FIBA Basketball World Cup results explained: Q & A with Ira Jacobs & Allon Bross

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - SEPTEMBER 08: RJ Barrett #9 of Canada drives to the basket against Dejan Davidovac #27 of Serbia in the fourth quarter during the FIBA Basketball World Cup semifinal game at Mall of Asia Arena on September 08, 2023 in Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)

Despite being the overwhelming favorite to win the FIBA Basketball World Cup, Team USA suffered a shock loss in the semifinals against Germany on Friday. Germany went on to defeat Serbia, who earlier in the championship knocked out Team Canada for a spot in the World Cup final. 

We asked basketball aficionados Ira Jacobs and Allon Bross for their insights into the North Americans’ loss to their European sporting foes, what decided the matches, and important takeaways for future championships.

Jacobs is a professor of exercise physiology and former dean in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (KPE), and director of the University of Toronto Tanenbaum Institute for Science in Sport (TISS). He is also a former player with international youth coaching experience.  

Bross is a long-time friend of KPE, supporter of the men’s and women’s Varsity Blues basketball teams, with previous engagement as an advisor to Basketball Canada and many years of experience as a former player and well-respected coach. As a volunteer, he is the chair of the U of T Varsity Blues Basketball Excellence committee. 

What do you make of Team USA’s and Team Canada’s results at the FIBA World Cup? 

It’s certainly not a shock for those that follow international men’s basketball. To provide some perspective it was the 1994 FIBA World Championship hosted in Canada that was the first FIBA World Championship tournament open to current US NBA players who also played in official NBA regular season games. The USA won that championship. 

Including 1994, the USA has only won three of the past seven FIBA World Cups: 2019 Spain; 2014 USA, 2010 USA, 2006 Spain, 2002 Yugoslavia, 1998 Yugoslavia, 1994 USA.

In the same time period, there have been seven Olympic Games and the USA men’s basketball team won the gold medal in all but one of those games - 2004 Games in Athens when Argentina won the gold. 

How do you explain Team Canada’s loss to Serbia and Team USA’s loss to Germany, and prior to that Lithuania, despite having far more NBA superstars on their teams?

It’s a myth to think that the best NBA players are all Americans. Many if not most of the teams that qualified for the recent FIBA World Cup have players that play or have played in the NBA, and/or played in the NCAA when they were university students, and/or were drafted by NBA teams but decided to play in Europe. European basketball in particular has developed tremendously over the last couple of decades and in our opinion the level of play and coaching is among the best one can find anywhere. And there have been many Americans and Canadian players and coaches, for example our current and former national men’s team coaches, who have been part of that development. 

Aside from playing better at the right moments, what else do you think helped the Europeans prevail against objectively stronger North American teams?

The North American framework for elite player development was fundamentally dependent on those relatively few players who played on school/university teams early in their elite development. In contrast, in the rest of the world, and particularly in Europe, there were traditionally sports clubs that have developmental pathways for athletes that start when the athlete is a child.  Moreover, the pathway has tiers of competitive levels at each stage so that children can be part of recreational leagues and/or migrate to a more highly competitive level throughout their development.  This framework provides a much larger pool of potential high-performance athletes for all sports, basketball included. So it’s no wonder that each year saw more and more Europeans entering the NBA draft and/or being recruited to play professionally in their own country or somewhere else in the world. More recently, North America has learned from that European model and the importance of technical training for athlete development starting at young ages. The fact remains that we are still catching up to a longer history in Europe of such development. 

Did team mentality play a role? 

While being cautious about generalizing, it’s tempting to classify the North American style of play as being more a function of individual player athleticism, while the European style is more focused on technical skills, team concepts and ball movement. The European teams that came first and second in this most recent iteration of the FIBA World Cup were simply the better teams. While all four teams in the semi-finals had excellent individual players, both Serbia and Germany had a deeper history of playing together as a team than Canada and the USA. So, when players ran into foul troubles, the European teams were able to substitute with players already very familiar with playing together.

Also, a big advantage in Europe is the ability of national teams to be able to play together as a team for many years. Challenges for North American professionals involve contract renewal clauses, injury recovery protocols, and permissions from the NBA teams to make such long-term commitments to national team programs. Players seem prepared to make a longer-term commitment to playing for their country, and to “show up” when called upon to do so in Europe. It is only very recently that the Canadian national team, for example, requested a three-year commitment from the pool of players who aspired to play for the national team. The geography helps in Europe and players can come to training camps more frequently and more easily. In general and compared to American and Canadian national teams, European teams’ players know each other well, have played together as a team for many years and are passionate about playing on a national team when asked to do so.