FIBA held the draw for its 2019 World Cup in China on Saturday. Per usual, the draw is only of minor importance. The real question for all of the top teams — and for those who dream of unseating them — is which NBA stars will actually play in the tournament.
The United States drew into Group E along with Japan, Turkey, and the Czech Republic. Turkey, despite producing a good number of NBA-level players in the past two decades, has really had just one good international tournament at the senior level, the 2010 World Championship, where the Turks lost to Team USA in the final. Japan has never finished in the top 10 in a World Cup and doesn’t qualify for many of them. The Czechs have a few notable players, but have no history of international basketball success.
No matter who shows up for the United States, the team should be able to finish in the top two and climb out of Group E to the second round, where Team USA and the other Group E survivor would face the top two teams from Group F, which features Greece, New Zealand, Brazil, and Montenegro.
Greece was a top-tier contender in the 2000s, but they haven’t medalled in an international tournament since 2008. Even a United States C-level team should be able to survive Round 2.
Then come the knockouts, where United States would actually be tested as teams like France, Australia, and Canada are in the mix there. In the knockouts, with just eight teams left, some U.S. rosters could legitimately be at risk of getting sent packing. Spain remains a top competitor, Lithuania is always strong, Serbia is ascendant, Argentina also makes the United States sweat. To win this thing, assuming that other teams bring real rosters with their best players, Team USA will have to put together a roster that makes sense for coach Gregg Popovich.
That doesn’t mean that the United States needs Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and LeBron James to survive and win gold. But at least one of those players would be helpful. You could imagine a version of the roster led by, say, Devin Booker, Kyle Lowry, Andre Drummond, and DeMar DeRozan that doesn’t quite do the trick against Australia, Serbia, and Spain.
This is where we find out if playing for Popovich is a draw, or if flying halfway across the world for legitimate work to represent a country in tumult and led by a president most of these top-level players are on record opposing is worth the time and energy. The players who are free agents this summer should all have their situations resolved before it’s time to report for camp, but you wonder if they’ll sit out to be fully fresh for their new teams (if any of them switch teams). You wonder how internal player politics will factor in, especially as players like Durant are expected to flee Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green in free agency — it’d be awkward to turn around and play with them overseas two weeks later. You wonder how much the opportunity to play in the biggest basketball market in the world outside of the United States for a month will factor in.
It’s going to be weird, folks, and it will determine how heavily favored the United States is to win the 2019 FIBA World Cup.