA could really take advantage of World Cup qualifying happening during the NBA season.

So is that what the NBA is going to do? Heck no. And Team USA is not going to ask for the release of any players during the season. Instead, Team USA will use D-League players and overseas players whose leagues are on break.

What is unclear to me is if other country's basketball federations will ask for their stars to be released to their national teams during the NBA season. If they do, and the NBA allows it, the USA is at an incredible disadvantage. If they don't, and no NBA players appear for any country's qualification efforts, then the qualification process become a meaningless crap shoot devoid of most of the best 320+ players in the world.

Let's assume the former. FIBA Americas gets seven slots in the 2019 World Cup. Is a team made up of D-leaguers and overseas players good enough to be one of those seven? Hopefully (the writer of the above piece, Kristian Winfield, concludes, "Even without their top talent, Team USA will likely remain a favorite to emerge out of the qualifying rounds"), but I'm not so sure. FIBA America has six countries besides the U.S. in the top 20 world rankings. There's Argentina, with Manu Ginobli and Luis Scola. There's Brazil, with five NBA players including Nene. Venezuela won the last South American championship. Puerto Rico is ranked 17th and beat the USA by 19 during the 2004 Olympics. Mexico also has a place in the top 20 (how awful would it be if the U.S. lost to Mexico in basketball?) as does the Dominican Republic, which might feature Karl-Anthony Towns.

The highest ranked team in FIBA Americas outside the 20? That would be, at 24th, Canada. They would likely have Tristan Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, and Joel Anthony.

Again, that's (going by present FIBA rankings) the worst team the United States would have to finish ahead of qualifying to make the basketball World Cup, and they are going to be using D-League players. Fans of Team USA, like me, better hope that Canada, Argentina, and everyone else won't have NBA players at their disposal for World Cup qualifying either, or else it is quite possible the 2019 World Cup will take place without the Stars and Stripes and defending champions.

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