FIBA

Four thoughts about the FIBA Champions League field

FIBA is saying all the right things, but will the Champions League replace the Eurocup in time or just be another failed venture in the club scene for the basketball federation?

I have already done a post about the Eurocup field, and after some time, and the announcement of the teams participating, I am going to do a similar analysis for the FIBA Champions League, FIBA’s newest venture in the club basketball scene. This is going to deviate a little from the Eurocup post, as it will not just be about the teams, but will also bring up some points about the FIBA Champions League in general, as this “civil war” between FIBA and the Euroleague company continues to impact basketball in Europe in a negative way, affecting not only the club basketball scene in Europe, but international basketball as well.

So, let’s take a look at some thoughts about the Champions League field and its outlook for 2016-2017.

 

The field is certainly a step up from the EuroChallenge days.

Strasbourg is the kind of team FIBA wouldn’t have been able to lure to their former competition, the EuroChallenge, in the past.

From 2003-2015, as the Euroleague company and ULEB dominated the top two tiers of European basketball with the Euroleague and Eurocup, FIBA sponsored the EuroChallenge, which effectively became the third-tier competition for European basketball. The competition was a nice mixture, mostly made of smaller clubs from bigger countries as well clubs from countries who didn’t have the basketball pedigree of countries like Spain and Greece, for example. The EuroChallenge certainly didn’t generate the attention or interest of European basketball fans like the Euroleague or Eurocup, but it did have a history of hosting some clubs before they made it to the big time. (The league was actually a preference of clubs from Italy and Russia for example over the Eurocup in its early days; clubs like Unics, Lokomotiv Kuban and Virtus Bologna, who have all played in the Euroleague, had success in the EuroChallenge.)

However, fed up with being a “bronze” candidate in the European club basketball scene, FIBA decided to compete directly with the Eurocup starting last year with the FIBA Europe Cup. However, the league failed to gain traction, and the Champions League decided to re-tool their image and tried to come up with a more hard-line strategy to promote their new competition (mostly involving sanctioning countries and clubs who preferred the Eurocup over the Champions League).

Surprisingly, while the competition may still not be as strong as the Eurocup (mostly due to the Euroleague’s new format, which involves 8 less teams, thus pushing those clubs to the Eurocup), the Champions League should have a solid debut competition-wise. As noted in my earlier post about the Eurocup, French and Turkish clubs who would have been competing in second-tier competition have decided to participate in the Champions League, and this has boosted the competitiveness of the field in comparison to FIBA’s previous club competitions. French clubs like ASVEL and Strasbourg, and Turkish clubs like Besiktas and Pinar Karsiyaka would have been strong competitors in the Eurocup this upcoming season (Strasbourg made the Eurocup finals last season), and the fact that FIBA was able to get them to participate in their inaugural season should boost the profile of their competition in ways the Europe Cup or EuroChallenge couldn’t in the past.

Yet even beyond France and Turkey, two major basketball countries, there is a good mix of competitive clubs from all over Europe. Aris and PAOK from Greece, Iberostar Tenerife from Spain, reigning Europe Cup champion Fraport Skyliners from Germany, Mega Leks from Serbia, Cibona from Croatia, Neptunas from Lithuania, Maccabi Rishon from Israel and Khimik from Ukraine are all quality clubs who have experience in second-tier competition, with some (such as Neptunas) having Euroleague history. Perhaps the Eurocup has a bit of an advantage over the Champions League in terms of quality of competition, but for a debut year, and only two years removed from being primarily a third-tier competition, FIBA did a pretty good job in acquiring clubs that will make the Champions League interesting to follow.

The competition will be more about quantity than quality initially.

Kataja of Finland is one of the 48 clubs that will be competing in the CL, 24 more than the Eurocup, and 32 more than the Euroleague.

With a total of 48 teams participating, the Champions League will follow a format similar to the old Eurocup model: a handful of smaller, lesser-profile clubs will play in a couple of qualifying rounds before a 14 round regular season made up of 32 teams. After the regular season, the best 16 teams will make the playoffs, which will progress until they reach the Final Four, where the winner will be determined over a weekend, similar in fashion to the Euroleague and Eurocup Final Four structure (single elimination).

The nice thing about the Champions League’s model is that it will expose fans to A LOT of teams, and from countries many people don’t think of when it comes to basketball in Europe. Yes, people are familiar with Spain, Greece, Germany, and Italy’s basketball history, but in the qualifying round, there will be clubs from Portugal, Romania, Estonia, Finland, and Belarus, just to name a few. This kind of country exposure is good for the game of basketball, especially for clubs from countries that don’t necessarily get a lot of media or television attention when it comes to basketball. Now, that’s not saying they’re going to have much impact. I can’t imagine Portugal for example, whose basketball teams don’t have the funding of say an Aris in Greece, will be able to compete talent-wise with clubs from major basketball countries beyond the qualifying round, should they make it past that. But to be able to see these clubs compete, even for a little while, should satisfy the basketball junkie who is looking for different clubs and styles beyond what is seen in the Euroleague and Eurocup.

And that is one thing that the Champions League has going for it: quantity. They will have a lot of clubs from a lot of countries and that is a unique quality that the league can hangs its hat on initially. FIBA is definitely trying to promote small European countries a bit more through its international competition, and by giving those small countries and their basketball clubs exposure, that will help make basketball bigger in those countries, and consequently, make Europe stronger as a basketball continent. And plus, for basketball addicts, being able to see as many clubs from as many countries as possible is a plus, just for the niche factor alone, and the qualifying rounds should be something pushed by FIBA when those rounds begin in September. I know basketball addicts like myself would love to see clubs from “lesser-known” countries compete with such high stakes on the line, and FIBA needs to utilize this as much as possible to give it an angle that neither the Euroleague or Eurocup will be able to provide next season under their new formats.

Will the talent follow the clubs in the Champions League?

Neptunas of Lithuania (blue) has been able to attract some talent, but will other clubs be able to in order to make the CL legitimate?

This was also an issue for teams that were demoted from the Euroleague to the Eurocup, but it is a question worth beckoning in this situation as well: will Champions League have enough talent to make the league competitive? Unlike the NBA, clubs see their talent come and go on a frequent basis, and it usually correlates with the competitive status of the club. A club going to the Euroleague is going to garner a lot more talent than one that is being demoted to the Eurocup or Champions League. We saw it this off-season: Maccabi Tel Aviv and Darussafaka Dogus Istanbul were able to get major talent in transfers because of their solid Euroleague status, while teams like Lokomotiv Kuban, Unicaja Malaga and Pinar Karsiyaka lost a lot of talent due to them being regulated to the Eurocup or Champions League.

So far, it is difficult to see if the Champions League will have the kind of talent to keep it on par with the Eurocup. Neptunas has been active in the market by keeping Jerai Grant, and Aris and PAOK have made some small, but roster-strengthening moves, but other than that, it doesn’t seem like many of the current clubs in the Champions League have gotten all that better. Eurocup and ProA runner-up Strasbourg lost coach Vincent Collet and may be rebuilding depending on what a lot of their current players decide this off-season (some are contemplating options ranging from the NBA to other European clubs). Pinar Karsiyaka lost their coach as well to Besiktas as well as a lot of talent. And Mega Leks lost three players to the NBA Draft. When it comes to star players shining next year in the Champions League, there will be a lot of opportunities for players to break out on the big stage through FIBA’s competition, since there will not be a lot of initial big names that FIBA can hang its hat on initially while promoting the league.

And that is the challenge FIBA will face: what kind of talent should the Champions League promote? Should it promote young, up and coming talent? Should it promote veterans who are getting their last shots? Should it keep it straight and say it is as every bit full of talent as the Eurocup? These questions will be interesting to follow, as there has not been a lot of “team” publicity yet in association with the Champions League on its Web site. But, if the Champions League wants to compete with the Eurocup legitimately, it will not only need good clubs, but good, marketable and exciting players as well.

Can the Champions League last? Or is it another failed FIBA idea?

FIBA has tried in the past to be a player in first and second-tier competition and failed. Will the CL be different?

It is a shame that FIBA could not be satisfied with being a third-tier competition with the EuroChallenge and trying to develop that as more of a “small country” competition to grow and strengthen basketball in smaller, less-basketball-focused countries. I think FIBA’s Golden Goose has always been international basketball, even in Europe, and I think the EuroChallenge and being in charge of a third-tier competition, though not as lucrative as a first or second-tier, presented opportunities for growth and creativity that would have down the road strengthened their Goose: the Eurobasket and other European competitions.

But, FIBA wants a bigger portion of the club basketball pie in Europe, and after failing with the FIBA SuproLeague in 2001 (an initial competitor with the Euroleague), FIBA decided to go the next best route: compete with the second-tier competition, the Eurocup. Yes, it’s not as big a piece of the pie as the Euroleague, but it’s a safer and easier route for FIBA to go, and it could also set up the foundation for a coup of the Euroleague down the road as well. If FIBA is in sole control of Europe’s top secondary competition, then it will only be a matter of time before they garner enough teams and talent to directly compete with Euroleague and lure those clubs that solidify the Euroleague as well.

However, as history has shown, this hasn’t always worked out for FIBA. The Europe Cup was a bust last season, and though the EuroChallenge had periods where they tried to directly compete with the Eurocup, it always seemed to fall flat in the end, and FIBA ended up resigning to third-tier status. FIBA is pulling out all the stops to make the Champions League work: they are hitting countries hard with potential sanctions if they are choosing the Eurocup over the Champions League. And it has worked to an extent. There are rumors that by July 11th, the four Italian Eurocup participants will withdraw from the competition out of fear of being sanctioned out of Serie A play domestically. If this does indeed come to fruition, it shows the kind of negotiating power FIBA has. And with this kind of negotiating power and ability to strike down powerful consequences (allegedly), then it will deter people in the future even more from agreeing to participate in the Eurocup, thus making it weaker while consequently strengthening the Champions League.

That being said, it will be interesting to see what kind of sanctions FIBA does hand out. After all, Spain probably has the most leverage in this situation, as they have not only the strongest club scene in Europe, but also one of the strongest national teams globally as well. Will FIBA risk shutting them out, when Spain can bring all kinds of competition to Europe in global play? And can the Champions League truly be a Champions League when the best teams from the best basketball country in Europe refuse to participate?

The Spain situation makes things extremely difficult for the Champions League to succeed, and Russia’s lack of cooperation with multiple clubs preferring the Eurocup over the Champions League doesn’t help either. Russia doesn’t have the national team pedigree, but their clubs have the money, and the kind of money to lure top talent. And as stated before, the Champions League needs talent if they want to legitimize their clubs and their competition in comparison to the Eurocup.

It will be interesting. I do not think that the Champions League will be a 1-year thing like the SuproLeague or Europe Cup before it, as it seems like it has a lot of investment behind it. But it is going to be difficult for FIBA to get over the hump, despite the “sanctioning” power it has. Not having countries like Spain and Russia on board hurts their cause for legitimizing itself, and on a marketing basis, the “Champions League” moniker seems gimmicky, as if it is trying to piggyback on the UEFA Soccer Counterpart and cater to those who aren’t familiar with the European basketball scenery. In all honesty, I think FIBA should have stayed with the Europe Cup or EuroChallenge name, as it would seem less desperate and more unique in the European sporting landscape.

European basketball is at a crossroads, and who comes out on top in this Eurocup-Champions League competition will determine a lot about the future of basketball on the continent. It’s difficult to tell who holds the upper hand at this point. The Eurocup has the clubs and the talent to make it the more legitimate competition for fans, but the Champions League has the FIBA backing which is slowly getting more traction after a court upheld the ruling that FIBA could punish countries for choosing the Eurocup over the Champions League.

It’s on-court product vs. organizational power. That is what the Eurocup-Champions League battle is all about. Let’s hope European basketball isn’t too scorched when this conflict is all said and done, whoever comes out on top.

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A Quick Preview to the FIBA OQT Bracket Rounds

Turkey and Canada are still two teams that have a chance to qualify for a spot in the Olympics in this Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

After a preliminary round of games, we have reached the bracket rounds of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament. The reward? Three teams will get berths in the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro where they can fight for a chance to earn a bronze or silver medal (sorry…nobody’s competing with the USA, even though the lack of big-name stars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry will make it a little bit more interesting). 12 teams remain in the OQT, and to be frank, there is a strong chance a team worthy of an Olympic berth will not qualify through this tournament. While I do think the FIBA World Cup is a better venue for National Team basketball competition, the Olympics still remains the most high-profile, and the dogfight for the last three spots will be interesting to follow this weekend.

For those who are unaware, the tournament is split into “three groups”: An Italy Group, a Serbia Group and a Philippines Group. The winner of each group goes to the Olympics. Everybody else will be forced to watch the Olympics on the NBC Family of networks from their home country (whether or not it’s the one they participated for in this tournament though is to be determined). Before going into the preview of the “bracket” round, let’s point out some key events and thoughts from the tournament so far.

  • Not a great tournament for FIBA Asia or FIBA Africa, as the teams from the two continents went a combined 0-12 in group play. I know the NBA is trying to make great inroads with both those continents, both economically with fans as well as in basketball development. However, it is obvious that those continents are still years away from seriously competing on the global level with major continents like the Americas and Europe.
  • Speaking of FIBA Asia, it was a bit of a disappointing showing for Gilas Pilipinas (the name of the Filipino National Team). Despite the home court advantage, Gilas went 0-2, with losses to France and New Zealand in Manila. They played admirably in both games, and actually gave France a pretty good fight, as they actually led the global power after the first quarter. However, their lack of size (average height was 6’5 and that was with naturalized citizen Andray Blatche) ended up being their own worst enemy in both games, as it has been in FIBA Tournaments in the past. There still is some promise with Gilas, as Terrence Romeo and Bobby Ray Parks look to be a good combo to take over the mantle at the guard positions when Jayson Castro and Jeff Chan retire from international play. It’ll be interesting though to see how long Gilas lasts with Tab Baldwin, who has obviously made an impact offensively and defensively with the club (they played a much more aggressive scheme in the OQT). The Filipino Basketball organization isn’t known for being patient, but I think Baldwin deserves some more time, at least through the next FIBA Asia Championship to prove his worth.
  • The Americas was a bit of a surprise, as Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico all qualified for the Bracket round. Canada, despite missing Minnesota Timberwolf Andrew Wiggins, has remained competitive in their group (though inconsistent…as always) and has really been boosted by the presence of Tristan Thompson, who hasn’t been as active in the international scene the past couple of years. Mexico was missing former NBA player Gustavo Ayon, who just recently signed an extension for the reigning ACB champions, Real Madrid. However, they were able to pull the upset over Iran, who had former NBA player Hamed Haddadi, to qualify for the bracket round in their group. And Puerto Rico, who have faded a bit since their “monumental” Olympic win over the USA in 2004, have played well, and parlayed the experience winning the Centrobasket Tournament weeks earlier into solid play in the OQT.
  • There is going to be at least 1 deserving European squad left out of the Olympics this August. Latvia, Greece, France, Czech Republic, Serbia, and Italy have all proven that they would be competitive if they made the Olympic field, but unfortunately, only three of those listed have a chance to make it. At this point, I would not be surprised to see all three slots go to European squads. The FIBA Europe field in this OQT has been that strong (the lone exception being Turkey, who have not looked very good this tournament).

Okay, with some of those thoughts out-of-the-way, let’s get to the preview of the bracket round of each group.

Serbia Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Latvia vs. Puerto Rico

Semifinal 2: Serbia vs. Czech Republic

Analysis: Puerto Rico has been a good story, as they pulled off a big win over African power Angola 91-81 in Game 2, and only lost by 6 points to Serbia, a heavy favorite as they are playing these group games in Belgrade. Puerto Rico is led by their point guards, as Carlos Arroyo (who went through an up and down season with FC Barcelona in the ACB last year) and JJ Barea have played well, as expected for Puerto Rico, averaging 12.5 ppg and 14 ppg, respectively. However, the big surprise has been John Holland, who is averaging a team-high 16 ppg and 5 rpg from the wing position. The depth on the perimeter for Puerto Rico has made them a sneaky dark horse threat.

As for Latvia, they have been led by Bilbao Basket star Dairis Bertans, who is averaging a group high 19 ppg on 54.5 percent shooting, and the two Janis’: Janis Timma and Janis Blums. Timma has done more of his damage around the basket, as he is averaging 10.5 ppg but only shooting 25 percent from beyond the arc, while Blums has been a marksman from three, averaging 10 ppg on 54.5 percent from beyond the arc. The only issue for both teams will be in the post, as Puerto Rico relies on aging players like Renaldo Balkman to hold down the fort, while Latvia is missing Knicks superstar Kristaps Porzingis. Whoever wins the rebounding edge will be key to who makes it to the championship game in this matchup, especially since they are both strong teams on the perimeter.

As for Serbia, they are the favorite and rightfully so: they are in Belgrade, and are led by a lot of NBA and European talent such as Milos Teodosic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Miroslav Raduljica, Nikola Jokic and Nemanja Nedovic. Serbia struggled a bit to put away Puerto Rico in game 1, but they have seemed to find a groove against Angola, as they won by 23 points. Jokic and Raduljica have been key in the post for Serbia, and Bogdanovic has provided impact, as expected, on the offensive end both off the drive and from beyond the arc (he is averaging 12 ppg and shooting 46.2 from beyond the arc. However, the key to the team earning an Olympic berth rests on Teodosic and his ability to create offense for this Serbia team. While Teodosic’s leadership and presence on the floor has been felt (he was a +24 in net rating in their win against Angola), he hasn’t really exploded with a big performance (he had 8 points, 6 assists and 4 turnovers in the game 2 win). If he can channel his big-performance capability in this bracket round like he did in the Euroleague, then Serbia will be a shoe-in for 1 of the 3 Olympic berths.

However, they might have a tougher time in the semifinal round than in a possible championship game. Led by first-team All-Euroleague center Jan Vesely and future Washington Wizard and former FC Barcelona guard Tomas Satoransky, the Czech Republic bounced back with a convincing 16 point win over Japan in game 2 after a rough 12 points loss to Latvia where they shot 37.7 percent from the field, including 2 of 15 from beyond the arc. The key to a possible dark horse run in this bracket will be the combo of Vesely and Satoransky, as they are a tough combo to stop when they are on. Satoransky has been a bit up and down though, as he only scored 5 points against Latvia. He will need to improve upon that performance against Serbia if the Czechs want a possible rematch with Latvia. Only this time an Olympic berth could possible be on the line.

Pick: Serbia

Italy Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Greece vs. Croatia

Semifinal 2: Italy vs. Mexico

Analysis: This is arguably the strongest of the three groups, as you have three legitimate Olympic teams in Greece, Croatia and Italy. Unfortunately for FIBA and International basketball fans, two of these worthy teams will be left out in Rio.

Mexico has been a surprising story, led by NBA journeyman Jorge Gutierrez at the guard position, who is averaging 12.5 ppg, and under-the-radar guard Francisco Cruz, who plays for VEF Riga in Latvia. However, the lack of Ayon in the post is a serious hinderance for this Mexican club, and though Lorenzo Mata is serviceable, they are going to have issues defending Italy’s long and outside-oriented bigs.

Speaking of Italy, no team has looked better than this country over the past month, in both OQT and in international friendlies. Coached by former CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid head coach and current San Antonio assistant Ettore Messina, Italy cruised through group play with their meticulous, outside-oriented style. Italy is not known for playing a physical style of ball, but they have hurt teams with the 3-ball, as Marco Belinelli, Andrea Bargnani, Gigi Datome and Danilo Gallinari are all threats to hurt opponents from beyond the arc. The big question though will be how they fare in the post, as Bargnani isn’t exactly the kind of physical player to bang with the potential posts from either Greece or Croatia.

Greece is probably the deepest team in this group, and arguably the whole OQT in general. With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ioannis Bourousis, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Efstratios Perperoglou, Kosta Koufos and Nick Calathes leading the roster, Greece is a squad chock full of NBA and Euroleague pedigree. They don’t have the shooting depth of Italy, but the length they have will give Croatia fits, and Italy in the Championship, should they get past Croatia.

However, don’t count out Croatia, who bounced back from a 7-point loss to Italy with a 20-point win over Tunisia. This isn’t the kind of “strong” Croatia team we have seen in the past with Toni Kukoc or Dino Radja or Drazen Petrovic, but the talent on this team is young and capable of pulling the upset. Bojan Bogdanovic has carried the young squad, as he is the group’s leading scorer, averaging 25.5 ppg in group play. And Darko Planinic and Dario Saric (who will be going to Philly next year) have been holding things down in the post, though they still have room to grow as players. And lastly, don’t count out Mario Hezonja, who’s struggled this tournament, but has the potential to light it up from beyond the arc. I think this Croatia team is probably a couple of years away from being a real contender on the global scene, but they have a puncher’s chance against Greece.

Pick: Greece.

Philippines Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Canada vs. New Zealand

Semifinal 2: France vs. Turkey

Analysis: A bit of a blah group, as Turkey and New Zealand should be easy fodder for France and Canada, respectively. However, don’t count out Canada’s history of inconsistency on the big stage, as evidenced last year where they dropped a semifinal game against Venezuela that cost them the FIBA Americas 2nd automatic berth.

Athletically, Canada could compete with anybody in the OQT field. Their average height is 6’6 and they are a young team with an average age of 25 (and this is without Andrew Wiggins). However, sans Corey Joseph, who is averaging a team-high 17 ppg, this Canada team has struggled. Thompson has added NBA experience and defensive versatility to Canada’s roster, but has gone through efficiency issues on the offensive end, as he is shooting 31 percent from the field and averaging only 8.5 ppg. Brady Heslip, who lit up the D-League with the Reno Bighorns a year ago, has hit a cold streak so far in the OQT, averaging only 3 ppg while shooting 18 percent from the field. The talent is there for Canada: Anthony Bennett, Melvin Ejim, Khem Birch, Tyler Ennis, etc. However, they have not been able to mesh at times, as evidenced in their 58-55 win over a Senegal team they were much better than on paper.

Canada should make it to the Championship game of this tournament (most likely against France), but they should not take New Zealand lightly. The Tall Blacks pulled a big win in front of a passionate pro-Filipino crowd in Game 2, winning 89-80 in a game which they won every quarter but one (they tied the third quarter). They key to the Tall Blacks’ to qualifying for the bracket round has been guard Tal John and Corey Webster and forward Reggie Abercrombie. New Zealand doesn’t possess a ton of athleticism or highly skilled or big-name players in comparison to their competition, but they play well together, and they run a lot of different looks on defense to give teams fits. If Canada shows up to play like they did against Senegal, it would not surprise me to see the Tall Black add another upset to their OQT resume.

The Turkey-France matchup is one that would have been good four years ago, but will most likely be a blowout in favor of the latter. Turkey has a solid mix of NBA and Euroleague stars in Omer Asik, Bobby Dixon, Semih Erden, and Furkan Korkmaz.  However, the absence of real big NBA stars like Enes Kanter and Ersan Ilyasova makes this Turkish squad feel a bit second-rate in comparison to teams from past international competitions. And it has shown on the court, as Turkey not only hasn’t been impressive in group play, but they didn’t impress either in many of their friendlies leading up to the OQT competition.

On the other hand, though they are missing Rudy Gobert, and with Nic Batum sitting out (but on the bench), France is loaded with star power who play well together. They mix of NBA veterans like Tony Parker and Boris Diaw have meshed well with Euroleague stars like Nando de Colo and Thomas Huertel. The absence of Gobert and Batum has left France a bit fragile in the post, as Joseph Lauvergne and Kim Tillie haven’t been able to duplicate Gobert’s presence, as evidenced their 93-84 shootout against the Philippines. But, France can score from all over the court and in a variety of ways, and the presence of two highly skilled and polished playmakers like Parker and de Colo makes France one of the smoothest offensive teams in the OQT, which should carry them to victory in this group, and a spot in the Olympics.

Pick: France.

BBall Breakdown Video and Why Smart Gilas Lost to China

Much to many’s surprise, China’s guards, such as Guo Ailun above (6, white) kept Smart Gilas’ star guard Jayson Castro (7, blue) under tight wraps

If you haven’t seen it, please watch the video below which is BBall Breakdown’s excellent take on the China-Philippines FIBA Asia Gold Medal Game last Saturday. As I live tweeted the game, it riled up all kinds of emotions from Smart Gilas fans, including this gem below:

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There we go. A woman who sounds like one of my aunts giving expert analysis to why China won. Anyways, take a look at BBall Breakdown’s excellent analysis of the FIBA Asia Gold Medal Game. If you haven’t already, check out their YouTube page, as they have excellent content from basketball fundamentals and strategy, to analysis of the NBA. For any basketball junkie, it’s required viewing for sure.

Here are few of my own thoughts about Smart Gilas’ play, though I won’t go into much depth, as Coach Nick did a good job of that already in the analysis above.

  • The one thing you have to remember is China was extremely favored this game. They were hardly challenged at all in this tournament, with the lone exception being their second game in the group stage against South Korea where they were losing by double digits as late as the 3rd quarter. In that game, China really came out sluggish, and didn’t shoot well either until the end, where their outside shooting came around and Zhou Qi took over in the paint. Other than that scare against Korea though, China had been on cruise control throughout the tournament. The same could not be said of Smart Gilas. We all know about their opening loss to Palestine, but they struggled with consistency throughout the tournament. They struggled at times and were down in contests against Lebanon and Japan, who they were much better than. They had to get a huge 4th quarter run to pull away from Iran. While China dominated, Smart Gilas seemed to be running on fairy dust, with lady luck seeming to help them time and time again. Eventually, the luck will run out, and unfortunately, for Smart Gilas it did against a much bigger and better and more athletic Chinese team. This is probably one of Smart Gilas’ best teams ever, but they still were a heavy underdog in this game and they needed a lot to go in their favor.
  • With that being said, while Smart Gilas’ execution at times was lacking, what wasn’t was their effort and heart for the most part. With the exception of Andray Blatche running out of gas seemingly in the 3rd and 4th quarters (especially on the defensive end, as chronicled in some lackluster help defense in the video above), Smart Gilas played with all out effort and reckless abandon throughout the game. The bench demonstrated this soundly, as I thought Abueva, who struggled with fouls and missed free throws, left it all out on the floor in admirable fashion. The heart and effort of Smart Gilas, especially the bench kept them in the game, even if their offensive and defensive execution certainly didn’t.
  • The biggest disappointment about this game was the lackluster performances from Jayson Castro and Terrence Romeo. I had been big fans of both of them in this tournament, as Castro was obviously the main piston to Smart Gilas’ dribble drive offense, and I felt Romeo was a young, heir apparent to Castron in many ways due to their ability to score and create offensively. Though Romeo is still green in terms of senior national team competition and still has to work in creating offense for others (he’s still too “ball dominant”), he has demonstrated a streaky and entertaining style of play that complements Smart Gilas’ team well. (On Twitter I likened him to those 90’s “shooting guards” in “point guard” bodies like Steve Francis, Allen Iverson and Gilbert Arenas). Unfortunately, they both struggled immensely both on the offensive and defensive end, as Coach Nick pointed out soundly above. I thought the main advantage Smart Gilas had in that game was at the guard position, as I thought Smart Gilas sported a much better arsenal at guard going into the final than China. However, that was far from the case, as not only did Castro and Romeo struggle, but Guo Ailun also broke out with a sterling performance that opened up the post for China, their main plan of attack. Castro was a big part of Smart Gilas’ win over Iran, as he dropped 42 points and seemed unwilling to be contained or stopped. Unfortunately, that performance didn’t repeat against China, and Smart Gilas struggled to stay in the game without his influence on the court.

Like I said on twitter earlier, Smart Gilas will still be playing in the Olympic Qualifying tournament next year, which is better than nothing and still gives them an outside shot at earning an at-large berth (and getting a silver in a FIBA area that is rising in terms of competition is nothing to slouch at; especially considering South Korea, which was one of the hottest teams in Asia the past couple of years failed to medal and will not be playing in the qualifying tournament). But, Smart Gilas will have their hands full, as they will play a difficult field which includes a multi-talented and young Canada team (which I think will be a dark horse in that tournament if they return everyone and get Tristan Thompson, who didn’t play in the FIBA Americas tournament) as well as European powers such as France and Greece. As stated before by Coach Nick in the video, Smart Gilas will always be outmatched in terms of size and athleticism, so it is important that they are sound in their fundamentals and gameplan if they want to earn a spot in the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016.

It’ll be interesting to see if that can happen. Tab Baldwin will have a full year with the team, and he has pulled success stories before in New Zealand, Lebanon and Jordan. If Smart Gilas can make the Rio field, then without a doubt, that will be the magnus opus of Baldwin’s coaching career thus far.

Let’s see what can happen in a year for Smart Gilas. In the meantime, as I said before, congrats to China. They are a talented and young team, and could be a dark horse in the Olympics with the right draw. With talented posts like Yi and Zhou Qi, they will be a handful for anyone, let alone the basketball global powers.

The Veteran Squad and the New Coach: Can Smart Gilas’ Experienced Squad Mesh with New Head Coach Tab Baldwin?

The pressure is on new head coach Tab Baldwin (right) to help Smart Gilas Pilipinas show well in the FIBA Asia championship.

There are a lot of stories dominating the landscape at the FIBA Asia championship from September 23-October 3, especially with an Olympics berth on the line.

As the FIBA Asia enters the second round, I am writing a two-piece post examining two squads that I find the most interesting in this tournament: China and the Philippines. These two teams in my mind have the most at stake this tournament, especially considering they have gone through some ups and downs the past few years in terms of International success.

In this post, I am going to take a look at Smart Gilas Pilipinas (the team name for the Filipino Men’s National Team), their experienced roster, and how they will fare in new head coach Tab Baldwin’s first international competition as Gilas head coach.

You can also find the previous post on China, Yi Jianlian and Zhou Qi here.

Jayson Castro (7, white) is one of the key veterans for this Gilas squad at the FIBA Asia.

Smart Gilas is coming off one of their best stretches in international team play history, and yet, there still are a lot of questions lingering with this squad. In 2013, in front of Filipino fans in Manila, Gilas finished 2nd in the FIBA Asia tournament, which qualified them for their first FIBA World Championship (now FIBA World Cup) since 1978. Though they failed to advance to the second round in the FIBA World Cup in 2014, they did win their first game in almost 40 years, as they beat Senegal 81-79 and put up sterling efforts in losses against established programs such as Croatia (81-78 in OT), Argentina (85-81) and Puerto Rico (77-73). Though the 1-4 record wasn’t ideal, it was obvious that Gilas had gained some necessary international experience on the big stage that would help the national team going forward.

Unfortunately, things fell apart for Gilas in the 2014 Asian Games, as the squad, without Andray Blatche (who didn’t qualify for the Asian Games due to naturalization issues, which were different for those games from normal FIBA ones), finished a disappointing 7th. The team went 1-2 in group play, with a disappointing 95-93 loss to Korea, and a huge 77-68 upset to Qatar, ranked 48th in the FIBA world rankings. The underwhelming performance, as well as issues with personality and player rotations resulted in long-time national team coach Chot Reyes being forced out and replaced with Tab Baldwin.

Baldwin is not totally unfamiliar with the national team, as he served as a consultant recently to Reyes and Gilas. However, he has a plethora of coaching experience at the international level, as he coached New Zealand (which is his national background, as well as American) from 2001-2006 and helped the “Tall Blacks” qualify for the FIBA World Championship in 2002. After his tenure as coach of New Zealand, he also had stints with Lebanon and Jordan, helping rebuild and raise the respectability of those programs to where they are today (Lebanon is ranked 34th and Jordan is ranked 29th).

But, while Baldwin did fantastic jobs with New Zealand, Lebanon and Jordan, his tenure with Gilas is unlike anything he’s ever coached. He hasn’t coached a national squad whose fans are as basketball-crazy as the Philippines. He hasn’t dealt with an organizational structure that has been its own worst enemy for decades (the Philippines have been suspended by FIBA from international play 3 separate times since the 1970’s). Baldwin certainly has the coaching acumen and chops to help Gilas become a power in Asia up there with China and Iran. But, the same could have been said of Reyes, who ended up being forced out after a successful stretch due to one shoddy performance in the Asian games.

Coming into the tournament as one of the favorites, Baldwin’s tenure started disastrously as Gilas was upset by Palestine 75-73, who just recently resurrected their national team basketball program, was unranked by FIBA and was playing in their first FIBA Asia tournament in history. Gilas played a sloppy game, marred by unforced turnovers, missed open shots (including a lot of missed bunnies, i.e. layups), and a lack of rhythm on the offensive and defensive end. Little known Jamal Abu Shamala scored 26 points, had 15 rebounds and an efficiency rating of 29, thus displaying Gilas’ lack of tenacity and urgency on the defensive end. If you look at the highlights below, it is obvious that Gilas at times coasted a bit too much, and that resulted in Palestine not only hanging around, but seizing enough opportunities for the upset victory.

While Gilas certainly could have packed it in after such a humiliating loss, Baldwin has rallied his veteran squad to win 3 straight games, as they beat Hong Kong (101-50) and Kuwait (110-64) by impressive margins, and beat Japan 73-66 in their first second round game late last night/early this morning. The team was led by Blatche who scored 18 points and nabbed 10 rebounds despite dealing with a nagging ankle injury he suffered early in the Japanese game. Also, youngster Terrence Romeo had a solid game with 12 points and two steals, giving Filipino fans hope in the future of their program, which is undoubtedly Romeo.

Gilas has not changed much playing style-wise under Baldwin, as they still utilize the Dribble Drive offense to great extent and rely on their speed and quickness on both the offensive and defensive end. Gilas is at their best in transition, especially off live ball turnovers, especially with quick guards and wings such as long-time national team members Jayson Castro and Gabriel Norwood, and newer members like Romeo and Matthew Ganuelas. Even in their loss against Palestine, when Gilas was in transition, they looked like one of the best teams in the tournament.  When things slowed down, and they were forced to create offense in the half court, they tended to struggle and be wildly inconsistent.

Unlike China, which is extremely young, this Gilas team is a more veteran squad, as they have an average age of 31 and have only two members of the team 25 and under (Ganuelas and Romeo). Thus, the emphasis with this squad is “win now”. That is especially evident with the inclusion of naturalized citizen Blatche, whose inclusion on the team has sparked a lot debate on the presence of naturalized citizens who have little to no apparent connections to the countries they represent. If you haven’t read it already, take a retrospective look at this piece by Grantland’s Rafe Bartholomew, the author of “Pacific Rims” and a leading authority on Filipino basketball. It definitely gives some perspective on why Blatche is not only on the Filipino team, but how he has adjusted to not just the team, but the culture of the Philippines as well. It may change your view on Blatche or other naturalized players playing in FIBA international competitions (Jerome Randle of Chicago did this with Ukraine in this recent Eurobasket). It may not. At the very least, it will give you more information and perspective on the process.

Gilas will need a strong, and refined, performance from Andray Blatche to win the FIBA Asia championship and qualify for their first Olympics since 1972.

But back to Blatche, he as well as other veterans such as Castro, Norwood and forward Jean Marc Pingris are essential to Gilas’ chances at this FIBA Asia championship. Blatche especially shoulders a majority of the burden, as Gilas has struggled against teams in the past with bigger, more natural post players before Blatche arrived. In the FIBA Asia championship game in 2013, Iran bullied Gilas thanks to former NBA player Hamed Haddadi. That being said, Gilas did not have Blatche then, and now, Gilas has that weapon in the post to go head to head with Iran’s best player. It definitely makes their game on Monday night one worth watching, just for that Blatche-Haddadi matchup alone.

If Baldwin can do anything to improve this Gilas squad, it may center on utilizing the talents of his players within Gilas’ system, and preventing them from playing out of control. This veteran squad has many players who have been playing professional ball for a long time, and playing international competition is a whole lot different due to so many different talents needing to mesh together in such a limited amount of time. Many of the players play together or against one another in the PBA (Philippines Basketball Association), so they are used to the Dribble Drive style that is primarily played in the PBA (though the Triangle is utilized a lot, thanks to successful PBA coach Tim Cone). However, for some, Blatche especially, since he plays professionally in China, this adjustment can be a process.

How Baldwin handles and manages this issue will be key, primarily with Blatche. Even early on this tournament, it seems like Blatche can be a “ball-killer” on offense, preferring to play at the top of the arc rather than down in the block (which is something he’s always had a problem with, especially in the NBA with Washington and Brooklyn) and go 1-on-1 with his head down and not seeing the open wings sitting in the corners for the 3-point shot. Blatche is multi-talented, and when he’s on, he is probably one of the best players in the FIBA Asia player pool. But when he’s off, he can be a high-usage rate killer that can easily sink teams and squander leads, as was the case time to time in their loss against Palestine.

Gilas needs Blatche to be successful. There is no downplaying that. But, Gilas as a whole is better when they’re penetrating to the rim, kicking out to open shooters for three’s or finishing for layups. Watching players like Castro is so enjoyable to watch because he fits in the Dribble Drive so seamlessly, as he is able to time and time again on the drive finish at the rime gracefully or easily find his teammates beyond the arc for open shots. If you watch these highlights against Kuwait, this is Filipino basketball in a nutshell: fast-paced, shooting three’s, and aggressive play on both ends.

Blatche can fit in this, and he has fit in it before. But when he tries to do too much, tries to dribble too much, tries to play 1 on 1 too much and settles for lackluster mid-range shots, he is limiting himself as a player and limiting Gilas’ chances at being consistently successful. That is Baldwin’s challenge as Gilas coach, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can figure out this challenge as Gilas progresses further and faces tougher competition deeper in the tournament (starting with Iran).

There is no doubt this Gilas team is arguably one of the best in the country’s history. And after playing in the FIBA World Cup in 2014, it would be a tremendous boost for the country to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, which the Philippines has not qualified for since the 1972 games in Munich. Gilas has the experienced horses in place, and Baldwin has done a tremendous job with this team after their early set-back against Palestine. However, playing their style of play against Hong Kong and Kuwait is one thing, doing it against Iran, China and Korea is another. If Baldwin can get Gilas to play their style and play it efficiently against Asia’s powers, then it is strongly possible that the Philippines will break their long-time Olympic drought much like they broke their FIBA World Championship drought in the last FIBA Asia in 2013.

The Superstar and the Phenom: How Yi Zianlian and Zhou Qi are Key to China’s Chances at the FIBA Asia

Yi Jianlian (red, left) and Zhou Qi (red, 15) are two players that the Chinese national team will rely on in their quest for a FIBA Asia title.

There are a lot of stories dominating the landscape at the FIBA Asia championship from September 23-October 3, especially with an Olympics berth on the line.

As the FIBA Asia enters the second round, I am writing a two-piece post examining two squads that I find the most interesting in this tournament: China and the Philippines. These two teams in my mind have the most at stake this tournament, especially considering they have gone through some ups and downs the past few years in terms of International success.

In this post, I am going to take a look at China and their two stars: Yi Jianlian and Zhou Qi.

China is ranked no. 14 in the FIBA World Rankings and has a long-standing history as one of the more dominant nations in Asian basketball as they won 14 out 16 FIBA Asia championships from 1975 to 2005. However, they haven’t been on the Global radar the past few years, especially following the retirement of Yao Ming. After winning the 2011 FIBA Asia championship, the Chinese team finished a disappointing 12th in the 2012 Olympics, and then under-delivered in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship finishing 5th, their second worst finish in their history of participating in the tournament (they finished 10th in 2007). Because of their lackluster finish, China missed out in last year’s FIBA World Cup, only the 2nd time they did so since they started participating in the FIBA World Championship (now World Cup) with the other being 1998 in Greece.

China has struggled against other global powers in the past, as the highest they have ever finished in Olympic or FIBA World competition was 8th. That being said, their grasp over Asia has never been questioned until lately, especially with the rise of programs such as Iran (17), South Korea (28), Jordan (29) and the Philippines (31). To the Chinese’s benefit, they will be hosting this year’s FIBA Asia championship, and the home court advantage has seemed to benefit the home country teams, as the Philippines used the raucous crowds to earn a silver medal finish in 2013 (helping them qualify for their first FIBA World Championship since 1978), and the Chinese finished first in 2011 when the Asia Championship was in Wuhan, China. Iran may be a more accomplished team right now considering they are the reigning Asia Championship winners, and Korea may be one of the trendier teams to pick, as they did win the Asia Cup last year. However, one has to believe, with an Olympics berth on the line, that China will see this tournament as a “must-win” and thus, be considered the favorites.

If China is going to win this year’s Asia championship, they are going to need strong performances from their post players, specifically long-time, but controversial star Yi Jianlian and 19-year-old phenom Zhou Qi. The Chinese team has some athletes, speed and can surprise people with their shooting, especially thanks to young guards like Guo Ailun and Zhou Peng, who have demonstrated a strong ability to create offense and shoot beyond the arc early in this tournament. But China’s real strength is in their length, as they sport four 7-footers on their roster. If China wants to get back to the Olympics and reclaim their dominance in the Asian basketball scene, they will have to own the post and glass offensively and defensively.

The most crucial 7-footer of the bunch has to be Yi Jianlian. Now 27-years-old, Yi is the vet of this Chinese squad that’s average age is 24 years old. Considering Yi played with some of the best Chinese players in the past like Yao and Wang ZhiZhi, guys who played and succeeded in the NBA, it is time Yi exerts an Alpha Dog status on this Chinese team and carry them to success. Yi has a bit of a controversial status with mainstream fans, as he was the No. 6 pick overall in the NBA draft, but didn’t have much of an impact on the Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets, Washington Wizards or Dallas Mavericks in his 5 year NBA career. Despite his disappointing American tenure, he has bounced back as a superstar-type player in the Chinese Basketball Association, as he averaged 27.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg on 57.5 percent shooting in 45 games in 2014-2015 for the Guangdong Tigers, and he averaged 23.5 ppg and 12.5 rpg during Guangdong’s championship season in 2012-2013. Yes, he may not have been the transcendent international superstar that Yao was, but Yi has proven that he can be a highly-productive talent, especially in China.

And that is most important right now to Chinese basketball fans. Sure, he doesn’t have the global attraction of Yao, but he certainly has the potential to be the leader this young Chinese team needs in this Asia Championship and hopefully, the Olympics in 2016. Yi’s game has blossomed a bit, as he has become more physical on the glass, something he struggled to do in the NBA (he was routinely pushed out by more physical posts). However, where he excels the most is in the mid-range. While it may not be the most “efficient” way to play, it is obvious that Yi proves to be an exception to that rule. Yi sports a great and accurate jumper that he uses with regularity, which makes him a dangerous offensive threat. Bigger posts who sag will be victim to his mid-range jumper, while smaller posts and switches will get posted up and dominated around the rack.

Yi does show a tendency to struggle and be inconsistent against bigger posts (his match up with Iran’s Hamed Haddadi and the Philippines’ Andray Blatche will be interesting to follow), and sometimes he can be taken out of games when he’s doubled (as was this case in the first-half of the China-Korea game where the Koreans put up an early lead and neutralized the Chinese by throwing frequent double teams at Yi and keeping him away from the block). That being said, not many Asian squads have been able to have much lasting impact defensively against Yi’s offensive arsenal so far in this tournament, as he is averaging 19.3 ppg, 11.0 rpg on 55% shooting in 25.8 MPG through China’s first three games (which they are 3-0). If China wants to continue to do well in this tournament, and make their run to a championship, Yi has to continue his dominance and efficiency (he’s the leader in efficiency rating for China at 23) throughout the second round and beyond.

If people are looking for the next great Chinese “superstar” in the Yao mold, then simply look at the clip above. While Yi certainly was critical to China’s 76-73 comeback win over Korea, it was 19-year-old Zhou Qi’s 21 point, 8 rebound performance that proved to be the X-factor in the comeback win, which the Chinese were down as much as 18 late in the 3rd quarter.

While Yi tends to focus more offensively on the mid-range, Qi is more active around the rim, as he is known for high energy on the offensive and defensive end. As a 19-year-old rookie in the CBA with the Xinjiang Tigers, Qi led the CBA in blocks, and in one under-16 game in 2011, he recorded a triple double that involved a stat line of 41 points, 28 rebounds and 13 blocks. If Yi’s game can be compared to LeMarcus Aldridge’s, then Qi’s can be compared to Rudy Gobert, in which Qi is a more traditional post player skills and impact-wise.

Qi is already bit of a global sensation, as he made his ways in the FIBA developmental division as a teenager, and participated in the Nike Hoop Summit last year, making him a well-known quantity in basketball circles beyond China and Asia. Andrew Crawford wrote a fantastic piece for Vice Sports (which is an underrated site for sports reporting, as well as general journalism) and talked about the pressure Qi faces in his homeland being China’s “next big thing,” as evidenced in this quote below:

But perhaps the biggest hurdle for Zhou will be how he copes with being China’s consensus Next Big Thing. Zhou’s countrymen passionately consume the NBA, and in the void that followed Yao Ming’s retirement, there remains a nationwide obsession with seeing a Chinese player back at the highest level of basketball. For the next couple of years, Zhou is going to have to live with every good performance being proof that he belongs in the NBA, and every off night becoming a cause for widespread concern. The pressure to be as good as a billion people want him to be will weigh on Zhou, as of course it would.

While this is certainly pointing to Qi’s progression in the CBA and perhaps making the NBA, it is also a microcosm of what is expected from Qi in this FIBA Asia championship: if he is supposed to be the star everyone expects him to be, this Asia championship needs to be his coming out party, especially in his home country and an Olympic-berth on the line.

So far, Qi is living up to the expectations despite the pressures from the media and his home country fans. Though he hasn’t had the kind of impact on the glass as one would want or expect from a critical post player (he is only averaging 4 rebounds per game), he is second on the team in efficiency rating (14.7) and scoring (13.3) and he does lead the team in blocks with 1.3 per game.

I don’t think anybody is saying that Qi is the center piece of this team (that falls on Yi). But, Qi cannot underwhelm if the Chinese want to win the Asia Championship. So far, he’s overwhelmed. Let’s see though if he can continue that in the second round.