In soccer, of course, top leagues habitually take multiple in-season “international breaks” that, with FIFA’s backing, enable national teams to summon any healthy player they want for qualifying matches.
In international basketball, by contrast, no such culture exists. FIBA’s move away from a longstanding reliance on summer qualifying tournaments for its own major competitions, which more often than not ensured the availability of N.B.A. players, will now lead to numerous national teams asking players of lesser stature to get them to China. The expectation is that many of those players would then be asked to step aside so more decorated players can participate in the actual championship.
For the United States, that means assembling a roster featuring 11 players from the N.B.A.’s developmental league, and one current free agent, to take on Puerto Rico in Orlando on Thursday and Mexico on Sunday in Greensboro, N.C. The ESPN analyst and former New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy will provide the lone semblance of star power from the U.S. bench.
“Think about the team Van Gundy is putting together,” said the San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Ettore Messina, who was forced to relinquish his role as head coach of the Italian national team because of the new format.
“They will qualify, because they will be very well prepared and play hard. But then you have to tell them: ‘Thank you. Now the real players are coming in to go to China.’ How unfair is that?”
Messina has been perhaps the loudest critic of the changes in a sport that, since the entree of N.B.A. players into Olympic play in 1992, has largely operated under the premise that the summer is national team time.
In September, at a news conference during the EuroBasket tournament, Messina branded the idea of players and coaches helping their nations qualify and then being replaced for the World Cup as “a humiliation.”
Three months later, Messina is in no mood to soften his position.
“Stupid,” Messina said. “That’s the most common word I hear when I talk with people about this — stupid.”
FIBA’s stated reasoning for the format overhaul, in truth, isn’t blindly boneheaded. The idea was that a return to the soccer-style system used in the pre-N.B.A. days would give every country competing a chance to play meaningful matches at home, as opposed to traveling to one central tournament. The change, FIBA hoped, would provide more fans in many more locales increased opportunities to see not only their best countrymen but stars from rival nations.
The San Antonio guard Manu Ginobili, for example, told me in a recent interview that he could scarcely recall his native Argentina playing a single “real” game at home — beyond exhibitions — throughout a glorious national team career than spanned nearly two decades.
“Having games at home in every country I think is potentially very good,” Ginobili said. “But then if you’re not able to play with your best players …”
The sentence did not need finishing. Imagine what World Cup qualifying would look like in soccer if, say, neither England’s Premier League nor Spain’s La Liga had to release its players to participate.
Ginobili and his teammate with the Spurs, Pau Gasol, who plays for Spain, both admit that they struggle to imagine the day that the N.B.A. would ever consent to the concept of international breaks during the season so that players could leave the teams paying them.
“Probably not in my lifetime,” Gasol said with a smile.
Trying to summarize the ongoing battle between FIBA and Euroleague officials about making more than a few fringe Euroleaguers available to participate in upcoming qualifiers, in our allotted space, would be another serious struggle. But even if those entities eventually do find a level of greater compromise than we’re seeing at the moment, there’s no denying that a gaping void will linger in the qualifying process without N.B.A. involvement.
When the 2017-18 N.B.A. season commenced, 108 international players from 42 countries and territories occupied roster spots in a league with only 510 available. But playing out their N.B.A. dreams means they can’t help their countries now even if they want to, whether we’re talking Puerto Rico’s ever-gritty J.J. Barea, Greece’s incomparable Giannis Antetokounmpo or the Latvian unicorn Porzingis from the Knicks.
For the veteran guard Jose Calderon of the Cleveland Cavaliers — who quickly points out that none of the 12 players on his Spanish squad that won a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics and again at EuroBasket 2017 just a few months ago are on the qualifying roster — FIBA’s mistake was forging ahead with the format switch without polling more of the participants.
“I understand what FIBA is trying to do,” Calderon said. “But at the end of the day, I think everything is impossible if you don’t talk to the players. Those are the first ones you have to involve.
“Right now I feel like the players are in the middle. Maybe it’s time to sit everybody together and start talking about how to do it and do it the right way.”
None of this talk, mind you, is intended to slight the players and coaches who will step unto the breach starting Thursday. Puerto Rico’s determination to play on in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation, for starters, is undeniably inspiring.
And Van Gundy, predictably, has embraced the challenge of trying to craft a cohesive unit from his cast of little-known N.B.A. aspirants with great pride. The Americans will have enjoyed a mere six days’ worth of practices before taking on the displaced Puerto Ricans at the University of Central Florida in Orlando on Thanksgiving Day. The Americans will operate as the road team.
Since coaching a similar squad to the AmeriCup title in Argentina in early September, Van Gundy has spoken often of the “great stories” that the likes of Larry Drew II, Reggie Hearn and AmeriCup MVP Jameel Warner bring to the job in their quest to break through to the big time. He insists his unheralded group sees the task to “get our team qualified” as an honor, which would then allow Messina’s San Antonio boss, Gregg Popovich, and the team of N.B.A. All-Stars that Popovich will assemble as Mike Krzyzewski’s successor with Team USA, to go “do their thing” in China.
“Imagine Spain, France, Canada — they’ve all got a lot of players that also won’t be able to play,” Ginobili said of qualifying.
“I think the idea can be good, but only if you can execute it in the right way. You need consensus.”