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The only FIBA World Cup preview you need
Two-plus weeks of highly competitive international basketball to liven up an otherwise dead portion of the summer calendar? Is that something you might be interested in?
From Friday through Sept. 3, there are eight games a day of high-level international basketball to watch … assuming you’ve got ESPN+ and a flexible body clock.
After a rest day on Sept. 4, then there will be at least two FIBA World Cup games a day to inhale from Sept. 5-10.
Something tells me that, despite the early hours that some of these games will be airing, this is a menu that will please the vast majority of you as we strain to grind through the (still far away) start of NBA training camp in early October.
Thirty-two national teams will compete for FIBA's foremost team prize and this Substack's multi-layered preview on this Newsletter Tuesday will furnish you with everything you need to know about the event before it starts Friday.
To the breakdown ...
The Americans' draw is incredibly favorable.
France, Australia, Canada, Spain and Germany are the teams widely regarded as most capable of preventing the United States from reclaiming World Cup glory after its humbling seventh-place finish in China in 2019.
None of those nations, though, can face Team USA before the semifinals if the Americans win their first six games as expected.
The United States also has the comforting knowledge that it will be based in the Philippines for the entire tournament, while some of its medal-chasing counterparts are required to play in Indonesia or Japan first.
The Americans have assembled a 12-man squad completely devoid of international experience beyond the five exhibition games they just played, but there are three All-Stars from last season on the roster (Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton and Jaren Jackson Jr.) along with former All-Star Brandon Ingram and future All-Star Jalen Brunson. The Yanks will have no excuses if they don't win the competition.
There's no sugarcoating it: Also working in the United States' favor is a slew of high-profile absentees that have weakened various rivals.
Serbia will always be a dangerous team that demands respect and still has FIBA Bogdan Bogdanović to lead its current squad, but Nikola Jokić is taking the summer off after leading to the Denver Nuggets to the first championship in franchise history. That's an undeniable boost to the Americans' chances.
Spain is likewise as weak as its been on the world stage in years with only one current NBA player on its roster — Memphis' Santi Aldama — and will have to cope without both Ricky Rubio and Lorenzo Brown in the backcourt. Rubio was 2019's World Cup MVP; Brown was MVP of last summer's EuroBasket.
Greece, meanwhile, likewise has only one NBA player on its roster: Thanasis Antetokounmpo. His slightly more famous brother Giannis is out after a recent surgical procedure on his left knee, which means that the two-time MVP could very well miss out on next summer's Olympics. Only the top two World Cup finishers from Europe (apart from host France) are guaranteed an Olympic berth next summer; Giannis has yet to play a single game in his career on the Olympic stage.
Canada's talent is tantalizing ... but its draw is brutal.
Can you imagine a full-strength Canada?
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jamal Murray at guard. Andrew Wiggins, RJ Barrett and Bennedict Mathurin attacking from the wing. Lu Dort and Dillon Brooks as defensive anchors. Kelly Olynyk and Dwight Powell on the front line to offer floor-spacing and rim-diving, respectively.
Canada's entry in this World Cup does feature seven NBA players — third behind the United States' 12 and Australia's nine — but Murray, Wiggins and Mathurin are not among them.
And that might be the difference that prevents Canada from reaching the quarterfinals. France, Spain and Canada ... one of those three nations will not reach the final eight.
Yet another challenge Canada must contend with: Brazil and the Dominican Republic (starring Minnesota's Karl Anthony-Towns) have solid teams, too, which should make the competition for the Americas' second ticket to the Olympics rather fierce.
This assumes, of course, that the United States is a lock to snag one of the two Olympics berths reserved for the Americas.
Even though some in international basketball circles contend that the World Cup's field is too large with 32 countries rather than 24, some very good teams will fall short of the quarterfinals.
Just like the France/Spain/Canada trio we just mentioned that will be vying for only two available spots in the World Cup's final eight, there's a similar crunch facing Australia, Germany and Slovenia.
Only two of those teams can advance to the quarterfinals. Luka Dončić is the best player in the tournament on this scorecard, but Slovenia will be asking its new captain to do more than he ever has with Goran Dragić now retired for good from international play and stalwarts Vlatko Čančar and Edo Murić lost to injury.
I had planned to make a bold statement in this column about how Germany unexpectedly looks to me like the second most-dangerous European nation in the field after France ... but then the Germans nearly beat the United States on Sunday in both teams' final World Cup warm-up game to make the statement themselves.
Toronto's Dennis Schröder is a legitimate point-of-attack problem in international basketball. Orlando's Franz Wagner is even better and will be joined by brother and Magic teammate Moritz Wagner this summer after injury prevented Moe's participation last summer when the Germans placed third at the 2022 EuroBasket they hosted. Indiana’s Daniel Theis and Lakers/Wizards/Raptors alumnus Isaac Bonga lend additional stability.
Yet I do wonder how much Germany will regret the needless squabbling between Schröder and Dallas' Maxi Kleber that led Kleber to remove himself from the national team for the Worlds. This team would have been even more well-rounded with Kleber.
Timberwolves fans have to be especially psyched about this tournament.
Minnesota's three best players are all participating — Anthony Edwards (United States), Rudy Gobert (France) and Towns (Dominican Republic) — and Kyle Anderson recently acquired the necessary credentials to play for China.
Did You Know: The Timberwolves only had their three stars on the floor in 26 regular-season games last season … going 13-13 in those games.
Also: The Wolves (don’t forget Canada's Nickeil Alexander-Walker) are tied with Oklahoma City, Orlando and Utah with a league-high five World Cup participants.
The Thunder will be represented by Australia's Josh Giddey and Jack White, Canada's Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort and Latvia's Dāvis Bertāns. The Magic have sent the United States' Paolo Banchero, Germany's Wagner brothers, Australia's Joe Ingles and Georgia's Goga Bitadze. The Jazz feature Lauri Markkanen (Finland), Walker Kessler (United States), Jordan Clarkson (Philippines), Simone Fontecchio (Italy) and Olynyk (Canada).
For all the inevitable focus on who isn't playing in this event, both for the United States and around the world, there are a lot of recognizable names to lure you in.
My trusty pal Alberto de Roa has assembled his usual helpful lists for HoopsHype.com which identify nearly 60 current NBA players in the tournament ... and another 45 or so players with prior NBA experience.
We weren’t kidding about the early part.
Because this tournament is being contested in Asia, there will be several 4, 4:30 and 5 AM Eastern Time tipoffs. Two of the United States’ three group games, including Saturday’s opener against New Zealand on ESPN2, will mercifully start at 8:30 AM ET.
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Harden Saga Update
As recently as Friday, I thought that James Harden was unlikely to be disciplined by the league office for referring to Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey as “a liar” while appearing in China on a promotional tour for Adidas.
The league office proved me wrong Tuesday morning.
Harden didn’t explicitly discuss his recent trade demand in blasting Morey, but the NBA ruled that he came close enough with his comments — publicly suggesting that he would never again be part of an organization that employed Morey — to fine him $100,000.
The league’s new collective bargaining, which took hold July 1, stipulates that conduct or statements deemed detrimental “to basketball, the NBA, or a team” are subject to a maximum $100,000 fine … with the maximum fine for public trade demands rising to $150,000.
Here is my latest coverage on several more Harden-related topics that published Monday:
Because of its seventh-place finish at the 2019 World Cup in China and the extra year that FIBA waited after the 2014 edition in Spain to stage the 2019 Worlds, USA Basketball this weekend opens pursuit of its first World Cup championship in nine years. FIBA made the switch to move its four-year World Cup cycle out of direct competition with soccer's calendar and to eliminate the previous one-year buffer between basketball's World Cup and the Olympics. (The United States has won the past four gold medals in Olympics men’s basketball.)
Argentina sits at No. 4 in FIBA's most recent world rankings after a runner-up finish at the last World Cup in China in 2019, but the Argentines are already out of the 2024 Olympics after failing to qualify for this World Cup and then losing Sunday’s final of a six-team World Cup pre-qualifying tournament on home soil that it had to win to stay alive for the Paris Games.
Bahamas — starring Deandre Ayton, Eric Gordon and Buddy Hield from the NBA — beat host Argentina on Sunday to win that Olympic pre-qualifying event. The Bahamians will thus be one of 24 teams next summer divided into four six-team groups in what is known as last-chance qualifying … with the four winners of those groups advancing to the Olympics.
The Olympic field for basketball is only 12 teams — compared to 32 in the forthcoming World Cup. Seven nations will qualify for Paris based on how they fare at the World Cup and four more will come from next summer's last-chance qualifying to join hosts France.
Even during the offseason, my statistics-minded fellow Substacker Justin Kubatko is doing some great stuff. Check out this piece that sums up my favorite decade of the NBA — I'm sure you'll be shocked to learn that it's the 1980s — with all kinds of numerical nuggets to summarize that stretch of league history which remarkably only featured five different franchises in the NBA Finals.
The Lakers represented the West in the NBA Finals eight times in the 1980s — with only Houston getting that far out of the same conference in 1981 and 1986. In the East, Boston made it to the Finals five times in that span, followed by Philadelphia (three times) and Detroit (twice).
As Kubatko notes, seven different franchises have already reached the NBA Finals in this decade that isn't even half over: Heat (twice), Nuggets, Warriors, Celtics, Bucks, Suns and Lakers.
I heard new-to-Substackreference this in a recent appearance on Ethan Strauss' House of Strauss podcast and I noticed it as well: Brian Windhorst, inarguably one of ESPN's best TV pundits, was inexplicably not mentioned once in the network's recent press release to announce its various NBA broadcasters for the coming season.
Readers in the Dallas area — or those who want to listen online — can catch me live for an hour on Saturdays talking NBA on 97.1 The Freak. The Saturday Stein Line debuted on July 1 and can be found via both Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
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