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What Is Ahead for International Basketball?

As we approach the FIBA Men’s World Cup, where is the international game going?

Serbia v USA - FIBA Basketball World Cup 2014 Photo by Evrim Aydin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The FIBA Men’s World Cup begins at the end of August, and here is the group of 15 players in the U.S. camp, from whom twelve will be chosen for the final roster:

Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat)
Harrison Barnes (Sacramento Kings)
Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
Kyle Kuzma (Los Angeles Lakers)
Brook Lopez (Milwaukee Bucks)
Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors)
Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks)
Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz)
Mason Plumlee (Denver Nuggets)
Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics)
Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics)
P.J. Tucker (Houston Rockets)
Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers)
Kemba Walker (Boston Celtics)
Thaddeus Young (Chicago Bulls)

This is a roster of very good players, but many of the top U.S. stars have decided to sit this one out. The U.S. will still be the favorite, but there will likely be more competitive games for them than has been true in recent tournaments.

There is a cycle here. Through the 1988 Olympics, the U.S. sent college players to international tournaments, and for a long time, that was good enough to win. With the controversial exception of 1972, the U.S. won every Olympics they participated in from 1936 when basketball was introduced to the Games through 1984.

But in 1988, the U.S. collegians lost to the Soviet Union in the semifinals, and that simply would not do. What’s forgotten about that tournament is the U.S. had by far the best point differential, and won every game in the blowout except for that unexpected loss.

At any rate, that got hackles up, and a lot of complaining that the U.S. was sending amateurs while much of the rest of the world were sending professionals. And of course that led to the 1992 Dream Team, which dominated all comers.

Dominance re-established, the U.S. would win the next couple of Olympics with a variety of NBA stars, before once again getting complacent. Their bronze medal showing at the 2004 games was perhaps the worst performance by a U.S. men’s team at the Olympics, as they went only 3-2 in the opening round, managed to win their quarterfinal before losing to eventual champions Argentina in the semifinals.

That loss woke up USA Basketball once again, and they went about recruiting the best available players for the 2008 Olympics, getting them into the program and developing a consistent approach behind coach Mike Krzyzewski. That has resulted in three straight Olympic gold medals.

So far I’ve written mostly about the Olympics, but it’s the World Cup that’s about to start. The U.S. has never taken the World Cup—until 2010 the World Championship, as seriously as the Olympics, and hence the results have been more mixed. However, when they have sent their best, or close to it, they have won, which includes the last two editions in 2010 and 2014.

You will note that its been five years since the last tournament, and now is just one summer before the Olympics. This was done in order to move the tournament from the shadow of the FIFA World Cup, and try to establish the basketball version as a similarly massive global enterprise.

The key question here is what do we want from men’s international basketball? From the U.S. perspective, I would just as soon forgo the whole thing, but I do like seeing the non-NBA players from other countries compete.

FIBA clearly wants the World Cup to be the premier international tournament. They rebranded in 2010 in an attempt to emulate FIFA (always a dubious plan, but on the other hand, whatever you want to say about FIFA and so do I, the World Cup is a monumental event that makes gobs of money.)

FIBA also eliminated automatic qualification (except for the host country) for the World Cup. Again this is how FIFA does it, though I’m not sure it’s quite as workable for basketball. The U.S., for example, qualified with G-League players coached by Jeff Van Gundy in a process nobody paid much attention to, compared to FIFA World Cup qualification, which is a much more visible process involving the top players.

The problem is that for the dominant basketball nation, the Olympics is the much higher profile event. As a result, when it comes down to a choice, as it does for so many U.S. stars, they are going to choose the Olympics, especially when the events take place during consecutive summers.

One potential solution to this is to further emulate FIFA and make the Olympics a U23 tournament as is the case with Olympic soccer. I would support this change. It would give young stars an international platform (not just American stars,) and it would leave only one tournament every four years for the grownups.

But another problem for international basketball is the concentration of talent. We are still in a place where if the best available U.S. players participate, it’s not going to be very competitive. This is where we are with women’s tournaments—the best U.S. players play, and almost always win.

That’s not particularly fun or interesting. On the other hand, the roster I listed at the top of the article is not particularly satisfying either. It’s just...a bunch of guys who are willing to go play. It doesn’t feel very representative of basketball in the U.S.

So we’ll have a tournament starting soon, one which much of the rest of the basketball world will take more seriously than the U.S. There is nothing wrong with that really, unless you are FIBA, which needs buy-in from the biggest basketball nation.

Meanwhile, I’ll be watching, mostly to see what’s happening around the world. I always enjoy watching Senegal play (Gorgui!,) and Serbia has quite a roster. Spain’s golden generation has mostly passed, but they still have talent, and France continues to produce.

Will you watch? What do you think the path forward is for international basketball?