October 17, 2013

2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup qualifying preview

In case you're living under a rock, FIBA had earlier announced that they will change the qualifying system for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup. Yes, including the new qualifying system, it'll be held five years from now. What does this mean for Gilas? Would this be easier or harder?

Up to now, the Olympics and FIBA World Cup are qualifiers of each other; they go in cycles. The Olympic champion qualifies to the World Cup, while World Cup champions qualify to the Olympics. The year before the Olympics and World Cup, continental championships, which double as qualifying tournaments, are held to determine which team is the continental champion, and which teams qualify to the Olympics or World Cup.

This has meant that unless you live at the host city, you won't be able to watch your team qualify. FIBA wants to change this so that national federations can host qualifying matches, which means they can earn money by ticket sales and TV rights, which they won't be able to do in the current format where only one federation exclusively reaps the profits (and expenses).

First the fun part: there would be seven berths for the combined FIBA Asia and Oceania zone (or Asia-Pacific) zone. Well, that doesn't really change much since Australia and New Zealand are joining in, so they'd be in the thick of things, but it does open a few berths or so which would otherwise be closed.

Second: qualifying games occur in "windows". This is similar to the FIFA World Cup system where there are slated days in a year reserved for qualifying matches: in those days, usually no matches are played in domestic leagues, if they are in-season. There'd be qualifying matches for two years in the middle of basketball season. In every "window", there are two matches, each team hosting one match and being hosted on another. That means players who really hate each other during the league season would have to patch up their differences if they're called up for the national team.

Third, there'd still be continental championships, but they'd be held every four years (from every 2 years currently), and these will become dead end tournaments, just like the Asian Games, for example. This means the extremely lucrative EuroBasket would take a hit since dead end tournaments aren't that popular in Europe as compared to Asia. They'd have the same qualifying system as in World Cup qualifying, only that they'd occur right after the World Cup.

Fourth, there'd still be Olympic qualifying tournaments in Olympic years. These supposedly won't be like World Cup qualifying that is spread upon in 2 years, but has the best team/s per each continent (7 in total) from the World Cup automatically qualifying to the Olympics, the 16 best teams from the World Cup irrespective of each continent, and 2 more teams from each zone that did not make it, all playing in one of four tournaments of six teams each for the 10 open spots, with the organizer and the defending World Cup champion getting a free pass.

Let's envision how this works. First, for World Cup qualifiers in Asia-Pacific (and for Africa and the Americas), there'd be 4 groups of 4 teams each, and the 3 best teams qualify, then two groups of six teams will be formed from the 12 advancing teams. This is just like the FIBA Asia Championship format, only that it takes longer: for the 1st round, there'd be 6 games per team, or three windows. On the next round, there'd be 6 more games per team, or 3 windows. There are also two "Divisions" with promotion and relegation. For Europe, there'd be 8 groups, with practically identical format.

Now since there are 7 qualifying teams, it looks like the top 3 teams from each group qualify, plus the fourth team in each group will figure in some sort of a playoff. Since it's home and away, that's two games or one window.

Let's imagine how the teams will be composed. Why not make up a theoretical 4 4-team tournaments? Let's have a "snake draft" format, where we'd base it on the final rankings of 2013 FIBA Oceania and Asia Championships. Note that these are usually drawn, so each "row" could be interpreted as a "pot" in a draw; in other words, those teams won't meet each other at least until the second round. Also, these are based in 2013 results, which is not necessarily the same with how the draw in 2017 will be made, which presumably be based on the results of the 2017 FIBA Asia and Oceania Championships.

Group AGroup BGroup CGroup D
AustraliaIranNew ZealandPhilippines
QatarChinaChinese TaipeiKorea
JordanKazakhstanJapanHong Kong
ThailandSaudi ArabiaBahrainIndia

There could also be "Division B" groupings, which would play for berths to Division A in the 2021 qualifiers.

In our theoretical group, the Philippines is grouped with Chinese Taipei, Japan and Bahrain. In November 2017, the Philippines will play India and Hong Kong. In February, the Philippines plays Korea and Hong Kong, then in June, the final window has Gilas playing India and Korea. Each pair is a home and a road game. By June 2017, the top 3 teams from Group D will meet the three best teams from any of the other groups. Let's say the top 3 in Group D are the Philippines, Korea and India, and that they will be grouped with the top 3 in Group A, let's say those are Australia, Qatar and Jordan.

So in the second round, the process repeats itself. Home and away (not necessarily in that order) for Qatar and Jordan in September 2018, Australia and Jordan in November, and Qatar and Australia on February 2019. The teams will be ranked, at the top 3 teams qualify outright. Now there's no window for a playoff for the fourth-placed teams, but they can do it on June 2019 to determine Asia-Pacific's last World Cup berth.

How does this change the dynamic? First, national teams will have home arenas now. That means players -- and fans -- will be able to play and watch, respectively, at home. While a long tournament generally exposes the host arena's peculiarities for all teams (example: "oooh, this sweet spot is good for taking threes!"), this won't be the case in this format, where a team only gets to play once every four years on a visitors' arena. Fans will get to develop some camaraderie with the national team, and they get to watch the national team at least three times every qualifying window.

Second, an injury to a player won't be as catastrophic. Sure, he could be out for the game, but he can be healed in time for the next game (which could be months away), or in case the injured player went down at the first match of the window, that player can be easily replaced by someone else in time for the next match. This gives premium on countries with deeper basketball talent. In fact, a coach can come up with a roster completely different from the previous game, but that could be detrimental.

Third, chemistry won't be as much as a factor. Warm-up games in continental championships, which are held in the off-season, are essentially held to build-up chemistry and familiarize oneself to plays. On windows held during the basketball season, team chemistry won't be that much of a factor, as teammates may have just finished fighting each other in a brawl a week before the match, or in the case where domestic leagues are weak but the national team is strong (mostly in Europe), players would have to fly in from different parts of the world in order to play.

Fourth, how's the NBA gonna be involved in all of this? Can you expect the Memphis Grizzlies allowing Spain to get the services of Pau Gasol in a game against Macedonia on short notice? Even FIBA states that:
If the NBA players don’t play, the level of the games will not be good...
Of course it would be desirable to have the NBA players always playing. However, there are many other good players. Furthermore, the qualification games would provide a new platform to grow new talents: it’s a great opportunity to develop new stars. Additionally, a national team is a brand which creates interest.
The reason why the FIFA system works is that there's no football league like the NBA which has a monopoly of best talent. The USA team can be composed of minor league (NBA D-League) players. There's supposedly no more wild card for the U.S. to fall on to. How does this affect the Philippines? In Asia, there are usually a couple of national teams (currently Iran and China, who knows in 2017) that has NBA players. If the Philippines gets to be drawn with these teams, it could be a lot easier to play. As Toroman said, the Philippines is one of the very few countries where basketball programs run deep. China, with its 1.5 billion people, doesn't have a deep program. Remember them losing to Team "A" Pilipinas in 2007?

Interestingly, the February window could fall in the All-Star Game, which could be a window for NBA players to play. This still leaves the November and June (if the team is playing in the NBA Finals) windows as inaccessible.

Fifth, you don't necessarily to face the strongest teams. If Gilas gets to perform really well in 2017, they could avoid facing Iran, China and Australia, as what was seen in this simulation. And even if Gilas were to face those teams, the worst case scenario is Gilas facing two of those instead of all, assuming that there are no upsets.

Finally, the PBA. Unlike the FIBA Asia Championship, which would need at least 2 months (and that's bad preparation) to prepare for, a single window of two games would need just a week at most to prepare for. Now if they're willing to sacrifice a week of play every November, February and June, that's 3 weeks of dead air instead of losing 3 months of the season due to preparations; they don't even have to lose a week if they're creative in scheduling.

This new qualifying format opens up a lot for the Philippines. Sure, those seven berths means three of those would be gobbled up by Australia, China and one among New Zealand or Iran, at current standards, but that would be much easier than the current one berth that are automatically gotten by Iran or China in Olympic qualifying or 2 of 3 berths gotten by both teams in World Cup qualifying. In this system, there are at least 3 "free-for-all" berths, up to six home games, shorter preparation, presumably easier schedules than the old format of almost no "free" berths, no home games (unless you host), months of preparation and tough teams.

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