FIBA World Cup: Is Parity Coming to Int’l Basketball?

LeBron James dunks against Spain
22860 (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]

Basketball is in a fascinating stage, internationally. The sport is growing across the globe, yet there isn’t a nation that can seriously challenge the US in terms of talent.

If you thought the American men were dominant, they’ve got nothing on the ladies. The US women’s team has won six straight Olympic gold medals and four of the last five World Cups. They’ve also been no. 1 in the FIBA rankings for … ever? (According to Wikipedia, the team has never been ranked lower than first.) The men are holding their own, of course, with two straight World Cup titles and six of the last seven Olympic golds.

Basically, whenever the best US players feel like playing, there’s very little the rest of the world can do to stop them.

But that won’t be the case forever. With the popularity of basketball continuing to climb, parity will eventually wend its way into international competitions. It used to be a foregone conclusion that the US Men’s National Soccer Team would lose to countries like Brazil and Germany. But the sport has been growing in America, basically ever since the US hosted the World Cup in 1994, and now the USMNT can hold its own against world powers.
All it takes is time and commitment.

That’s bad news for anyone who wants to see the US continue to dominate international basketball. According to TotalSportek, basketball is the fastest growing sport in the world “on every scale from revenues, to competitions/leagues;” and, as BleacherReport noted, “with the game’s grassroots efforts in China, India and Africa, the count of humans playing hoops could eventually number in the billions.”

We’re not likely to see true parity in the international game for a number of years. “Grassroots” need time to grow into corn as high as an elephant’s eye. So the balance for the 2018 Women’s World Cup and 2019 Men’s World Cup is still very top-heavy. Both the US men’s and women’s teams will be heavy favorites to win gold as long as the country’s premier players take the court.

That means the other nations will mostly come in with silver on the mind.

What are the chances that basketball’s secondary powers pull the upset? Which on-the-rise countries could reach the podium for the first time? And who will suit up for Team USA? Let’s set the very early stage for the 2018 and 2019 FIBA World Cups.

2019 FIBA Men’s World Cup

Odds to win the 2019 World Cup

  • United States: 1/3 (-300)
  • Spain: 15/1 (+1500)
  • Serbia: 15/1 (+1500)
  • France: 18/1 (+1800)
  • Canada: 30/1 (+3000)
  • FIELD: 19/1 (+1900)

 

The US has the biggest talent pool, and it’s a foregone conclusion that they’ll field the strongest roster. But the very best don’t always choose to play, and that’s led to inconsistent results for the Americans at the World Cup. If the roster is filled with names like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Kawhi Leonard, they should dominate from start to finish. If it’s more young guns (like Devin Booker) and second-tier stars (like Mike Conley), the upset potential grows.

Spain and Serbia take their basketball seriously and their best players are generally eager to suit up, if healthy. The second and third-ranked teams in the world will feature a handful of NBA players, past and present, including rising stars Willy Hernangomez (Spain) and Nikola Jokic (Serbia) and veterans Marc Gasol (Spain) and Boban Marjanovic (Serbia).

Spanish national team circa 2011
Spanish national team circa 2011. (Chris Johnson (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]

If France’s Frank Ntilikina can scoop up the mantle from Tony Parker, Les Bleux will be in the mix for the silver. Rudy Gobert could be the best big in the tournament if he continues to develop over the next couple seasons.

If you’re just looking at the rankings, Canada’s odds will come as a surprise. But if the country’s best players all suit up, Canada might have the second-best roster in the tournament. Just look at the list of Canadians currently playing in the NBA: Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Kelly Olynyk, Jamal Murray, Cory Joseph, Trey Lyles. Our neighbors to the north have some bona fide game-changers.

Odds NBA players compete: 1/19

The NBA won’t be releasing its players for the 2019 qualifiers, but has said that they’ll be at the actual tournament in China. While that doesn’t guarantee the biggest names will choose to go, Team USA certainly won’t have to reach into the D League to finish out its roster.

Odds to play for Team USA

  • Jimmy Butler: 4/5 (-125)
  • Karl-Anthony Towns: 4/5 (-125)
  • Russell Westbrook: 4/5 (-125)
  • John Wall: 4/3 (+133)
  • Damian Lillard: 5/2 (+250)
  • Anthony Davis: 5/2 (+250)
  • James Harden: 5/2 (+250)
  • Devin Booker: 4/1 (+400)

 

The tournament runs from late August to mid September so that it doesn’t interfere with the NBA schedule, but still allows for rest after the 2018-19 season. Players who don’t have long-term contracts in place will be nervous about a freak Paul George-type injury and what that would do to their future earning potential. Others will be exhausted from a long playoff run. (Let’s be honest, the Warriors and Cavaliers will probably have just wrapped up their fifth straight NBA Finals meeting.)

Obviously players like LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard already have nameplates ready and waiting in the US locker room. But the more likely scenario is that the 2019 team is comprised, mainly, of second-tier superstars.

Jimmy Butler is the perfect combination: he’s one of the best scorers in the NBA; he’ll still be in his prime at age 29; he’ll just have signed a long-term contract (assuming he declines his player-option for 2019-20); and he likely won’t be fatigued from a long playoff run unless he’s moved from the Bulls. You can basically say all the same things about Westbrook, just insert Thunder for Bulls.

Karl-Anthony Towns is going to be the best American center in the world by 2019. That’s a promise. Minnesota could be a serious title contender in a few years, but 2018-19 is still a little too soon. He should also have a long-term deal in place as he becomes a restricted free agent in 2019.

For players like Lillard and Booker (and, to some extent, Wall), their spots on the team will depend on whether the likes of Curry, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook choose to play.

Harden becomes a free-agent in 2020, and Anthony Davis in 2021. That could motivate both to stay home.

Country most likely to win its first medal: Australia 7/2 (+350)

The “Boomers” have the potential to field a supremely competitive roster if their best players don the green-and-yellow. While they don’t have the top-end talent of a Canada (Wiggins) or France (Gobert), they do have a litany of efficient and technically-sound players with a winning pedigree. See: Patty Mills (Spurs), Joe Ingles (Jazz), Matthew Dellavedova (Bucks).

They also have youngsters who could blossom into stars. See: Ben Simmons (76ers), Thon Maker (Bucks), Dante Exum (Jazz). Simmons, in particular, could become that missing top-end talent if he lives up to his no. 1-overall-draft pick potential.

But, assuming the US has one of the medal spots sewn up, that only leaves two spots on the podium. Spain, Serbia, France, and Lithuania all have at least an equally good chance to claim one of them.

Matthew Dellavedova with the Bucks
Matthew Dellavedova. (Keith Allison (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]

2018 FIBA Women’s World Cup

Odds to win the 2018 FIBA Women’s World Cup

  • United States: 2/9 (-450)
  • Spain: 19/1 (+1900)
  • Australia: 22/1 (+2200)
  • France: 25/1 (+2500)
  • FIELD: 18/1 (+1800)

In 2006, Russia scored one of the biggest upsets in women’s basketball history when they beat Team USA in the semi-finals, forcing the Americans to settle for bronze. It’s been nothing but gold since for the US, both at the world championships and the Olympics. In the gold medal game at Rio 2016, the US romped over Spain, 101-72. Their average margin of victory in the group stage was 40.8 points. If the best American women opt to play (more on that below), Team USA will have by far the most talented roster.

Anna Cruz, a relative newcomer to the WNBA, will pair with veteran Sancho Lyttle and Anna Torrens (both of whom made the all-tournament team in 2014) to give Spain the best shot at upsetting the US.

Spanish women's team circa 2014.
Spanish women’s team circa 2014. (CeeGee [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0]

Australia will be hoping for big things from 6’8 center Liz Cambage, who was the no. 2 overall pick in the 2011 WNBA draft. She averaged a double-double at the 2016 Olympics (23.5 points, 10.3 rebounds per game) and will need to bang with American Brittney Griner in the post if Australia is going to have any shot at pulling the upset.

Odds WNBA players compete: 1/50 (-5000)

Unlike the men’s version, the women’s world championship has always featured the best of the best. The next version won’t be any different.

Odds to play for Team USA

  • Brittney Griner: 1/15 (-1500)
  • Maya Moore: 1/12 (-1200)
  • Diana Taurasi: 1/9 (-900)

Griner, Moore (pictured below), and Taurasi should form the backbone of Team USA’s starting five. Griner will hold court under the basket while Moore (the 2014 MVP) puts her elite finishing-skills on display and the ageless Taurasi runs the point. The only way any of these women aren’t on the squad next year is if they opt out. They’re arguably the three best female players in the world.

Their odds are a lot shorter than the players on the men’s side because the World Cup holds more prominence in the women’s game, and unfortunately there isn’t as much future money at stake, making the potential for injury less of a concern.

Maya Moore with the Minnesota Lynx
Maya Moore. (Joe Bielawa (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/])

Country most likely to win its first medal: Serbia (5/2; +250)

Serbian women have won world championship medals before, but not playing for Team Serbia: the former Yugoslavia managed a silver medal back in 1990. The Serbian women are currently ranked ninth in the world and have been one of the biggest risers in the rankings over the last year. Given how well their men’s program has performed over the years, it’s only a matter of time before the women start to get results. Actually, they already started, winning bronze at the 2016 Olympics.

Turkey is another team to keep an eye on. They were bounced in the quarters in Rio last year, but gave tournament runner-up Spain all they could handle, falling 64-62. Like Serbia, the team is consistently moving up in the FIBA rankings (currently no. 7) and are coming off their best-ever World Cup performance in 2014 (fourth).

It should be noted, though, that that fourth-place finish came on home soil. They won’t have the same advantage with the 2018 tournament in Spain.