Tough choices behind Canadian opting out

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Ten days remain until the FIBA World Cup and the picture is ever clearer on who will represent Canada at the tournament.

After plenty of speculation, Cory Joseph will indeed play and that’s all the more comforting after Kaza Kajami-Keane and Andrew Nembhard each went down with injuries over the past couple of days. Khem Birch is the only other NBA player on file and that’s a stern reminder of the absentees from the roster.

Several of the country’s best players have withdrawn since Canada Basketball initially announced a 29-man training camp in preparation for the tournament, taking the thinking involved in trimming the roster down to 12 before their trip to China from a lot of good problems to just figuring out if they have enough players to field a team.

The initial cut of 29 to 19 saw NBA players such as Tristan Thompson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke, Trey Lyles and Dwight Powell all remove their names from consideration. The reality was the list was only just 17 as Jamal Murray and R.J. Barrett — while reporting to camp — had ruled themselves out for the trip to China as well.

Since then, Kelly Olynyk has withdrawn after consulting the Miami Heat about the knee injury he suffered during a friendly against Nigeria, and the Toronto Raptors’ Chris Boucher opted out for personal reasons. The hiring of NBA champion and Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was supposed to add intrigue and excitement towards wanting to play, but that clearly hasn’t been the case. For now, there are effectively just three more cuts or withdrawals remaining before Canada is down to 12 players.

This is supposed to be Canada’s golden generation, and if missing out on the Rio Olympics in 2016 was one that was squandered, missing out on the 2020 games will be literally throwing one away. But, surely, these players who have featured for Canada before would like nothing more than to make this dream possible, right? It’s unfair to put this squarely on the players.

Here’s a look into the factors that are impeding their desire to do so.

Working overtime

There was a time when the World Championships were played right in the middle of the four-year gap between summer Olympics. That’s not the case this time around. As part of a rebranding effort, the newly-named FIBA World Cup is played the year before the Olympics and so, on this occasion, countries are effectively asking NBA players to go around the clock for two straight years.

They’ve just gone through a gruelling 82-game season, some like Murray have played playoff basketball, some have had to deal with the free agency process. Now you’re asking them to commit to this tournament, come back from China with NBA training camps just two weeks away, go through the regular season grind again, then be back for the Olympics next summer as well? Slice it any way you like, that’s tough.

The previous setup at least allowed you a little breathing room in terms of sandwiching summers off between the World Cup and Olympics but this makes it quite difficult. Of course, Canada isn’t the only country suffering this fate.

On the flip side, it might be worth taking the time to understand what exactly European teams are doing differently that have players like Rudy Gobert and Marc Gasol — while being completely understanding of those who don’t want to play — being unable to imagine saying no to representing their country at a major competition.

Domino effect

The more stars that trickle out of contention, the more likely it is that there’s a domino effect and other players lose motivation and think their time is better spent elsewhere.

Now, they’ll obviously never say it, but it hardly seems like a coincidence that a bunch of players slowly but steadily trickled out their “It’s not you, it’s me,” tweets for why they won’t play. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past few NBA summers, it’s that players talk. Joseph’s status, for example, went up in the air only after Olynyk — someone he’s long gone to battle with as a kid and on the international stage — pulled out.

With the pressure of being viewed as the golden generation, it’s possible to see why some other players may have decided against playing once the biggest names like Murray, Thompson and Barrett ruled themselves out. To take on the pressure that those guys leave behind and potentially fail? No thanks.

There’s always next time

As much as FIBA has tried to rebrand this major world basketball event and sell it as a World Cup, the history of the sport internationally has always had the Olympics as the premier event.

If Canada is unable to emerge as one of the top-two Americas teams at this event, they will still likely have a shot at playing in the Olympics through a 2020 qualifying tournament. Seven teams will be guaranteed a spot in Tokyo through the FIBA World Cup, while the 16 next-best teams earn a final qualifying opportunity along with two selected teams per region (Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe). The 24 total teams get split into four different tournaments with six teams each, with only the winner of each of the four events advancing to the Olympics.

It’s certainly a high-risk, high-reward scenario to entertain, but Canada is also realistically competing for just one qualifying spot (because of big, bad USA) at the World Cup as well. If the players who are skipping out right now believe they’d rather just have one summer of commitment, do what they need to do at the qualifying event to be played in June to make the Olympics and then ride that momentum into Tokyo, that’s within their rights as well.

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