In the FIBA World Cup of Basketball, a team's fate can often come down to the luck of the draw. Assignments to the four groups are largely random outside of the four top-ranked squads, and those teams that draw early matchups (or prospective single-elimination games) against dominant powers like the United States and Spain must adjust expectations accordingly. In the 2014 tournament currently underway in Spain, teams in Team USA's Group C held out little hope of finishing at the top of the table for the preliminary round. Similarly, teams in Group D knew that a second-place spot, though impressive in a vacuum, would set up a prohibitively difficult quarterfinal matchup against the Americans.
The potential for that challenging game led to a bit of controversy on Thursday's final day of group games. Heading into the day, the top of Group D comprised Slovenia in the top spot at 4-0, Lithuania in second at 3-1, and Australia in third at 3-1 with an inferior point differential. Slovenia and Lithuania were to sort out first place in a head-to-head game, while Australia had a significantly less challenging game against Angola. Given the matchups, it was not crazy to think that Australia could have made up their point-differential deficit and finished second in Group D even if Lithuania beat Slovenia.
Of course, any team in that position would have had to play the United States (which should handle Mexico with little problem) if they were to defeat Dominican Republic in the Round of 16. No team wants that challenge at such any early juncture in the tournament for understandable reasons. So, having looked at their options and incentives, Australia opted to sit top performers Joe Ingles and Aron Baynes. Then, when they held at 10-point lead at the half, they sat many more of their best players, including Matthew Dellavedova and David Andersen. It was enough to hand Angola a 91-83 win, which cemented Australia in third-place with a 3-2 record.
Basketball is a beautiful sport, there is no room for fixing the game like today Australia vs Angola!! @FIBA should do something about that!
— Goran Dragic (@Goran_Dragic) September 4, 2014
This message came before Slovenia's game vs. Lithuania, so it's not as if Dragic and his teammates were strictly dependent on Australia's result and were upset purely due to self-interest. On some level, Dragic was just offended in terms of his ideals of sportsmanship and honor among competitors.
On the other hand, the game really did factor into Slovenia's fate in the World Cup. Lithuania won their game 67-64, with Slovenia scoring a paltry two points in the fourth quarter. Dragic was particularly disappointing, finishing with 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting from the field, including missing all five of his three-pointers and three of five free throws. If Slovenia bounces back to beat the Dominican Republic on Saturday, they will face the United States in the quarterfinals next Tuesday in Barcelona.
As noted by Ethan Sherwood Strauss at TrueHoop, Dragic's charge of "fixing" isn't quite accurate, although he is not a native English speaker and deserves some leeway. Match-fixing involves much deeper deceit, with players actually in the game purposely performing below their capabilities and/or referees conspiring to affect the outcome. Right now, there's no evidence that Australia engaged in such underhanded tactics, if only because head coach Andrej Lemanis held out players so blatantly.
UPDATE: Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated has presented some convincing evidence that Australia put in very little effort in the second half. The performance doesn't fall within the usual definition of game-fixing, which typically involves betting and subtler forms of poor play, but there's a strong argument here that Australia's players on the court weren't especially focused after halftime.
Instead, Australia tanked the game, a tactic that NBA fans should recognize from franchises such as the Philadelphia 76ers. The difference is that those forms of tanking usually involve long-term planning and the idea that allowing young players to develop on the job is more valuable than winning a few more games per season. For Australia, the advantage is all too clear — they will now avoid playing Team USA until the semifinals, and making it that far would be a major accomplishment no matter the eventual result. Australia can claim that losing also gave them the chance to rest some key players during a tournament that tests athletes' endurance, but that's an avoidance of the issue. They lost because it increases their chances of making it deep into the competition.
The incentives were all too clear for Australia, to the point where it's understandable why Dragic would call on FIBA to make changes. Perhaps it makes more sense for Round of 16 matchups to be set by another draw based on group finishes, so that first-place teams are randomly matched up with fourth-place finishers (and so on) with stipulations that teams from the same group cannot face each other. That could lead to top teams facing each other earlier in the tournament than anticipated, but the groups exist to rank teams for a second time regardless. It would be foolish to think that this change would end strategic losing forever, because the United States (and, at least for now, Spain) is so much better than other potential opponents. Some teams would likely opt to avoid even a one-in-three chance at playing an overwhelming favorite.
Yet it is important to consider Dragic's argument apart from the incentives at play, because he really does seem to have a moral opposition to Australia's actions. Any sporting event will feature different cultural attitudes towards certain practices, but it's particularly the case in an international competition with so many nations with their own athletic histories. (Even Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola, as cosmopolitan a figure as any in world soccer, came under fire for not understanding Germany's character after sitting stars after his club clinched the Bundesliga last spring.) Attempting to solve the problem of tanking in FIBA play suggests that a workable consensus can be reached. Dragic has a right to be angry, but it's also understandable why Australians would think their team made the right move. How can we know which side is correct when their opinions may depend on philosophies that affect much more than the structure of a basketball tournament?
Charles Barkley on NBA players competing internationally:
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