With a few days left before Eurobasket 2017, the time is certainly right to take on a matter that has agitated the basketball community on a regular basis —what the hell are those summer national team friendly games about? The problem is well known: players have very long club seasons that last from late-September to mid-June. Then in mid-July they have to answer the nation’s call and start preparing again for the next international tournament. Unsurprisingly, they look exhausted. This preparation is usually made-up of eight to ten games played during the month of August, in front of casual audiences and inside various types of arenas. From these games, the general public remembers almost nothing — the matches are a way to work on systems and collective automatisms; try coaching ideas; give every player a chance not to be the last cut before the real tournament. Last but not least, you can get fitter if you are Boris Diaw. For the basketball fan, those games are about filling your need for live action during a dead period. They also give an opportunity to preview as much as possible what the next tournament will turn into (think about the ugly games played by France between their OQT and the Olympics in 2016…). You also get a chance to watch prospects play on a slightly bigger stage than youth tournaments. That’s about it. So the question is, is it really worth it? The following case study is based on the experiment of watching Italy, Belgium, Montenegro, and France duel in a 3-day friendly tournament in my hometown of Toulouse. I happened to be in attendance only for days 2 and 3.
Well, obviously, the main upside of it all is that it’s national team sports and, as they say, the national team belongs to the people. Belonging to the people when playing an important tournament (and soon a qualifying series) in a foreign country is one thing, but belonging via these “public service” games that make the best basketball a country has to offer available to almost anyone is different. (At least if, in the case of France, you’re patient enough to wait 2 or 3 years for the national team to come play live in your region). To be honest, as sickened as I was by the Llull injury, and as aware as I am about the exhaustion of some of these guys, nothing replaces seeing Boris Diaw create havoc in stands full of happy-as-ever kids asking for an autograph or a picture in a tinier-than-usual arena. Yeah, friendly games seem stupid on a number of levels…but also they make people happy — especially when your girlfriend needs to find her next favorite-player-she-has-seen-play-live to follow for next season (this season: Bojan Dubljević). This shouldn’t be overlooked. It may also help to build a basketball culture in countries where it is a work in progress, as suggested by the attendance figures in the Great Britain vs. Greece game played this summer. The fact that those games generate money for the basketball federations could be an upside too, as long as the question of how this money will end up being used isn’t too shady, to state things politely.
Regarding coaches and players, well … the upside is perhaps arguable. Workaholic staffs will probably like how they are given time to work, and work again (finally giving Vincent Collet time to formulate the idea of playing 3-guard lineups), and have players to, well, play . It’s obviously necessary to play a few of these games to create a collective feeling for players that meet only for one or two months a year, and comparing games played at the beginning of August with games played in the end of the same month serves as some proof of value. Well, except maybe for those Argentinean Golden Era™ teams that always knew each other. In fact, some players may also be happy to have these games to get back to competitive shape before the real tournament begins, especially if their club season ended sooner than expected.
On the other hand, the downside seems quite clear. Having players travel so much and play after only a month off (for those who had the toughest workload the season before) is borderline stupid. France has had its share of washed-out players coming back from the NBA; to the point that Tony Parker famously had adjusted preparations on a later timeline than all of his teammates. It’s no secret that games are simply dangerous in terms of injury risk, and also played in arenas of lower standards (think about playing in August in southern France without air conditioning). The level of play reflects it — seeing uninterested Italians getting their asses kicked by Belgium in front of a bored Ettore Messina certainly made my day, but not in the way I generally like basketball games to do so. The memories of an embarrassing Germany-France game played on a wet floor (!) in late-August 2015 comes back at you fast.
What to Do
First, don’t be stupid. The Toulouse tournament, like many others every summer, was a three days, four teams, three games each format, which really isn’t kind to tired bodies. Back-to-back-to-back, even if the benches were mostly opened and playing times regulated, seems like pure nonsense. That simply shouldn’t exist.
Second, make it at least two months between the last game of the season and the first national team friendly (and also draft a reasonable number of days between the end of the season and the first national team meeting and training). It may sound like an arbitrary number but whatever — Sergio Llull got injured on the 10th of August while his season finished the 16th of June. Let’s not pretend those 6 days would have changed anything, but it would be a starting point for negotiating something more player-friendly. If the federations know the stars of their teams won’t be available until a certain date, that will push them toward some kind of adjustment, hopefully.
Third and last, stop being stupid (again) and have FIBA, Euroleague, and the domestic leagues discuss the broader matter of competition schedules and make something intelligent come out of it (players, go on strike if this doesn’t happen). Well, this last one may be too optimistic.
In Related Basketball News:
- The Toulouse tournament was a nice occasion to see Vincent Poirier play against Euroleague-type centers — his performance against the Vučević–Dubljević frontcourt makes him an interesting candidate to perhaps be a surprisingly good Euroleague rookie. His style, which basically consists of being physical, may be his limit at the moment. With that said, his toughness and level of activity will certainly prove useful on a Baskonia team that gave both Voigtmann and Bargnani lots of minutes last year.
- National team August friendlies may be the strangest of scenes, but Jean Salumu looked like your typical highly demanded 3&D wing, especially against Marco Belinelli on Saturday. Suffocating defence, fighting through screens, good awareness, low risk but efficient offensive game (19 pts, 6 ast). After talking about leaving BC Oostende and the Belgian League in June, he opted to come back on a reported 5 (!) year deal. They’ll play in the Basketball Champions League next season.
- Ettore Messina doesn’t look interested at all in using Nicolo Melli’s passing ability. Not that anybody on this Italian team seems interested in using any passing skills, but as we have seen last season, letting him direct things from the high post can be an interesting option.
- As impressive as he may seem on defense (unleashing him on opposing point guards is just fun), Axel Toupane will surely be a good case study about how Šarūnas Jasikevičius can create a monster (or not) on offense.
- Sam Van Rossom is back from the knee injury that made him unavailable in the ACB playoffs, and seeing him simply is good news. He’ll have a tough time getting back to game rhythm after being cleared to play only 10 days ago, but this Eurobasket may be important for him anyway. Since the end of his contract with Valencia, we’re waiting for any announcement about his next destination.
- For some reason Thomas Heurtel seemed in absolute full control of his game for three days (even while throwing a million behind the back passes against Montenegro on Saturday). By that I mean passing with purpose, shooting well, and making a fair amount of good choices in general. I thought it had to be noted.
- Last but not least, it’s curious to see how Real Madrid will handle Dino Radončić next season. As good as he may become, he didn’t seem ready at all in Toulouse, even if the rough general context of friendly play and having to stand in the corner on O were key factors in my impressions. The fact that he was singled-out to be victimized on D by opposing coaches seemed to frustrate him in ways that makes you wonder how he’d cope playing high pressure games for Real Madrid as soon as next month.