Spain take home the Naismith Trophy. But what else should we take away from China?

1. Continuity is key

What did all the last four standing at the close of 16 days of action at the 2019 FIBA World Cup have in common?

Answer: They all have the same head coach as they did back at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

There is so much to be said about a system that is maintained and a culture cultivated, even if players dip in and out. It creates simplicity and chemistry that can’t be manufactured within a few weeks of training camp and a handful of friendlies.

Argentina, the greatest over-achievers in a field of odds-breakers in China, fielded eleven of the same 12 that were runners-up at the 2017 AmeriCup. Spain and France, five apiece from their 2017 EuroBasket runs. Australia, with six from their Class of 2016.

The USA – one returnee from the previous four years (Derrick White who played in two qualifiers) and on a third head coach in four years. Coincidence? Think not.

2. Scolarly Specimens

To any 39-year-old with greying hair and impending middle age, let Luis Scola be an inspiration. What a fantastical tournament he had and anyone with a sentimental bone would have loved him to land a winners medal, a full 17 years after taking a runners-up gong. A tribute to good living but smart play.

The All Star Five was a solid group although Marc Gasol, who made countless big plays at big moments in Spain’s title run, felt more the deserving MVP than Ricky Rubio, even if the one-time prodigy had his most consistent championships yet.

Lots of NBA GMs will have rushed to suss out when Gabriel Deck and Facu Campazzo’s contracts at Real Madrid end in preparation for an offer. Likewise for Aussie big Jock Landale.

Nikola Milutinov, drafted by the San Antonio Spurs, looks ready for a leap when he leaves Olympiacos. While Frank Ntilikina showed the Knicks that they may have mis-used his capabilities during a World Cup that proved how international basketball demands different approaches to the NBA.

3. Aussies, Oi!

One for debate but I still maintain Australia were the best team in this tournament. Except for all those spells in the third/fourth quarter that wrecked what this writer still believes should have been a surge to silver at the very least. What has always been so admirable about the Boomers is their strength in unison and an extraordinary will to win together.

That still shone through but turnovers and lapses were inexplicable and punishing. Don’t think that adding Ben Simmons for the Olympics will add the missing touch. The upside of his talent also brings the risk of knocking off Aussie-Patty Mills (one of the most fun sights in basketball) off-kilter.

4. Big disappointments

Let’s start with Serbia, if only for being my pre-tourney picks to win it all. Never under-estimate the value of Milos Teodosic but inexplicably, they fell apart in a quarter-final they never should have lost. No wonder beating the USA was no consolation at all.

Nigeria, of the first round stumblers (see below). They should have done much better.

China, however, have serious questions to ask themselves. No team had a longer and more detailed preparation, with a scientific approach to generating competition for places in the final squad and a lengthy build-up that was all designed to showcase the hosts in front of their own crowd. Instead, mediocrity. They will, assuredly, get an invite to the Olympic qualifying tournament but once again, it proves that throwing vast sums at a domestic league cannot mask flaws in a player development system.

5. Pleasant surprises

Step forward and take a bow, Czech Republic, who shrugged off the absence of Jan Vesely and re-invented themselves as a run and gun crew that finished in the top six on their debut. Kudos to their coach Ronen Ginzburg.

Same for Mike Taylor and Poland who came good when it counted and proved that a unity of purpose can go a long way. They both should also give hope to every other mid-range national team (hint: GB) that if you do things the right way, good things can happen – quickly.

6. Basketball’s not all about the USA

The USA didn’t win. Just in case you missed it. It wasn’t a surprise!! Many pundits, myself included, didn’t expect them to retain their title and it was clear before Gregg Popovich’s side landed in China that the composition of their roster was badly designed (not entirely their fault, given the extraordinary number of cry-offs).

They struggled against zone defences, as if someone had pulled this rabbit out of the hat before their shocked eyes. They had minimal chemistry (see above). They rode their luck before the French punched them on the nose. Credit to this group, they displayed no arrogance even prior and showed class in defeat.

But for Tokyo 2020, Uncle Sam needs to do more than simply add a few All-NBAers. Sure, if they rock up at the Olympics with a starting five of Steph Curry, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, it’s odds-on gold. Yet longer-term, how do they become a national team like every other country, especially when a completely different group features in AmeriCup and World Cup qualifiers?

The disconnect was illustrated with the grand talk of the Aussies ending the USA’s 78-game winning streak prior to the championships. No, their recent unbeaten run only began after a loss to Mexico in qualifying last June. Still the USA senior men’s team. Benchmarked now in the same mortal manner as everyone else.

7. Broadcasting needs a higher definition

We’re accustomed – especially if your language of choice is English – to hearing brilliant broadcasting and analysis on basketball. American play-by-play commentators and their colo(u)r cohorts don’t tell us what we can already see – they explain and they entertain and add to the narrative.

Almost uniformly, the FIBA TV analysts were dull, clichéd and humourless (notable exception: Mark Clark). There was so little storytelling of who these great players are beyond their height (feet and metres) and how many points they scored in the Basketball Champions League.

Fans, worldwide, these days are versed in analytics and systems. They crave gold nuggets, not lumpen rocks. And that was reflected in the reaction in the Twittersphere. In the NBA or NCAA, only the best of best call the big games. The World Cup deserves an upgrade.

8. Africa is still the poor relation

I, like so many, bought the hype that Nigeria could make a run at the quarter-finals. Talent, alas, did not translate adequately. Once more, none of the continent’s teams could punch close to their weight with their home-based performers once more rarely capable of flourishing on this stage.

Hence, the Basketball Africa League is set to arrive at an opportune time to raise standards for those who don’t make it into Europe or the USA. And for the Nigerians, especially, time must be spent between now and 2020 to get the whole gang on board. If they do, vast potential remains fulfillable.

9. Purge the excess

The 32-team tournament didn’t feel over-blown, although 24 still seems like a more fitting number of participants. The major downside was the noise created by the largely pointless 17-32 classification phase which drowned out some of the volume from the entirely meaningful second round – unfolding, literally, at the same time.

Sure, rankings need to be determined to fill out spots in the Olympic qualifiers. But not at the expense of this tournament’s good health. Play those games at a different time of day – like 2am.

And as a PS to that: a team that finishes 23rd should never, ever get an automatic Olympic berth. Regional representation is all well and good, but Iran earning a free pass to Tokyo when Serbia (fifth) doesn’t? Technical foul.

10. Be Up for the Cup

If you’re not on board with this tournament, then you’re off your tiny basketball mind. The usual trope that some players / countries (not exclusive the USA but…) care more about the Olympics has been repeated time and again. As much as it pains FIBA, everyone covets the Olympics more because, you know, it’s the OLYMPICS!

But even if you sit through the entire NBA playoffs, you won’t have seen the kind of competitive, means-everything, dramatics that we got in abundance over two and a half weeks in China. Add in the elixir of national pride for those involved and this is world-class entertainment as well as first-rate basketball.

Despite the continuing moans about qualifying windows, etc.. roll on Asia in 2023.

Photo: FIBA

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • MySpace
  • Print

You must be logged in to post a comment Login