NEW YORK—Omri Casspi will try to keep up with his Israeli teammates when they open qualifying for the 2019 Basketball World Cup this week.
That’s all he can do, because basketball’s best players are stuck on the sidelines in the new format.
“It’s kind of weird, obviously,” the Golden State forward said. “No NBA [National Basketball Association], no Euroleague playing in these qualifications. Kind of taking away from the fun of the game, in a sense.”
Fiba, basketball’s governing body, changed its qualification system starting this year so fans could see their national teams play at home. Instead of regional qualifying tournaments, teams will now play home-and-away games against regional rivals, similar to the system used by international soccer. The first window of games is at the end of this week, and the next comes in February.
The difference is that club teams can’t prevent players from competing for their national teams in soccer qualifiers, unless they have a documented injury. The NBA said from the start it wouldn’t release players to compete during its season, and while the Euroleague didn’t ban them, it also didn’t alter its schedule as Fiba hoped so players would be available this week.
That’s left European-based players caught in the middle, not wanting to disappoint their national teams or anger the ones that pay them.
“I think it’s a good idea to have these windows, so people can go, like soccer, in the middle of the year and see your national team at home,” longtime Spanish guard Jose Calderon said. “That’s the nice part. But to be able to do that, you’ve got to be able to get everybody on the same page so players can go play like in soccer.
“What you cannot do is ask the player to do something when they really don’t know what to do. They’re being pulled from both sides.”
Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis said the change isn’t only tough on small countries like his native Latvia, which doesn’t have many top players, but also ones who have deeper fields.
“The big, big teams, they have a lot of NBA guys. They have a lot of Euroleague guys that can’t maybe, or they don’t want to risk with the injury and things like that,” Porzingis said. “So it’s not going to be the top-level competition, but it is what it is and I know the guys are going to play hard.”
NBA players would be able to play in the pair of two-game windows next summer, but their teams might already be behind. Casspi thinks Fiba will eventually change the format, but for now hopes his Israeli teammates can get by without him.
“It’ll be hard to see the guys going and battling without being there, but that’s part of the game,” he said.