A FIBA World Cup primer for Philly sports fans

A FIBA World Cup primer for Philly sports fans
August 25, 2014, 12:30 pm
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The Little League World Series has ended (and the feel-good fun of the Taney Dragons and Mo'ne Mania along with it), and the start to the Eagles' season is still about two weeks away. In the meantime, Philly sports fans could undoubtedly use something to continue to distract them from the protracted misery of the Phillies and their long march to a last-place finish. That something could (and should) be the FIBA World Cup, basketball's most prestigious non-Olympic international competition, which officially kicks off this Friday in Barcelona.

In case you've only been keeping one eye (or less) on the tournament this summer, here's a little guide on what's been going on with Team USA and company until now, and what to expect from here. I'll be asking myself the questions to get us going, if you don't mind.

So they're actually calling this thing the World Cup now?

Yup. Until this year, it had been called the FIBA World Championship, but with the FIFA World Cup--the soccer one--being at its highest-ever point of interest in visibility, it looks like FIBA wants to get in on that branding too. There's been talk of new NBA commissioner Adam Silver and other basketball powers eventually wanting this tournament to supplant the Summer Olympics as the highest priority of international play for the sport's biggest stars, presumably because they could have an easier time with their own promotion and marketing in a tournament outside of the IOC's influence.

To that end, the next FIBA World Cup has been pushed to 2019--to get it on a different year cycle than that of soccer--and will expand from 24 teams to 32 teams. It probably won't approach the FIFA World Cup in terms of worldwide attention and national pride anytime soon, but that's clearly the long-term goal, so this year's games will likely be your best (and possibly last) chance to get on the bandwagon before it gets obnoxiously overcrowded.

When does it start, and where can we watch it?

The US have been playing exhibition games ("Friendlies," if you must) for a couple weeks now, and have one more to come tomorrow (Tuesday the 26th) against Slovenia. But the official competition begins this Saturday the 30th, with the U.S. kicking off their group play against Finland. That's the first of five games in six days that the U.S. will play in their first round, before presumably moving onto single-elimination play the next week.

Televising of the event will begin on ESPN and NBA TV that Saturday. The first U.S. game will be on ESPN at 3:30, and all of the States' first-round games will be aired on the Worldwide Leader. Other select games of interest throughout the round will be aired and/or re-run on NBA TV throughout the week.

Didn't all of our best players get hurt, pull out or decline to play, though?

Sort of. Undoubtedly it's been a rough few months for the remaining Team USA, as they've lost a handful of guys who they were depending on leading the team to glory in Barcelona.

First off, as expected, many of the veteran guys from the 2012 Team USA declined to join the FIBA team, including LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant. Then top power forwards Blake Griffin and Kevin Love both pulled themselves from consideration, Blake because he wanted to spend the summer recovering from a back fracture, and Love because he didn't want to potentially get hurt and mess up the blockbuster trade sending him to Cleveland (which was just consummated over the weekend, and of course ended up involving the Sixers).

Then things really got messy. Pacers wing Paul George, expected to be the team's starting small forward and go-to defensive stopper, broke his leg on a gruesome fluke injury during a Team USA scrimmage, killing his chances of competing not only in this year's World Cup, but probably all of next year's NBA season as well. About a week later, Thunder reigning MVP Kevin Durant--the current face of USA basketball, and the breakout player on the 2010 team that took gold--unexpectedly dropped out as well, citing physical and mental exhaustion as the primary reasons. (Unease after George's injury may have also been a reason, as may have been KD's pending new shoe deal, expected to be worth over a quarter-billion dollars.)

The combination of injuries and players deciding to protect their bodies and their brands has certainly left the Team USA roster undermanned, and has caused Coach K and the rest of his staff to do some serious roster and gameplan re-jiggering the last few weeks.

Who's left, then? What do we do now?

Luckily for the U.S. Team, it's not like they're really hurting for depth. Losing Griffin, Love, Durant and George mostly sucks because they were probably the team's top four forwards, and playing without them means that Team USA now has an unusually high number of guards and centers. With the final cuts of Gordon Hayward, Kyle Korver and Chandler Parsons over the weekend, the only true forwards remaining on the U.S. roster now are the Nuggets' Kenneth Faried, the team's starting power forward, and the Kings' Rudy Gay, a late add to the roster to help approximate the role and production of the departed Durant.

In the stead of traditional forwards, the team will likely spend a good time going small. James Harden of the Rockets, a bulky two-guard that often plays more like a point, has been starting at the three for Team USA in their exhibition games thusfar, and the team's other SGs (the Warriors' Klay Thompson, the Raptors' DeMar DeRozan) will likely spend time there as well.

The U.S. squad will not be lacking in size, in any event, as team president Jerry Colangelo made the unexpected move of taking four centers for the final roster: The Pelicans' Anthony Davis, the Pistons' Andre Drummond, the Kings' DeMarcus Cousins, the Nets' Mason Plumlee. Krzyzewski may play two at the same time, particularly in games against sizeable front lines like that of host country Spain. Davis in particular figures to play a huge role in Team USA's fortunes, with the ability to play both the four and the five, and the shot-blocking and offensive versatility to be a game-changer on both ends.

Really though, this team will be about the point guards: The Cavliers' Kyrie Irving, the Warriors' Stephen Curry, and the Bulls' Derrick Rose. Coach K has started two of them in each of the scrimmages thusfar, and plans to alternate Irving and Rose--the latter still recovering from knee surgery, but looking good so far--alongside Curry in the first five once tournament play begins. These three, along with Harden, will generate the crux of the team's offensive attack, pushing the ball up-court, kicking out to shooters and bombing away themselves. Expect a lot of transition scores, and a near-unlimited amount of threes.

Are we still gonna win this thing, though?

Probably, but not definitely. The U.S. are helped by being far from the only team to be missing key members. France, who won the FIBA 2013 EuroBasket competition, will be missing their best player, point guard Tony Parker. Similarly, Parker's San Antonio teammate Manu Ginobili was not given permission by the Spurs to play for Argentina. Australia is missing Warriors center Andrew Bogut, the Dominican Republic is missing Hawks big Al Horford, and so on. There might not be more than a handful of teams this year playing at full national strength, or close to it.

One of those teams, however, is Spain, who should easily be the States' biggest threat at this tournament. The Spanish team basically returns its whole roster from the '12 Olympics squad that lost to the U.S. in the Gold Medal Game, including pros like Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio, Thunder shot-blocker Serge Ibaka, and a frontcourt of Gasol brothers: Marc of the Grizzlies and Pau (now) of the Bulls. Playing in their home country, Spain will certainly be as motivated to anyone, and though they're not as young collectively as they used to be--there's some thought that this will essentially be the last stand of this team core, which took home the gold in 2006--they've played together basically forever, and certainly have maturity edge over this relatively young U.S. squad.

Spain present by far the biggest threat to the U.S. in the tournament, but hardly the only one. Argentina, Brazil, Australia and France all have teams that feature several pros and a whole lot of international hoops experience. That said, Team USA has basically cruised through its exhibition play thusfar, winning all three games by an average of about 29 points, and they start off in a relatively easy bracket, with none of the other five teams in their initial group--Ukraine, Finland, New Zealand, Turkey and the Dominican Republic--likely to present much of a challenge. Smart money's still on us, but it's no certainty.

Are there any Sixers involved anywhere in this thing?

Well, no one on the active roster. Obviously nobody on Philly made Team USA--Michael Carter-Williams was invited to camp, but declined due to his recent shoulder surgery, and that's about it. (Shockingly, Arnett Moultrie did not appear to draw consideration.) Recent Sixer acquisitions Alexey Shved and Luc Mbah a Moute both play for their respective national teams--Russia and Cameroon, respectively--but neither team qualified for this World Cup, so we'll have to wait til October to see them in action.

However, three Euro stashes of the Sixers will be participating elsewhere. Arsalan Kazemi, our second-round pick of 2013, will be doing his rebound-machine thing for Iran, and Furkan Aldemir, the big man acquired from Houston in the Royce White trade, will be buried on the bench for the Turkish team, but far more intriguingly, 2014 first-rounder Dario Saric will be lacing up for Croatia. None of the teams play in the same group as the U.S., so chances are we won't be playing against any, but you should definitely keep an eye out for their games on NBA TV--we'll certainly be doing so ourselves, and we'll try to give you guys a heads-up when the opportunity approaches.

Is it really worth watching?

I think so. We're probably not near the point yet where it's gonna generate enough interest that you can use it as an excuse to go to a bar with your friends and/or co-workers on a Wednesday afternoon to watch, but there's no reason why we shouldn't be someday--hell, it's a World Cup where the U.S. are actually expected to contend for the Gold. It's a somewhat compromised roster sure, but it still features five All-Stars, including League Pass must-watches like Curry and a rejuvenated Rose, as well as a handful of young players like Drummond, Cousins and Davis who may essentially be inheriting the league in a couple years' time. Good times should be had with this team, and lots of them.

Anyway, at this time of year, it's either the FIBA World Cup, the 18th-25th seasons of the Simpsons marathon on FXX, or yet another seven-inning, five-run outing from A.J. Burnett or Kyle Kendrick. For me it's a pretty simple choice, I can't imagine for you it should be a ton more complicated either.