- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Soccer-loving NBA fans know exactly what it means when you hear soccer folks talking about an "international break."
NBA fans who aren't familiar with the term will start to hear it more and more as we inch toward 2017.
FIBA announced this week that its quadrennial World Championship, which starting in 2014 will be known as the FIBA Basketball World Cup, will skip its 2018 turn and move to 2019 to take the event "out of the shadow" of soccer's World Cup. As part of the shift, FIBA says the World Cup field is expanding from 24 teams to a record 32 countries and that seven of the 12 nations in the 2020 Olympics will qualify -- along with the host nation of '20 Games -- based on World Cup results.
Yet one of the more interesting changes to the international basketball calendar involves the introduction of six planned qualifying windows for the 2019 World Cup that will be staged in November 2017, February 2018, June 2018, September 2018, November 2018 and February 2019. You'll notice, as you re-read that sentence, that four of those six windows take place at the same time that the NBA schedule calls for NBA players to play NBA games.
And that's where the concept of an international break comes in.
In world soccer, as seen just this week in fact, leagues all over the planet take what amounts to a school holiday during such qualifying windows to let players scatter across the globe to return to their national teams. The U.S. men's national soccer team, for example, just recalled 20 players from 10 different leagues worldwide to form the squad that ducked in and out of Russia to come away with a fortuitous 2-2 draw.
The notion of an international break in the NBA, however, is a complete non-starter. Even at this early juncture, one source familiar with the NBA's long-range thinking told ESPN.com that building breaks into the NBA's regular-season schedule is simply "not being considered." Not now and not later.
Which means that NBA players from a variety of countries -- as well as the NBA coaches who moonlight with national teams all over the world in the offseason -- will almost certainly miss out on the majority of games that count when it comes to qualifying for the new World Cup.
How big a deal is that? Not that massive, realistically, when viewed through a strictly American prism. USA Basketball will continue to field teams that qualify for every major tournament even if it has to trot out a pack of All-Stars from the D-League for most of the qualifying games starting in November 2017. As one longtime European coach told ESPN.com this week: "There's no way FIBA would go to a system that hurts the big countries. They want the stars playing in the biggest tournaments."
Yet the soccer fan in me can't wait to see how this plays out in so many other areas. What happens to the smaller countries like, say, Venezuela or Israel or Switzerland that lean on a Greivis Vasquez or Omri Casspi or Thabo Sefolosha to spearhead their efforts to qualify for major events? What happens to a country like Georgia when it loses access in qualifying not only to star center Zaza Pachulia but also coach Igor Kokoskov, whom the Georgians currently borrow from the bench of the Phoenix Suns but who likely won’t be able to do that sort of moonlighting in-season? Or is a 32-team World Cup so bloated that nations blessed with NBA players, however few they produce, won’t see their qualifying hopes drastically dented by limited NBA involvement?
FIBA officials are increasingly optimistic that a number of top leagues in Europe will re-institute international breaks for qualifying to their schedules, like we saw before the wave of international players in the NBA over the past decade-plus that largely prompted FIBA to move all men's senior events to the summer in the first place in hopes of increasing the likelihood of NBA participation. But then it’s hard to imagine that top national-team coaches from last summer's Olympics, such as Russia's David Blatt or Spain's Sergio Scariolo, will opt to keep coaching internationally at the expense of club jobs that are far more lucrative once national teams need their services several times a year. On the flip side, looking strictly through our U.S. goggles again, it’s conceivable that the likely return of international breaks in Europe would enable USAB to call in top Americans playing abroad for a previously unforeseen opportunity to represent their country in a qualifying window or two.
Because these changes are still nearly five years off, it's too soon to know precisely how USAB will approach the new qualifying setup. Those are way-down-the-road discussions for USAB chairman Jerry Colangelo, who faces the slightly more pressing matter of choosing Mike Krzyzewski's successor as coach to lead the 2014 team into Spain for the Worlds.
What we do know at this juncture is that FIBA forged ahead with the new plan convinced that there were too many benefits for the overall health of the world game -- starting with the move of the World Cup to odd years away from head-to-head competition with the soccer equivalent -- to dwell on what will be lost if NBA players and coaches are mostly unavailable for qualifying games.
Representatives from the sport's world governing body relish the notion that its member nations will get to regularly host qualifying games starting in 2017 as part of home-and-away group play as seen in soccer after years of seeing international tournaments limited to single-venue events that are jammed into the summertime.
(Example No. 1: Team USA is scheduled to play no fewer than six home and two away qualifiers in advance of the 2019 World Cup. The Americans haven't played a senior men's national team game on home soil that meant anything since the horrors of that sixth-place finish at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis.)
FIBA is also hoping that the new schedule, which reduces the year-to-year offseason workload for NBA players thanks to the changes in qualifying and the move to stage de-emphasized events like Eurobasket and the FIBA Americas championship once every four years instead of every two years, will start to address the concerns of NBA teams concerned about the extra wear and tear their players absorb while playing internationally.
(Example No. 2: Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, just to name one prominent international player, has played for Spain in one competition or another for seven straight summers dating to 2006. The new plan should result in at least one basketball-free summer for the sport's top national teams every four years.)
Yet it’s worth remembering that these changes are all tied into FIBA’s mission to elevate the status and novelty of the World Cup and make it a truly marquee event. An event, not coincidentally, in which the NBA is destined to hold a growing financial stake.
It also remains to be seen how long the NBA waits before making a renewed push to take another page from soccer’s blueprint and try to turn the Olympics into a 23-and-under event, as was proposed by NBA commissioner David Stern (and then quickly shot down) earlier this year.
With so many angles affecting so many basketball people over here, and with so much discussion and dissection to come, something tells me that lots of this stuff will sound a lot less foreign to the NBA masses by the time 2017 rolls around.
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