Well, that was brutal.
Canada's hopes of qualifying for next summer's FIBA World Cup were died yesterday after a crushing 73-67 loss to Luis Scola and Argentina. Leading by nine midway through the third quarter, the Canadians fell apart down the stretch. They were unable to stop Scola, who scored 28 points, or generate decent looks on offence.
Let's not sugarcoat it: this result is like a punch to the gut to Canadian basketball fans everywhere, especially given how strong the team looked early on. Following an 89-67 win over Mexico on Sept. 5, Canada looked like a virtual shoo-in for one of the top four spots. Three consecutive close losses to Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Argentina eliminated Canada in the most agonizing way possible.
There will be a lot of talk about how Canada's lack of experience cost them. It was certainly a factor, but it can't be the only explanation. The reality is that Canada had more than enough talent to qualify and simply didn't play well enough in three critical games.
This will be hard to accept for Jay Triano, Steve Nash and everyone associated with Canada Basketball. Next summer's World Cup would have given Canada a great opportunity to announce itself on the world stage as a rising power. Now Canada will hope to snare one of the four wildcard berths, awarded by FIBA in December. (By all accounts, having lots of money and political clout with FIBA helps to secure one of those spots. Safe to say it's an uncertain outlook for Canada.) If they don't get one of those four bids it will be a wasted summer for a team that hoped to use next year as a springboard for future success.
It's also important for fans to realize that, while Canada probably should have qualified, nothing is guaranteed in international basketball. Bringing the most NBA players and having the most talent doesn't guarantee success; just look at the abomination that was the 2004 U.S. Olympic team. The international game is a different one - the rules, format and style of play are all unique, and playing a one-game elimination style almost guarantees unpredictability.
Let's take a look at Canada's performance in Venezuela, beginning with the things that Canadian fans should be excited about.
If there's one spot where Canada looks great now and going forward, it's up front. Tristan Thompson and Andrew Nicholson complemented each other like grilled cheese and tomato soup, with Nicholson providing a deft scoring touch and Thompson dominating on the glass. Neither was perfect; Thompson had a tough time finishing around the rim and Nicholson battled both foul trouble and his own emotions.
The reserves, led by veterans Levon Kendall and Joel Anthony, also played well. Kendall did a little bit of everything while Anthony provided his usual stellar defence and shotblocking. Both will likely be swapped out for younger talent over the next couple of years, but they should be saluted for sticking with Canada Basketball through some very lean years.
Looking ahead, it's hard not to be excited about the frontcourt. Nicholson (23) and Thompson (22) are both young and should be fixtures on the national team for the next decade. They will soon be joined by 2013 draft picks Anthony Bennett and Kelly Olynyk to create a frontcourt rotation that should be one of the best in the world.
Also keep an eye on high school senior Trey Lyles, a power forward who dominated at the U19 World Champions in the Czech Republic this summer. Lyles is eligible for the 2015 NBA Draft and could be a factor come 2016.
Fresh off an appearance in the NBA Finals with the San Antonio Spurs, Joseph put in an impressive performance at his first competition with the senior team. He started extremely well, punctuated by a 28-point, 9-rebound, 4-assist performance against Brazil in round robin play. Throughout the tournament the 22-year-old showed an ability to both get to the rim and shoot from distance while playing with a high degree of poise. He also rebounded extremely well and, absent a six turnover game against the Dominican Republic, took care of the ball.
Unfortunately Joseph's play tailed off over the last few, most critical games. It's hard to say why, but one of the reasons might have been the heavy workload. Canada played eight games in nine days and Joseph averaged more than 32 minutes a game. It wasn't ideal, but it was necessary because of...
Backup point guard
Triano really had no options other than working Joseph into the ground. The presumed backup was national team veteran Jermaine Anderson, but it's pretty clear that "Rock's" best days are behind him. Even in short stints it was obvious that the offence ground to a halt with Anderson at the helm. Junior Cadougan was the only other natural point guard on the roster and outside of a couple brief cameos, he got no time.
It got so bad that Triano opted for Brady Heslip at point guard during the last couple of games. That didn't work either, but it's hard to criticize the coach when the other options just aren't working.
Future hopes at the point guard position are pinned to Syracuse-bound Tyler Ennis, who led the aforementioned U19 World Championships in scoring this summer. Ennis is a potential one-and-done player at the college level and could provide the essential point guard depth that was so lacking in Caracas. The bottom line: if Ennis doesn't develop as expected, point guard could continue to be a thin spot for the Canadians.
As a fellow Carleton Raven, I have a soft spot for Aaron Doornekamp. Nevertheless, if he's your starting small forward and averaging 22 minutes a game, you're in trouble. Much like the backup point guard, Triano's decision to rely on Doornekamp was probably a matter of necessity, not choice. Doornekamp played as hard as anyone and did a lot of good things, but having him on offence was like playing four-on-five.
The vast majority of the wing minutes went to Doornekamp, Heslip and Andy Rautins, a group that offered almost no off-the-bounce creativity or individual scoring punch. Rautins and Heslip are shooters, but neither can create their own shot, a problem that became even more critical as the shots stopped falling. Rautins in particular picked a horrible time to go into a slump, shooting 14% (3-21) from behind the arc over those last three games.
Without any reliable scoring options on the wing, Canada's offence was overly dependent on scoring from Nicholson and Joseph, the only two players on the roster truly capable of creating their own chances.
Fortunately for Canada, Andrew Wiggins is coming. The phenom should fit in perfectly at the small forward spot and provide the scoring and one-on-one ability that was so lacking this summer. Until Wiggins is in uniform, however, the wing positions will remain an open question.
The worst part of what happened in Venezuela is that it screws up what should have been a natural progression, beginning with the 2014 World Cup and culminating at the 2020 Olympics when Canada's young core will be entering their primes and dreams of a podium finish should be entirely realistic. Yesterday's result doesn't ruin that plan by any means, but it does delay Canada's ascent in world basketball. This summer saw an unprecedented level of positive media coverage surrounding the men's national team; failing to qualify for the World Cup will probably spark some media angst.
Most importantly, though, it's a missed opportunity to gain valuable experience for a group of players who have barely played with each other. Next summer's World Cup would have been the first chance to see Canada's roster at close to full strength and to miss out on that is an unquestioned step back, for players and fans alike. It's been a long time since Canada has been a true contender at an international event and many fans were thrilled at the prospect of watching Wiggins, Bennett, Thompson, Nicholson, Joseph and Olynyk make their mark on the world stage. Two more years is a long time to wait to see that dream come true, but that's the harsh reality.
Speaking to reporters after the Argentina game, Triano cited his team's lack of experience as the deciding factor in the disappointing finish. That was part of it, but to ignore other factors will hide just how badly Canada stumbled. The only way to gain experience is to play in high profile games and tournaments; unfortunately for Canada, that likely won't happen again until Olympic qualifiers in the summer of 2015.
It's a disappointing step back for a program that seemed primed for nothing but success only a few short days ago. Canada will be back, and stronger than before, but the memories of Venezuela will sting for a long while to come.