The Canadian men's basketball team's Olympic fate is in its own hands. All it needs to do is win four games over a crucial week to clinch a spot at Tokyo 2020.
Canada Basketball worked tirelessly over the past few years to revitalize the program, bringing on Nick Nurse as head coach, increasing their recruitment efforts, and most of all, securing a winning bid as one of four hosts for the Olympic qualifying tournament. Canada will compete in a group that includes Greece, China, Uruguay, Czech Republic, and Turkey, with the winner securing a wild-card spot in the Olympics.
When Canada won the bid in 2019 to host the games in Victoria, B.C., the move was made with home-court advantage in mind. However, due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, it remains to be seen if fan attendance will be possible even in a limited capacity. But even without the added benefit of fans, this is still one of the most talented groups that Canada has summoned for men's basketball, and the expectation is nothing less than to win the tournament and to secure their first Olympic appearance since Sydney 2000.
Who is on the team?
This is hardly the dream roster that many had hoped for when Jamal Murray and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander pledged their attendance in 2019. Murray tore his ACL before the 2021 playoffs, Gilgeous-Alexander is still dealing with a torn plantar fascia, and several more key absences dot the roster for a variety of reasons from contractual uncertainty to personal reasons.
The main difference with this year's team is that Canada's talent pool is deeper, so even with significant absences there will still be eight NBAers and four accomplished international players making up the 12-man roster. This is not a repeat of the 2019 World Cup, where Khem Birch and Cory Joseph were the lone NBA players leading a group that was haphazardly brought together on the eve of the tournament.
The lineup breaks down as follows:
Guards: Cory Joseph, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Trae Bell-Haynes, Mychal Mulder
Wings: Luguentz Dort, Andrew Wiggins, R.J. Barrett, Aaron Doornekamp
Bigs: Dwight Powell, Trey Lyles, Anthony Bennett, Andrew Nicholson
The strength of Canada's roster is in the backcourt. Although this group is light on shooters, there is enough talent on the wing to generate consistent offense in both the starting and bench lineups. Expect plenty of dual-point guard looks with Joseph, Alexander-Walker, and Bell-Haynes sharing the floor, while Dort, Wiggins, and Barrett slot in at small forward and even occasional shifts at power forward.
The frontcourt is much lighter than expected after Kelly Olynyk, Tristan Thompson, Birch and others dropped out, but there is enough flexibility in skillsets among the existing group to play two at once if needed.
Canada's success will come down to Nurse's tactics. The roster isn't stacked, but there are enough pieces to give the bench boss options in how he wants to play. He can downsize rather easily with lineups that will have four creators on the floor at once, or he can bulk up with a bigger group that sees two bigs in the frontcourt, Wiggins at the three, Dort at the two, and his pick at point guard. In most cases, Nurse will look to prioritize defense, and there's a good bet that he will have prepared multiple schemes that include a variety of zone coverages to mask for his team's lack of size.
Despite boasting the most NBA talent, Canada (21) is middle of the pack in terms of FIBA rankings, trailing Greece (6), Czech Republic (12), and Turkey (15). But the rankings have little correlation with the actual quality of teams given that it's an aggregate figure that takes various tournaments into account which did not involve most of the players that will suit up for this year's Olympic run.
There are two teams that stand out as firm competitors: Greece and Turkey.
Greece is always a tough out because of its discipline and experience. Their roster lacks NBA players outside of Kostas Antetokounmpo, but that almost works to their advantage since their style is distinctively different. Instead of relying on individual performers, the Greeks manage to run three or four actions every trip down, headed up by their two point guard lineups, and they will apply constant pressure on Canada to defend as a group. They are also extremely physical at every position, and head coach Rick Pitino is not afraid to play small-ball.
Turkey is difficult for a number of reasons. Firstly, their roster stacks right up with Canada's in terms of NBA talent, with Cedi Osman, Ersan Ilyasova and Furkan Korkmaz all being established players. They are joined by former lottery pick Shane Larkin, who is one of the best guards in the Turkish League, and 18-year-old prospect Alperen Şengün who is projected to be a top-10 pick in the upcoming draft. Second, the Turkish team boasts a balanced attack, with a quick slasher in Larkin, knockdown shooters on the wing, and options to attack in the post.
What are the expectations?
Playing Greece right off the bat is not only essential for seeding, but it will also serve as a stiff test for where the Canadians are in their preparations. Unlike other teams, Canada was not able to set up exhibition games save for scrimmages, which means they will be jumping in without much familiarity and expected to produce immediately. This is also a younger group that is light on international experience, and the FIBA game is significantly different than the NBA both in rules and in style.
The expectations are to win the tournament and to qualify for the Olympics. There is no value in coming up second, and while this generation of Canadian players is still young, the program is long past the point of waiting. It has been a decade of expectations and hype for Canada since its players consistently started being drafted, and even though this is closer to a B-team than their very best, it will still be a huge disappointment should they fall short of an overdue return to the Olympics.
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