Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant (Christian Petersen/ Getty)Last summer, as the Olympics took over the basketball discussion, reports circulated that FIBA and the NBA were interested in minimizing the importance of that tournament and turning the World Championships into a World Cup similar to the global moneymaker that dominates international soccer. That idea wasn't popular with most players, who have come to see the Olympics as a prestigious event that allows them to become part of something greater than themselves while simultaneously making themselves greater.
Nevertheless, FIBA has soldiered on with some portions of this plan. Marc Stein of ESPN.com explains:
FIBA announced this week that its quadrennial World Championship, which starting in 2014 will be known as the FIBA Basketball World Cup, will skip its 2018 turn and move to 2019 to take the event "out of the shadow" of soccer's World Cup. As part of the shift, FIBA says the World Cup field is expanding from 24 teams to a record 32 countries and that seven of the 12 nations in the 2020 Olympics will qualify -- along with the host nation of '20 Games -- based on World Cup results.
Yet one of the more interesting changes to the international basketball calendar involves the introduction of six planned qualifying windows for the 2019 World Cup that will be staged in November 2017, February 2018, June 2018, September 2018, November 2018 and February 2019. You'll notice, as you re-read that sentence, that four of those six windows take place at the same time that the NBA schedule calls for NBA players to play NBA games.
The World Cup changes are sensible — the name itself carries significance due to the existing soccer tournament, and changing the year to gain more interest is an acceptable business decision.
The major announcement here, at least in the short term, is that many important qualifying tournaments will occur during the NBA and European club seasons. FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann hopes that teams will allow their players to participate:
Baumann acknowledged that having NBA stars regularly on national team duty was ''something we would love,'' but that players will decide how much time to commit.
World Cup qualifiers in June and September 2018 would be most attractive to top players, he said. FIBA aims to schedule matches in late-June to avoid clashing with NBA playoffs.
Let's be frank: the NBA is going to hate this idea. According to Stein, the idea of an international break for qualifiers is a non-starter for the NBA, although European teams are entertaining the idea. And while participating nations will play home games that could allow American players to fly to games relatively easily, international games still require practices and the sort of planning necessary to succeed in high-level basketball. Playing in any form of international competition will take up time and force these athletes to miss several NBA games. Many teams already get upset when players use the summer to play for their countries, so it stands to reason that they would abhor the idea of them missing real NBA contests.
European teams may be different simply because their sporting culture is more used to the idea. FIFA schedules international breaks of at least a week into the club season, which allows players to fly around the world to play for their countries. Still, clubs strongly dislike the idea that their highly paid employees would risk injury in the middle of the season. This goes for rehabbing players, as well — Arsenal boss Arsene Wegner recently criticized England manager Roy Hodgson for calling up young star Jack Wilshere for a meaningless friendly when he only recently returned from a foot injury that kept him out for 17 months.
Ultimately, soccer teams only tolerate the international breaks because the importance of the World Cup and continental tournaments are an accepted aspect of the sport's culture. In basketball, international tournaments are comparatively minor, to the point where it seems wildly improbable that any team would grant a rotation player a week-long release.
For smaller nations, that's a major issue, because their star players would be unavailable for key qualifies. For bigger basketball countries like the United States and Spain, it would mean fielding lesser squads that likely wouldn't represent the team on the greater international stage. That probably wouldn't have any effect on their ability to qualify, but it would break up the national team's identity and create two distinct groups: the qualifying team and the one that tries to win international tournaments.
Oddly enough, that could make international basketball seem less legitimate than it currently does. For American fans, part of the draw of the Olympics and World Championships — including qualifying games, when they need to play them — is that "Team USA" represents the cream of the crop (or some approximation of it). Fielding a "B" team could diminish that aura of greatness and turn international basketball into something more minor than it already is. That's not necessarily fair to the competition (which is great), but general impressions are rarely dependent only on the quality of play. Superficial markers of significance matter, too.