At the opening of training camp as the Canadian men’s national team began preparations for the FIBA Basketball World Cup, team general manager Rowan Barrett was asked about how excited he must be to finally have a full contingent — or nearly full, at least — of Canada’s top stars on hand and ready to play.
“Look, I always breathe easier when they’re on the court and I’ll feel better when we get on the plane going to Germany,” Barrett said on the opening day of training camp. “It’s good, knowing guys are committed, understanding each other, having seen each other, played with each other is good.”
Better? When they are in uniform, with the lights on, available when it matters.
Barrett’s note of caution proved warranted. Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray didn’t get on the national team’s chartered flight to Germany, where Canada played three exhibition games last week in advance of their World Cup opener against France on Aug. 25 in Jakarta.
That in itself wasn’t all that surprising, though it did give all concerned a significant pause. Both Murray and Barrett had signalled that the sharpshooter was on a different timetable than the rest of the team, as he was the only NBA player in camp to have played all the way into June. Everyone else was done by the first week of May.
Best case? Murray staying back in Canada for another week or 10 days was viewed as part of a plan to buy him more time to get his body and mind ready for competitive basketball.
The plan — or the hope — was that Murray would get on a plane early this week and join the team in Spain, where they are playing exhibition games against the home team and defending world champions on Thursday and the Dominican Republic on Friday, before heading to Indonesia.
While Canada was willing to be flexible with Murray’s timing, the parameters were clear: “If you’re going to play in Jakarta, you need to play at some point,” said Barrett.
Unfortunately for those hoping that this tournament will mark the moment Canada’s international achievements (on the men’s side) finally correspond with the volume and quality of the basketball players that carry a Canadian passport, Murray made the decision Wednesday to not get on a plane at all.
Rather than join the team in Spain, he announced he will be sitting out the World Cup entirely:
“When I came into training camp, I wanted to see how my body would respond after a long and demanding season and if I would be physically able to compete at the highest level required for the World Cup,” Murray said in a statement released by Canada Basketball.
“In consultation with medical staff and the team, it is clear that additional recovery is required, and I have made the difficult decision to not participate in the tournament,” he added. “It’s still a dream of mine to represent Canada at the Olympics, and I will support the team every step of the way as they pursue this goal.”
Murray is not the only major star who is sitting out. His Nuggets teammate Nikola Jokic won’t be playing for Serbia, citing fatigue after Denver’s long playoff run. Giannis Antetokounmpo is out for Greece, Domantas Sabonis for Lithuania, Kristaps Porzingis for Latvia, and Viktor Wembanyama for France. The United States is sending a deep, talented roster, but one that is light on veteran ‘A-listers.’ Spain is without Ricky Rubio.
And Canada’s Andrew Wiggins, don’t forget, decided last year that three years of summer basketball — ideally concluding next year at the Olympics — was too much for him to commit to when he declined to be part of the so-called ‘Summer Core.
The fact will forever remain that expecting NBA players to navigate an 82-game regular season and playoffs and always be available for six weeks of unpaid work in the summers is a recipe for disappointment. For players on teams who have been off work since April 10, it’s perhaps more reasonable. Of the six NBA players on Canada’s roster, only RJ Barrett and Nickeil Alexander-Walker were on teams that made the post-season, and only Barrett’s Knicks made it to the second round. But even with a long-ish off-season, the World Cup still means being in peak competitive shape five weeks before training camp opens, not to mention 40 hours of travel.
So no shade on Murray here. He’s only a season removed from missing an entire year due to an ACL injury. The Nuggets, who are paying him hundreds of millions of dollars, need him at full strength and focused on defending their title.
Could he and Canada Basketball have been clearer about the likelihood of him playing in the build up? Perhaps. Something like “Murray hopes to play, but we just can’t be sure until closer to the event” would have kept expectations in check, compared with message that seemed to make him playing a more likely scenario than not.
At least that way Murray playing would have been a welcome surprise, compared with the disappointment that the news he’s not brings instead.
But in the grand scheme, that’s just a PR strategy. The reality is Murray certainly seemed like he wanted to play. All indications heading into training camp were that he was going to play; he had FIBA basketballs sent to his home in Kitchener so he could start shooting with them in advance of training camp. But in the end, the safer route was deemed the wise option. Given that Murray, had he played, would be looking at a stretch where he played the 2022-23 NBA season (and playoffs), World Cup, 23/24 NBA season (and playoffs) and Olympics all in the space of 22 months, it’s probably the smart choice.
It’s still disappointing though. There’s no avoiding the fact that it’s a huge blow to Canada’s prospects at the tournament. Murray would be the team’s most lethal shooter and an elite closer who, when paired with Oklahoma City Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, would have arguably given Canada the tournament’s best backcourt and best 1-2 scoring punch.
Without Murray on the floor teams, can more easily shift their defensive focus and overload to force the ball out of Gilgeous-Alexander’s hands and take their chances on the likes of Barrett, Dillon Brooks, Lu Dort, Kelly Olynyk, or Alexander-Walker beating them.
They’re all capable, mind you, but it’s a far safer bet than having to give equal attention to Murray and Gilgeous-Alexander in the same possession down the stretch of close games.
Some context here, however:
While so often the focus on the senior men’s team has been on who isn’t playing, it’s worth noting again that this remains the deepest and most talented squad Canada’s ever had at a major competition. Gilgeous-Alexander, fresh off a first-team NBA season, might be the best player in the tournament not named Luka Doncic, and that could change over the course of two weeks.
Head coach Jordi Fernandez has a total of six current NBA players on is roster and solid group of European-league veterans to mix in with them for various lineups.
Winning a medal will be that much more difficult without Murray, but the primary goal of qualifying for the 2024 Olympics by finishing first or second among the seven teams from the Americas in the 32-team World Cup field remains in reach.
Frankly, it could only be considered a failure if they don’t finish ahead of the likes of Puerto Rico, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Venezuela — this presuming that Team USA earns one of the two spots.
Source : Sport Net