Monday, August 13, 2012

Basketball World Cup vs. Olympic Games vs. Champions League? A MAMBINO Debate

For the past 20 years, the Olympic tournament has been the preeminent form of international basketball competition here in America. However, over the rest of the world, the FIBA World Championships, held two years in between Summer Olympic Games, is held in the highest esteem as the most important international tourney. 

As player salaries increase and the competitive balance for basketball around the globe evens, several once-dormant debates have arisen around the advent of the recent games on London. Several NBA owners, as well as the Commissioner David Stern, have publicly called for a NBA-sponsored tournament, which would be a re-branded FIBA World Championship event, so that basketball could be given it's "proper focus", rather than lost amongst the myriad of Olympic events in a two week span. Most importantly, such a tournament would give the NBA control over the finances and profits of the "Basketball World Cup", which would surely put owners at ease when watching their million-dollar assets take the floor in a non-profit making enterprise known as the Olympics. 

The debate rages on the airwaves and on the internet, and of course, MAMBINO is no different. A few of our writers are on an immense NBA e-mail chain whose length is literally thousands of e-mails long over several years. We've all wasted countless hours raving and ranting about our beloved L on this supreme procrastination tool, but from it arises pointed debates like the following string of call and responses. Read on as our argument spans the pros and cons of  World Cup of Hoops, a basketball "Champions League" and the proposed Under-23 rule. 

El Miz: I may be in the minority, but I think the NBA should definitely go ahead and push for a World Cup of Hoops. I don't hear any soccer fans saying they wish there was no World Cup and that there should only be Olympic soccer. I don't really see the downside -- players, owners (re: the NBA) get to actually benefit financially from competing, and the sport itself would benefit (if done right, of course) from the spotlight shining SOLELY on the best professional basketball players once every four years instead of sharing it with the other Olympics (it's been hard enough to even find basketball highlights).

If it were a FIBA mandate in conjunction with the NBA, I don't think the Olympics would be an event where ONLY the US had an under-23 team. The Olympics are an amateur event and if EVERY team--China, USA, Russia, Spain, Argentina, etc.--sent their best 23 and under team along with a vet or two, that would be a fun and worthy tournament in its own right.

Everything I've read about the Olympics is its just like the NCAA -- a small group of power brokers benefit financially in an outrageous disproportion to the athletes who compete.  These power brokers contribute little if any value and only are there in the first place because "its how things have always been." More power to Commissioner David Stern, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, the NBA, etc. to see the opportunity to have a World Cup of Hoops -- have the first one all around Europe, have the second in China, have the third in South America, and have the fourth in the US of A.  Make sure that you acquire the correct distribution so that people can follow on their iPad, on their laptop, on their computer -- make box scores available everywhere, highlights super easy to get. I don't see why that would be any less compelling than the Olympics -- you could even still have gold medals and the anthems playing during the ceremony. Plus, Sager could wear his bright suits instead of the NBC polo.

Sip Rogers: Only doing an event every every four years bothers me from a fan perspective.  Soccer fans don't care about the Olympics because they just finished a month-long Euro Cup, which, save for Brazil and Argentina, has approximately 8 of the top 10 teams in the world in it.  Most non-european fans watch that cup as a "mini-World Cup" anyway because it has so many good squads.  I've even heard people make the argument that it is better than the World Cup because the 1 through 16 the teams are better without say, Angola or North Korea for someone to beat 7-0.  The Euro-tourney exists in basketball and is probably the most competitive, but we won't be in them.
Soccer fans get their big international tournament every two years, just like we do with Olympics and the already existing World Championships.  I don't want one world cup and then what would essentially be an Olympic youth tourney to hold me over.

6 on Hibbert:
First of all, I love the idea of a World Cup of Basketball being held every four years and I would be fine with changing the rules so that the Olympics only includes players under a certain age, although I wonder why they determined a cut off of 23?  If they allowed 23 and under, the talent pool this year would include this years rookie crop (Davis, MKG, Beal, etc.), plus guys from last year like Derrick Williams, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Kenny Faried and guys from the 2010 Draft as well like Pope John Wall, Cousins, Greg Monroe, Paul George. That's a nice, fun team to watch.  You could essentially think of it as combining the best Americans from the Rookie-Sophmore game.  While this is a far cry from the Dream Team, it would still be fun to watch. 

Now, you've still got the Olympics with 23 and under players, you've got the World Cup of Basketball, and then how exciting would it be if they could create some type of Champions League?  Maybe just the best 4 teams from the NBA plus the best 4 teams from Europe? 6 teams from Europe?  Top 2 from the best Leagues in Europe (Spain, Italy, etc.)  The Heat, Thunder, Spurs and Celtics square off against teams from Turkey, Spain, Italy, wherever.  I think that would be incredible.  Logistically, it would be tougher than a World Cup to pull off but I would love to see that happen, and that is where you'd see the best pure form of basketball because all the teams would be used to playing together.  
Who doesn't want to see this?
El Miz: I've thought about the Champions League idea too but I don't think the NBA would ever do it. Europe already has that in the Euroleague Final Four.  Teams from the different leagues (Greece, Germany, Spain, Russia, etc.) all compete in a knock-out style tournament.  I am not sure what the parameters for entry are, but it is essentially a "Champions League".
NBA considers itself the "cream of the crop"--just financially the average salary of a guy in the NBA is around $4.5 million, the average of a professional in europe is approxmiately $300,000. Former Euroleague MVPs include NBA rejects like Vassilis Spanoulis and Trajan Langdon.  I think the Heat or Thunder would have absolutely rolled any of those teams, especially in NBA rules (48 minute games, bigger court, longer 3 point line).  Plus it would reduce the "prestige" of the NBA playoffs if the champion weren't considered the "true" world champion.

The NBA is a global league: 25% of the players are foreign, there have been foreign born MVPs and foreign born guys carry their team to a chip (Dirk, Hakeem come to mind).  Therefore, even as a fan I wouldn't want to see something like that -- keep the NBA as the global standard for basketball excellence.

Sip: I disagree; I'd want to see a Champions League really badly. Euroleague is their version of a champions league and involves a small "regular season" of two-legged matches.  It's probably too much of a logistical nightmare to bring NBA teams into that.  But Euroleague does eventually become a tournament with best of 5 series and then the final four is KO round, which gives everyone a shot to make a huge upset.  If we could get, say, four NBA teams involved in a 16 team tourney (with four Spanish and Italian teams), two Greek and German teams and four wild cards (Turkish, French, Isreali, Serbian).  Home and Aways would be fun too; NBA rules in America, FIBA rules in Europe. 

However, El Miz is probably right, the NBA will have too much leverage, unless they see a huge payday from this. Maybe FIBA negotiates something like this if the World Championships become more NBA controlled and thus result in more money for the NBA.

Also, to note: NBA teams 9-5 on the road against Euroleague teams.  That being said, those are usually early season exhibitions where the NBA team is going through the motions (most recent loss, Lakers going down to FCB in Barca by four points.  Kobe only played 24 minutes) and save for the Lakers loss, the NBA teams aren't always the best 4 teams, it's usually random ones.

El Miz: I really don't think a Champions League would even be close. The NBA gets all of the world's best talent, while the Euroleague is made up of guys that are trying to get into the NBA. The Olympics are fun because there are NBA guys on the different countries and it evens the playing field a bit by playing the international game. If the Thunder and Heat went into a 16 team knockout tournament, I think they'd meet in the final and win every game along the way by 25-plus points.
Vassilis Spanoulis was the MVP of the Euroleague for the second time last year -- do you remember him?  He left Greece to sign a three-year, $6 mil deal with the Houston Rockets and was thoroughly forgettable averaging 2 points a game:

"Eventually, there was a falling out between him and Rockets coach Van Gundy, after Van Gundy benched Spanoulis, after the coach claimed that he had played poorly, citing that rookie players are dangerous for coaches that are in contract years, and that Spanoulis was too turnover prone and lacking in outside shooting touch to be a good fit in Van Gundy's offensive system design. Said Van Gundy about the situation: "(Spanoulis) says, 'I was [Tracy] McGrady back home.' Great. McGrady is McGrady here...I feel badly for him. He feels he was misled. Frankly, he's been his own worst enemy in many ways. Some of it is excuses. His turnovers have been high; his fouls have been high; his shooting percentage has been low. I would rather anybody start out with self-evaluation — what can I do better? — versus lash out and blame.""

This guy has been the best player in the Euro tournament twice. Just because those teams play together would not make it competitive.  NBA teams would dominate.

Sip: Spanioulousosusisis considered, there are other examples of success.  Manu (twice), Petrovic, and I believe Pau were all Euroleague MVPs.  I certainly get what you mean that most times it would end up being NBA v. NBA in the final (or final four), but if it was a single-game knockout or best of three, anything can happen I suppose.
6 on Hibbert: I disagree that a top Euroleague team couldn't compete with an NBA team.  Yes, everyone is going to have serious problems with the Miami Heat for example, but the Euro teams generally play a much different brand of basketball and that would give other teams problems, at least if they played international rules.  Euro teams would probably play a lot of zone, and try to pick and roll the NBA teams to death. I don't think its so far fetched to believe that one or two Euro teams could sneak into a Final 4.

Pov: One of the big reasons national team hoops is more competitive than it should be based purely on talent discrepancy is that the other countries play and practice a lot more together than our guys do. That advantage wouldn't exist for CSK Mscow if they were to play the Spurs or any NBA team. Established roles, cohesiveness is much better established in L teams than on our national team, which would allow NBA talent to dominate, I'd reckon.

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Sip: Also, the NBA is more talented and the national teams have NBA players (sometimes a lot of them).  But all these things being said about how the NBA would dominate were said for years before 2002, 2004, 2006 when we lost (i.e. didn't win gold) in three straight international tournaments, coming in 6th, 3rd and 3rd, respectively.

2002 was the absolutely low point of basketball in America since the day before Naismith invented it. 2004, we all thought we learned our lesson but our selfish squad went 5-3 and took bronze (even losing to PR in that stretch). 2006, Coach K took over and the USA system was all supposed to be re-vamped and we still lost again in the semis (Coach K's only international loss).  We've since won like 50 games in a row. 

However, don't think we won't get "fat" again and forget to respect teams.  Basically no one from the 2008 team wanted to play in 2010 because that was the big FA summer (and Melo was getting f'ing married).  The "B" Team did us proud, but do we not forget that we beat Brazil by a single point in the semis!  We were that f'ing close to another failure.

International teams, players etc will always continue to improve.  Sure, the Heat, Thunder, Celts, Spurs will be expected to steam-roll Barca, Madrid, Roma and Olympiacos, but you don't think one of them gets a little confident doesn't take it seriously and then all of sudden they're down 10 with four minutes to go and they have no clue what to do deep in the heart of some smoke filled vile arena in Athens?

We are never suppose to lose ever, and silver in any competition is total failure for these guys.  It's the Brazil of soccer. This would apply to any NBA team in a true club competition. But it only takes one bad night, one bad game, in some weird place.  I can't even mention '02 because it was beyond failure.  But it happened in '04, '06 and almost in '10.  I would never sit and say it would never happen to the Heat or Thunder simply because they play together a lot and are more athletic. If we dated this post 2001, we would have the same arguments and we all got a rude awakening for the next 7 years.

El Miz: You're comparing apples to oranges in comparing national competitions versus the teams of the NBA.  The '06 team was like the 3rd team All-NBA and guys that weren't even all-stars, and we were playing national teams that had played together for years. The disadvantages of that team (hastily thrown together, the best players sitting out, and Coach K not having a team that he's used to and having to figure out rotations and minutes on the go) are all out of the equation in this "tournament."

In a hypothetical "Champions" tournament (which, again, the NBA would never in a million years agree to since it would never acknowledge that it ISN'T the clear-cut best league in the world) after the Finals you are pitting teams that have played an entire season together, went through NBA playoffs, and are in peak shape.  Take the final four teams in the NBA this year -- Heat, Celtics, Spurs (who really are the ideal euro league team with the 3 point shooting and all the international guys), and Thunder; put them in mid-July knock out tournament pitting each against a Euroleague final four team and I think (fairly and not biased as an NBA fan and American) that all four of those teams would beat whichever European champion they were playing, hands down.  The Spurs have a collection of guys who were the best on their European teams (Ginobili, Parker, Splitter, Danny Green, Gary Neal, Diaw), each of those teams could shoot the lights out of a zone, have legit bigs, etc. Even IN europe playing their rules in their stadiums, talent alone is just vastly, vastly in favor of the NBA teams, and the things like group cohesion or a mismatched roster are not elements like they are in national tournaments where guys can sit out or haven't ever played together.  All of those teams have role players, rotations, etc. that a "Team USA" will never have since they only get 3-4 weeks to play before going into a national tournament.
Sip: I know its apples to oranges, but the same thing can happen.  The US lost seven times in major international competitions between 2002-2006.  Those teams were not untalented.  Just because the starting five was All-NBA Third Team quality doesn't mean they still weren't objectively the most talented team in the tournament.  Sure, the cohesiveness was a huge factor and one of the big issues addressed when we re-vamped after 2004, but is that the reason for all seven losses?

Pov: I'm with El Miz. National teams are completely different conceptually

Str8 Cash Homie: I'm with El Miz, as well. Also, there is a common opinion that international talent as waning. This is partly based on fewer international players being chosen in the draft, but I've read multiple references to top-tiered international (i.e. Olympic) teams having difficulty restocking after this current generation.

I contend that the biggest advantages the NBA teams would have is bench depth. Most international teams have limits on "imports" (i.e. Americans), and I have to imagine there is some serious dumpster-diving going on to round out those rosters. One of things that most people overlook regarding the NBA, at least stylistically, is that the best teams are often the best at exploiting mismatches and that would be where they'd really end up punishing the competition (a weak back-up pg, an undersized reserve forward) in this hypothetical.
I don't really understand Huber's point about pick and rolls -- its only as good as the players running it. I don't know the rosters for any of the Euroleague teams but I doubt they compare to some of the more effective NBA combinations. Of course your pick and roll D is going to look shaky against Westbrook, CP3, Rondo and the options they have available. I've long believed that notion that the European "style" is somehow superior to American/NBA is largely a myth. It has always seemed like a poor explanation for why American teams have struggled and is more a straw man than anything.

El Miz: O
ne more comment -- the FIBA rules are set up for semi-bogus results. The game is four 10-minute quarters and a total of 40 minutes so same total as college, but at least college ball has two 20-minute halves which open up the possibility for more runs and a coach needing to be disciplined with timeouts.  With quarters ending every 10 minutes its like having an extra timeout to stop any momentum a team gets.  Plus the court is a few feet shorter, and the three point line (even after they moved it back) is still not at NBA distance.
The soccer equivalent of this would be instead of two, 45-minute halves there were two 35-minute halves, a shorter field, and bigger goals.  Of course upsets would be more "likely". NBA rules are "grown man" rules. Four 12-minute quarters is a 48 minute game (which really exarcebates the need for at least three good bench players, as Erik highlighted), the bigger court and deeper three-point line mean spacing and offensive execution are even more important. FIBA rules have gradually grown closer to the NBA's, so hopefully we get to one day where they are the same.  Regardless, the current "FIBA" rules are basically an equalizer to make up for deeper, more athletic american teams.

Sip: All of that may be true.  But I highly doubt FIBA designed these rules so that non-US players would have a better chance of upsetting team USA in international competition. I frankly have no idea with their rationale for any of the differences were, but it can't be for the purpose of gaining an advantage once every two years when when team USA plays 10 FIBA games.

KOBEsh: I'll go ahead and agree that the general sentiment of a Champions League would never, ever happen, merely on the premise that yes, the NBA would never implicitly express that they weren't the dominant league. I have long contended that the term "World Champion" for talking about the NBA, NFL or MLB titlist isn't a farce of a name: the truth is, the best players in the world play in those three leagues, and the leagues are so international in terms of players now that I don't think there's a doubt that whoever wins is the best on the planet. "

I do think there's some merit to a team of All-stars being thrown together being beaten by a team with long running chemistry (probably CSKA Moscow, Olympiacos or Barcelona being some primary squads that could do it). It is possible (as you guys said, look at 2004), but is overall a very fluky performance. As you saw in 2010, we can throw together our 2nd best team and still have them absolutely dominate.
Going full-circle here, I'm entirely against the Under-23 squad for the Olympics. Yes, it'd be kind of neat to see a Kyrie/Beal/Wall/Davis squad, but fuck that. Give me Bron, Melo, Kobe, Dwight and KD anytime, any day. I get that having two international tournaments is kind of redundant, but I really don't see the harm in having both tournaments - winning either is very prestigious. I like the idea of someone having a "world title" of sorts every two years. Obviously, it's not the same title in name, but the designation remains the same.
Sip: I do agree with KOBEsh, I'm not for and under-23 Olympics.  First, I want to see our national team more than once a year, if it is just a World Cup (which by the way, has now officially been rebranded) that is all we get to see, as well as some crap qualifying games where we send the Select Team to beat the shit out of Mexico, the Virgin Islands and St. Kitts (you thought CONCACAF was lopsided in soccer...).  Also, the Olympics are not an amateur competition, and let's stop pretending they still are.  Usain Bolt's face is plastered on the side of every building here next to a giant Visa logo.  Michael Phelps allegedly eats more Subway than Jared.  The US female swimmer Missy Franklin turned down hundreds of thousands in endorsements so she could swim in college next year. She might be the only amateur the United States sent over.  Anyone playing a sport that anyone actually watches is a pro and the absolute best pro.  Why shouldn't we send our best professionals?  Simply because their employers are mad that they cannot make more money off of them.

El Miz: Sip, your argument about how the Olympics are not an amateur competition is the argument Stern is going to make as to why they should go to a "World Cup", presuming they can structure it with FIBA so that they get a majority of revenues.  Although it doesn't seem like it, it actually IS an amateur competition -- these athletes are NOT paid for performance.  Its so similar to the College BCS -- the IOC pockets the lion's share of revenue ($1B+ TV contract w/ NBC) while SOME famous athletes like Phelps, Bolt, etc. are able to score individual deals.
The Olympics are good "advertising" for the NBA but if they can run a World Cup tournament where they get 66% of revenue and players are paid to be there, everyone from the NBA's side wins -- the players and the League (which just means owners). The IOC is a great racket just like BCS -- pay the athletes nothing, cloak the competition as "amateur" and pocket like 95% of all money generated.  At least the IOC lets the athletes get individual sponsorship deals.

Huber: I get why the NBA wants their own tournament, and I get why players still want to go to the Olympics despite this bad deal (the make millions, it's a cool experience, rep your country, play on a team of superstars) but some don't go cause of money, laziness, injury (Shuttlesworth, Bynum, Bosh) and that's fine, because it's the player's choice to sign up for this deal and it's more of a "choice" than college athletes get. What I don't understand is why any fan would be for a once every four years World Cup and Under-23s in the Olympics. I want to see the best players on this team together, hopefully more than twice in their careers.  I want to have my Team USA cake and eat it too.


  1. Hum...
    It's weird that you guys think you can do an unbiased comparison between NBA and Euroleague play since you guys admittedly have never watched the latter.

    Just so you know, there's a competition in soccer where the Champions League winner faces the winner of the South American Cup. I think it's called the International Cup or something like that.

    Also, some (admittedly terrible) NBA team also lost a game to Barcelona a couple of years ago.

    And yeah, we all understand what the NBA and its owners would win from it, but why would FIBA and other national federations be interested in a NBA-central World Cup ?

  2. Mr. Anonymous,

    "Just so you know, there's a competition in soccer where the Champions League winner faces the winner of the South American Cup. I think it's called the International Cup or something like that" -- Just so you know it was the Toyota Cup in soccer you're trying to think of and it hasn't existed for years. They now actually do a club world cup (Most famous for the place where Villa broke his leg before the Euros). It's basically part of what we were talking about, the problem is the Champions League teams do not take it that seriously (much like NBA teams may not take an bball champions league seriously after the NBA Finals).

    "some (admittedly terrible) NBA team also lost a game to Barcelona a couple of years ago." -- That was actually the 2009 NBA Champion LA Lakers. Who lost by 4pts to Barca. Is this shocking ... no, not at all. They played Kobe 20mins and basically turned it into a showcase for Pau to go back to his old stomping grounds, as he played most of and was the feature of the game. Other NBA squads have lost to different European clubs, however it is often shitty teams losing during their preseason when they do not even have a 12 man roster set, let alone give a crap about the outcome.

    Why would FIBA be interested. I think it's pretty obvious they would be more financially interested than NBA clubs. Sure it's another way for NBA clubs to generate revenue but it is also put their entire brand (as being the clear cut most dominant) at risk. For other national federations, you get to play and have an NBA team come play at your arenas with a chance for invaluable bragging rights... you don't see the $$$ signs £££ signs and €€€ signs? What does Barca, Olympiacos, Maccabi and CSKA have to lose here? 'We'd like to have Kevin Durant and the OKC Thunder come play you in a tournament at your home arena, we image this will be the most important and lucrative game in your club's history' -- yeah maybe you're right I don't see why that would interest an owner who struggles to make payroll consistently.