“That tournament is not important.”
“We would win if we had our best guys there.”
“Nobody really cares. It’s not the Olympics, right?”
The FIBA World Cup gets underway on Aug. 31, and Team USA is going in with a target on its back. That 13-year unbeaten streak that dates back to Japan in 2006? It’s gone, having fallen victim to the Australian National Team in front of 52,079 fans at a football stadium in Melbourne. Remember Andrew Bogut? He went for 16 against the Americans. And he is about the 12th best center that will be playing in China when the tournament begins on the 31st of August.
The gambling community has taken notice of nearly three dozen NBA players who have withdrawn from consideration, left the squad because of injury, or found some other reason not to spend more than a month halfway across the globe during the NBA offseason.
Representing your country means more to some players than it does to others, and the fact of the matter if that Team USA is going overseas with a roster that will bear little or no resemblance to next year’s team for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Americans, of course, see the Olympics as the be-all and end-all of international competitions. We were raised that way by Dick Ebersol, Bob Costas and the folks at NBC.
Other nations? Heck, the Olympics rank distant second in terms of importance when it comes to international basketball competitions. From Belgrade to Athens to Sydney to Paris to Barcelona, if there is a town square with a massive projection television feed, people will come out in droves to watch their countries compete in this tournament.
In the states, most folks will be watching football. Or baseball. Or rearranging their sock drawer.
For someone who has covered four of these tournaments in person (Indianapolis, 2002; Tokyo, 2006; Istanbul, 2010; Madrid/Barcelona, 2014), trust me when I tell you that this is a really, really big deal in places where culture if not found in the parking lot of a Walmart, a McDonald’s or a 7-Eleven.
But for Americans, the World Cup is only for the most die-hard basketball fans.
Team USA still favored, but odds have plummeted
The loss to Australia was not exactly a wake-up call for Team USA — more of a reality check. Monday’s bounceback win against Canada was their final prep game before they travel to Shanghai on Wednesday.
“They learned that in this competition, you can’t take nights off. It’s one and done. So, like I say, we are learning a lot. This group has never been together before and had a lot to learn,” coach Gregg Popovich said.
“We still have a lot to learn, but game by game, practice by practice trying to figure it out. And, tonight was another good lesson to realize what the mindset has to be going into these games – how physical they are, how you have to sustain the energy for forty minutes. They are doing a great job of just paying attention, not talking to the referees and worried about a bad call or anything like that.
“It’s coming along, but as I said, there is a lot of improvement we can make, and that’s a good thing.”
In the victory over Canada, the Americans didn’t make a 3-pointer in the second half — they were just 2-of-14 in the game — and had more turnovers than assists.
Earlier this month, Team Serbia coach Sasha Djordjevic said: “Let’s let [Team USA] play their basketball and we will play ours, and if we meet, may God help them.”
After being listed as enormous favorites to win the gold medal, the odds on the U.S. emerging victorious have dropped to -177 at DraftKings Sportsbook. Serbia, led by Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, is the second choice at +350, and Greece has dropped all the way to +1100.
Other gold-medal contending teams (in theory) are Spain (+1400), France (+2500), Australia (+3000) and Lithuania (+3500).
FIBA World Cup odds 2019
Outside factors in play?
The burden of spending a month halfway across the planet was a contributing factor to the number of defections and “no thank yous” that the American federation received, and it remains to be seen how they will be treated in China, which is currently locked in a war of words with Donald J. Trump over trade tariffs.
If relations between the world’s two largest economies improve, the American team will likely be left alone. But if the bombast that took place last weekend gets ramped up again, Pop’s crew will make a convenient target for Chinese authorities to mess with.
At the Beijing Olympics, athletes from around the world discovered that Chinese authorities were entering their hotel rooms and going through their personal belongings, even opening room safes. One Argentine player unlocked his room safe and removed the passport inside, then went to the bank to withdraw funds. When the teller looked at the passport, they discovered that it was a teammate’s passport … and the only logical conclusion was that authorities had entered their rooms, taken their passports, then put the wrong ones back.
So the “strange things happen in China” stories are still ahead of us, and they will not be reserved for what takes place at the basketball venues.
The winner of the World Cup will automatically qualify for the Olympics, as will the first two teams from Europe and the Americas, and the first-place team from the regions of Africa, Asia and Oceania. (Also, host nation, Japan, gets in automatically). Others will have to earn berths to Tokyo through qualifying tournaments.