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If NBA players are so good, why is Spain the FIBA Champions?

The NBA is the very best basketball league in the world, far clear of any other league. Considering the NBA is majority American, you might assume that the USA dominates International Basketball. 

If NBA players are so good, why is Spain the FIBA ChampionsSpain won the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup hosted by China, after the United States lost in the quarter-final to France, despite the USA winning all five of their group stage games. France were eliminated in the next round by Argentina, who lost to Spain in the Finals.

There is no doubt amongst basketball fans across the world that the NBA is the best league in the world. It attracts the very best players from the United States as well as around the world. We have seen international talents like Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic become superstars in the last few years. 

But the NBA is still majority American talent. So it is strange that the USA is not FIBA champions. The USA basketball team has been the most successful historically across FIBA tournaments and the Olympics so it may sound strange that they are not FIBA champions. 

List of FIBA World Cup Winners by year – men’s
YearHostChampionRunner-upThirdFourthTotal Teams
41963BrazilBrazilYugoslaviaSoviet UnionUSA13
51967UruguaySoviet UnionYugoslaviaBrazilUSA13
61970YugoslaviaYugoslaviaBrazilSoviet UnionItaly13
71974Puerto RicoSoviet UnionYugoslaviaUSACuba14
81978PhilippinesYugoslaviaSoviet UnionBrazilItaly14
91982ColombiaSoviet UnionUSAYugoslaviaSpain13
101986SpainUSASoviet UnionYugoslaviaBrazil24
111990ArgentinaYugoslaviaSoviet UnionUSAPuerto Rico16
131998GreeceFR YugoslaviaRussiaUSAGreece16
142002USAFR YugoslaviaArgentinaGermanyNew Zealand16

The Background to USAs 2019 FIBA Challenge

It is pretty surprising when you look at the two tournaments previous to the 2019 failure for the USA. In 2010, the United States breezed through the competition, defeating Turkey by 17 points in the final for their first title since 1994. Four years later, the USA again won the title, this time defeating Serbia by 27 points in the final in Madrid. 

They headed into 2019 with high hopes once again, particularly because of their strong team. The USA squad featured young NBA stars like Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Jaylen Brown as well as some experience in Kemba Walker and Brook Lopez. At the helm of Team USA was long time San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich, one of the winningest coaches in sports history.

The USA were also only three years on from winning another gold at the Olympics. So expectations were high for the USA, although there were also teams like France, Spain and Argentina who all felt they had a good shot at winning the title and had rosters packed with NBA talent. 

USA FIBA World Cup 2019 Group Stage Success

The USA’s group stage was a relatively easy one despite going up against future and former NBA stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anderson Varejao. The USA comfortably won all five group stage games and qualified top of their group. 

Qualifying top of their group meant that the USA would face France in the quarter-final who had finished second in their group due to a 2-point loss to group leaders France. The USA were the favourites by quite a way and many believed they would sweep straight past France into the semi-final. 

Team USA Roster – FIBA World Cup 2019
PositionJersey NumberPlayerAgeHeightTeam
G4Derrick White256 ft 5 in (1.96 m)San Antonio Spurs
G5Donovan Mitchell226 ft 3 in (1.91 m)Utah Jazz
G6Joe Harris276 ft 6 in (1.98 m)Brooklyn Nets
G7Marcus Smart256 ft 4 in (1.93 m)Boston Celtics
F8Harrison Barnes276 ft 8 in (2.03 m)Sacramento Kings
F9Jaylen Brown226 ft 7 in (2.01 m)Boston Celtics
F10Jayson Tatum216 ft 8 in (2.03 m)Boston Celtics
C11Mason Plumlee296 ft 11 in (2.11 m)Denver Nuggets
C12Myles Turner236 ft 11 in (2.11 m)Indiana Pacers
C13Brook Lopez317 ft 0 in (2.13 m)Milwaukee Bucks
F14Khris Middleton286 ft 8 in (2.03 m)Milwaukee Bucks
G15Kemba Walker296 ft 1 in (1.85 m)Charlotte Hornets

Their 12 man roster consisted entirely of active NBA players. Although not the best of the best, with an average age of just 26 and multiple All-stars in the ranks, Team USA was expected to be too much for most opposition. This proved to be the case in the early rounds as they beat Czech Republic, Japan, Turkey, Greece and Brazil handily before moving onto the knockout phase to face France in the Quarter Finals.

USA FIBA World Cup 2019 Quarter Final Exit

But the game certainly did not end up how the USA thought it would. Thanks in main to the efforts of Utah Jazz centre and multiple time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, France pulled off an incredible surprise result to eliminate the United States. 

The issue for the USA in the game was that they were dominated on the glass. France outrebounded the USA 44-28, with Miles Turner really struggling. Turner got into foul trouble early on because he could just not handle Gobert who finished the game with the French centre finishing the game with 21 points, 16 rebounds and 3 blocks. 

The USA team could also not slow down Evan Fournier who scored 22 points as the French team claimed a surprise win. It meant that there were other countries including France who would be in with a chance of a surprise title. 

The Eventual Winners – FIBA 2019 World Cup

It would not be France that took advantage of the USA being knocked out, as the brilliance of Luis Scola lifted Argentina past France. In the other semi-final, Spain and Australia played out a thriller, with Spain coming out on top after the game went to double overtime. 

The final was hosted between two teams looking to win their second FIBA World Cup title, with Spain winning as recently as 2006 and Argentina winning the very first FIBA Basketball World Cup all the way back in 1950 when the competition was hosted in Argentina. 

In the final, it was not really a close affair, with Spain winning by 20 points. This was thanks to the performances of NBA stars like Ricky Rubio and Marc Gasol. It led to a surprising tournament win for Spain, with the United States finishing seventh thanks to also losing their classification semi-final to Serbia thanks mainly to Bogdan Bogdanovic.

It may be surprising to see the USA not being the FIBA champions thanks to a surprise result against France. But there are a few reasons why this is the case and why Spain are FIBA champions. 

The first is that the USA very rarely brings a full-strength squad to the FIBA World Cups. If you look at their squad for the 2019 World Cup it did not include superstars and recent title winners like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard. 

It instead featured mainly young players in their first or second years in the league with Kemba Walker and Brook Lopez being the experienced pair in the squad. If you look at the USA’s title wins in 2010 and 2014 this was also the case although a lot of the players involved in those title wins would go on to become superstars. 

US superstars have never really prioritised the FIBA World Cup, mainly because it cuts into the NBA preseason and superstars are looking for proper rest before the season. The Olympics is always the tournament that USA stars are looking to perform in due to the history of the tournament. 

The other reason is just that Spain and lots of the other countries in the FIBA World Cup have NBA superstars, with the talent level outside of the USA increasing over the last few years. When Spain won the title in 2019 it was because of NBA players like Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio and both Hernangomez’s brothers. Spain has a history of producing great NBA talents. 

It has been four years since a player from the USA won the NBA MVP title, the longest run in NBA history. Young superstars are coming out of Europe and winning games for their countries. In the next few years, we could see countries like Serbia, Greece and Slovenia challenge the USA.