The 2019 FIBA World Cup concluded on Sunday with two medal-round games that featured four of the best teams in the world, plenty of players recognizable to NBA fans, but nary a trace of the U.S. men’s national team, which was already flying home with an unsightly seventh-place finish stuffed in its suitcase. Before our focus shifts to NBA training camps, which open in less than two weeks, let’s put a bow on the proceedings by highlighting some of the best and worst from the FIBA fortnight, starting with—reasonably enough—the team that won the whole friggin’ thing …
Winners: Spain (Most Notably Marc Gasol and Ricky Rubio)
With stalwarts Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro off the roster, and several other key pieces of past squads (point guard Sergio Rodríguez, big men Nikola Mirotic and Serge Ibaka) also out of the mix, there wasn’t as much flash in the Spanish side this time around. But after some iffy moments early in group play, Spain found its form, leaning on an exacting defense to outlast some of the most explosive offensive teams in the draw. Spain never trailed in a decisive 95-75 win over Argentina on Sunday that delivered the country its second World Cup title—and, with it, a measure of redemption for the 2014 tournament, where, even as the host, it was eliminated by France in the quarterfinals. (Happens to the best of us.)
Marc Gasol wasn’t at his sharpest on the offensive end in China, shooting just 42.5 percent from the field and 22.6 percent from 3-point range over eight games. But he led the Spanish charge on both ends of the floor, getting his teammates easy looks while captaining the smothering coverage that would prove to be Spain’s calling card. Gasol frustrated Serbian superstar Nikola Jokic into getting himself ejected during a second-round matchup; erupted for 33 points, six rebounds, and four assists in a thrilling double-overtime win over Australia in the semifinals; and helped limit Argentine legend Luis Scola to eight points on 1-for-10 shooting in the gold-medal game, which also saw him chip in a tidy 14 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, three blocks, and two steals.
The 34-year-old Gasol got all of a week off after the end of his NBA season with the Toronto Raptors, but he felt compelled to suit up for Spain anyway, to show the country’s next generation the importance of commitment and loyalty. His reward: Joining Lamar Odom as the only players ever to win an NBA championship and World Cup gold in the same year. As he said Sunday, “It’s been a good three months.”
The summer hasn’t been too bad for his longtime point guard, either. After signing a three-year, $51 million contract with the Phoenix Suns in free agency, Rubio shined as Spain’s lead playmaker. He averaged a team-high 16.4 points and six assists per game, shot 38.7 percent from long distance and 84.1 percent from the foul line, and led the way with 20 points in 23 minutes in the gold-medal win over Argentina to earn World Cup MVP honors.
Eleven years ago, Rubio was a floppy-haired marvel, opening eyes in the States with his play as a 17-year-old at the Beijing Olympics. He’s a different player now; he’s a little less audacious, and not quite the star he seemed destined to be. But the years have helped turn Rubio from a boy wonder into an established veteran, and the 28-year-old, who dedicated his MVP-winning performance to his late mother, was arguably at the peak of his powers as a two-way player in China, delivering more substance than style. That could bode well for his chances of getting out to a strong start alongside young guns Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton in Phoenix, and for the Suns’ chances of putting together their first respectable season in a half-decade.
Loser: USA Basketball, and Its Status Quo
We’ve discussed this quite a bit since Team USA fell last week, so I won’t belabor the point. Getting better talent can’t be the only lesson that USA Basketball takes from a World Cup cycle that featured the first two losses in international competition for a U.S. roster featuring NBA talent since 2006—three, if you’re counting exhibition play—and very nearly included a fourth.
Asked about 31 members of USA Basketball’s 35-player roster pool withdrawing from consideration for a World Cup spot, Jerry Colangelo told Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press that “you can’t help but notice and remember who you thought you were going to war with and who didn’t show up,” and that “no one would have anticipated the pull-outs that we had.” That can no longer be an excuse. The next World Cup will once again be held the year before the Summer Olympics. It will again be held in September and in Asia, with Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia hosting, meaning the reasons behind these withdrawals won’t be going away anytime soon. Between now and then, Colangelo and Co. must find a way to work within those strictures and produce a U.S. squad capable of playing high-level FIBA basketball—ideally, one featuring more credible shooters and versatile big men than this year’s model—and competing for gold, with or without the cream of the crop of American talent.
Gregg Popovich is right when he says that the players who did show up—those who honored their commitment, suited up, and played their asses off—deserve respect, and have nothing to be ashamed of. That doesn’t mean, though, that Team USA brass shouldn’t be taking a look under the hood and trying to figure out how to make this the last seventh-place finish the program sees for quite a while.
Winner: Bogdan Bogdanovic
The Sacramento Kings guard was arguably the best player in the tournament. Bogdanovic averaged 22.9 points in 28 minutes per game, the second-highest per-game average in the World Cup, shooting a scorching 53 percent from 3-point land on more than eight long-distance attempts per game. He brutalized Italy in group play, torched the U.S. in the consolation bracket, and capped his run by hanging 31 on the Czech Republic to secure Serbia’s fifth-place finish:
That’s about four spots lower than the Serbians—fresh off silver medals at their last three international competitions, with ascendant NBA star Nikola Jokic leading a deep, tough roster—were hoping to land at this World Cup. But while Serbia’s overall performance was a disappointment, Bogdanovic’s individual outing, which earned him a slot on the all-tournament team, was anything but, and marks the 27-year-old as a player worth watching on a talented young Kings team this NBA season.
Loser: Australia’s Standing in the Eyes of the Basketball Gods
Australia entered this World Cup having never medaled at a major international tournament. This year, though, brought new promise. An undefeated run through group play put the Boomers on the other side of the knockout-round bracket from Team USA, and a quarterfinal victory over the Czech Republic got Patty Mills, Andrew Bogut, Aron Baynes and Co. into the final four—just one win away from a shot at gold.
Standing in their way was Spain, who’d knocked the Aussies off by a single point in the bronze-medal game at the 2016 Olympics. Australia led for the bulk of the game, but a late Spanish run made things tight late in the fourth. With a one-point lead in the final 10 seconds, Bogut was whistled for a foul that sent Gasol to the line for free throws that put Spain up by one. (Bogut would later refer to the officials as, ahem, “cheating-ass motherfuckers.”) Mills responded by drawing a foul on the other end, but split the pair of free throws, forcing overtime. After two extra sessions, it was Spain who came out with the win, with Gasol leading the way to a 95-88 victory that ripped the hearts out of the Australian side and put assistant coach Luc Longley in position to deliver the quote of the tournament.
“It’s just a fuckin’ … I don’t know what we’ve gotta do,” Longley told Australian reporters. “We’ve gotta find an altar somewhere and burn a sacrifice, or do something [for] the basketball gods, because they’re not kissing us on the dick yet, like they do Spain. You can print that if you want: Spain gets kissed on the dick by the basketball gods every time we play them.”
After that crushing defeat, Australia still had a chance to medal, and held a 15-point lead over France early in the third quarter of the bronze-medal game. But strong second halves from guards Nando De Colo and Andrew Albicy helped turn the tide, pushing France to a 67-59 win to earn their second straight World Cup bronze. Once again, the Boomers went home without a medal.
“When you see Australia, the players, Bogut, [Matthew] Dellavedova—I know those guys and it’s awful for them,” said French guard Evan Fournier, who scored 16 points to conclude a strong tournament. “But that’s definitely what we didn’t want, to finish the tournament feeling like [crap] like that.”
No word yet on whether the ritual sacrifice will be taking place in Melbourne or Sydney. We’ll let you know as soon as we hear.
Just a week ago, the odds of Argentina winning the World Cup were 100-to-1, a lack of faith best explained by a roster devoid of players currently in the NBA. Argentina’s most recognizable face was a graying 39-year-old who’s been playing in China for the past two years. But the Argentines are heading home with silver, thanks to a lovely playing style that prioritized ball movement, cohesion, and activity.
Point guard Facundo Campazzo shone so bright with the ball in his hands—62 assists, second most in the tournament, including some real stunners—that he sent many onlookers (myself included) to Google to find out how long his contract at Real Madrid runs. (The answer, sadly: until 2024. He has an NBA out clause, but is reportedly in no rush to move on from a great situation in Spain.) Reigning Spanish League MVP Nicolás Laprovíttola and young ball handler Luca Vildoza joined Campazzo in a dynamic backcourt, while forward Gabriel Deck flashed a hard-nosed, do-everything game, and Luis Scola became the talk of the tournament by continuing to produce at a high level even after the rest of his “Golden Generation” compatriots have retired from international play. Watching the 39-year-old Scola dominate a French team led by Rudy Gobert, just one round after Gobert hammered Team USA, was truly wild, and inspired an awful lot of takes like this one from Montenegro/Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic:
When I grow up, I want to be Luis Scola— Nikola Vucevic (@NikolaVucevic) September 13, 2019
You’re not alone, Vooch. Shouts to one of the coolest stories, and the most fun team to watch, in the World Cup field.
I almost forgot to include our neighbors to the north here, in large part because losses to Australia and Lithuania in their first two games in a brutal Group H essentially ended their World Cup before most of the world was even really paying attention.
The Americans and the Canadians had the same trouble getting top talent to turn out, with NBA players Tristan Thompson, Jamal Murray, Andrew Wiggins, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Trey Lyles, Dwight Powell, Dillon Brooks, and Chris Boucher, as well as first-round draft picks RJ Barrett, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Brandon Clarke all opting out of the Canadian squad. The result was a severely outmatched roster led by Kings guard Cory Joseph and big men Kelly Olynyk (who missed the tournament after suffering an injury in exhibition play) and Khem Birch. Canada stumbled to a 2-3 record in China, good for 21st place in a 32-team field.
If Canada wants to make the field at next summer’s Tokyo Olympics, it will have to win one of four Olympic qualifying tournaments in July to earn a spot. Given how much Canadian talent continues to enter the highest levels of pro basketball, and how much passion there is for the sport in the wake of the greatest Raptors season ever, that’s not exactly the situation in which Canada Basketball hoped to find itself after this summer—and it’s one that could keep Canada from making its first appearance in the Summer Games since 2000.
The glass-half-full take: France earned bronze at its second-straight World Cup, returned to the medal stand after a disappointing 12th-place finish at EuroBasket 2017, and scored a historic victory over Team USA in the quarterfinal round. Glass half-empty: They followed that giant win with an underwhelming performance against Argentina in the semifinals, with Gobert and Nicolas Batum combining for six points on nine shots, Fournier battling foul trouble, and the offensive dynamism and defensive intensity of the U.S. win largely absent.
Twenty-nine other teams would gladly swap places with France and take their bronze medals home. But considering this collection of talent, how good their defense looked for long stretches of the competition, and how high they were riding after the Team USA win, a double-digit semifinal loss that knocked them out of the running for their first gold in any competition since EuroBasket 2013 had to feel somewhat disappointing.
“I think that we could get a better color,” Gobert said after beating Australia for bronze. To get one in Tokyo next summer, France will have to avoid the inopportune letdowns that have plagued them at times over the years, and again in China.
Loser: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Heading into the World Cup, we wondered whether the NBA’s reigning MVP might be enough of a game-breaker to lift Greece to its first medal at a major international competition in a decade, and to put his country on the short list of teams capable of toppling the best in the world. Instead, Antetokounmpo’s light kind of got buried in China.
The combination of a roster that lacked enough shooting and creativity to unleash him and a FIBA rule set, court size, and playing style that mitigated his strengths helped shackle the Bucks superstar. Antetokounmpo averaged 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 2.4 steals in 24.9 minutes per game, and only really made his outsized presence felt against New Zealand, when he scored 24 points with 10 rebounds and six assists to help Greece advance to the second group stage. He was quieter, though, against Team USA, and wound up fouling out (on what looked like a bogus call) late against the Czech Republic, which helped scuttle Greece’s chances of making the knockout round. It’s not entirely Giannis’s fault that he didn’t shine brighter. Even so, his run came off as something of a bummer.
Spain featured six players who had suited up for multiple tournaments together before this summer. The main stars (Gasol, Rubio, Sergio Llull, Rudy Fernández) were all well versed in the coach Sergio Scariolo’s preferred playing style, and knew how to work off one another. Argentina had Scola, who’s got more experience in his pinky finger than most entire national teams, along with Campazzo, who first suited up for Argentina in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, and four other players—Laprovíttola, Deck, Patricio Garino, and Nicolás Brussino—carried over from the 2016 Olympic squad. Argentina also brought its top players to both this year’s Pan Am Games and the World Cup, giving the roster more time to work out the kinks on both ends of the court and jell in time for the main event.
Spain, Argentina, France, Australia, and Serbia—all of the top finishers at this World Cup—featured multiple players with a ton of experience not only in international competition, but in navigating those treacherous waters together.
“If you look at a lot of these teams and how they played, they’re able to fall back on their system,” U.S. forward Harrison Barnes told John Schuhmann of NBA.com. “They’re able to fall back on things that they know, things that they’ve run, guys that have been playing together for five, six, seven years. For us, we had to put our hat on defense. That was what we kind of made our calling card. Offensively, we knew we weren’t going to ever get to that place where, ‘OK, here are two or three quick-hitters.’ But we did the best that we could.”
Athleticism, explosiveness, and talent can get you a long way; when the relative strangers taking the court in red, white, and blue are megawatt superstars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Anthony Davis, and Stephen Curry, the other stuff doesn’t matter as much. But when the talent gap isn’t massive, that stuff—knowing where your teammate’s going to be before he even starts to make his cut, where he likes the ball when he’s spotting up on the weak side, how to shade your man to push him into the waiting help defense—can matter a lot, especially in single-elimination tournaments against opponents who might not have all that much institutional memory to draw on. It can produce something greater than the sum of its parts, and this year’s finalists stand as living proof.
Loser: FIBA’s Shuffled-Up Calendar
The idea behind FIBA changing its qualification system dates all the way back in 2012, it seems, was to steer the Basketball World Cup clear of competing with that other World Cup for attention, eyeballs, and dollars every four summers. We’ll have to wait to find out whether the 2019 tournament was successful for the international basketball federation. Given the awkwardness of shifting qualifying windows into the regular seasons of major domestic leagues without international breaks, and the number of high-profile players from all over the world who declined to participate this year, the shift doesn’t seem like it was worth the trouble.
“The FIBA calendar proved to be wrong in any competition they have organized. From the national team windows in the middle of the season, till organizing the World Cup one year before the Olympics,” EuroLeague CEO Jordi Bertomeu said last week. “FIBA should make a deep reflection about that, looking at how many players dropped from their national teams. The logic says to return to World Cup in even years.”
Logic doesn’t always win out, though—especially when the “illogical” move is one of the most competitive, compelling, and unpredictable World Cups in recent memory (if you’re not a U.S. fan, at least). Which brings us to our final winner …
Winner: Global Basketball
After the U.S. won gold at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, continuing a run of five straight undefeated runs to glory in international play starting in 2008, USA Basketball’s Colangelo levied a challenge to the rest of the world to “get their act together and become more competitive.” Well, the world has accepted that challenge. Just ask Pop.
“Better teams got to the finals, and that shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody, because there are a lot of great teams in the world,” Popovich told reporters after the U.S. won its seventh-place game against Poland. “It’s not written in stone that the United States is supposed to walk to a championship.”
It’s felt that way over the past decade, but not any longer. Even the more star-studded U.S. squads that have turned out to the last three Olympics have had to sweat out one- or two-possession wins, and the rest of the world is only getting better. As my Ringer teammate Zach Kram recently noted, roughly a quarter of the players in the NBA were born somewhere other than the U.S.; as Tommy Beer of Forbes noted, that includes the league’s reigning MVP (Antetokounmpo, Greece), Rookie of the Year (Luka Doncic, Slovenia), Defensive Player of the Year (Gobert, France), and Most Improved Player (Pascal Siakam, Cameroon).
The U.S. still has a major advantage in depth of talent. But when you combine the rising quality of international players, the number of players well-drilled on the differences in the FIBA game, and the dwindling mystique associated with playing against U.S. teams, the distance is getting smaller and smaller. The American empire might strike back next summer. Beyond that, though? The future of international basketball could be more up for grabs than ever before.
“I think in the beginning [of the tournament] I said there are five, six, seven teams that can win this thing,” Popovich said. “And I think it will be like that all the time.”