Canada's Olympic fate still in limbo despite earlier-than-expected NBA start
Tokyo hopes somewhat renewed as players agree to begin 2021 campaign in Dec.
NBA players tentatively agreed Thursday to a shortened 72-game schedule beginning in late December for the upcoming season.
Instead of waiting until February or March in hopes of having fans in the stadium, the league seemingly prefers staying close to its regular schedule while letting the virus determine when crowds would be OK.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver had previously stated his "best guess" for next season's start would be January "at least," but record-low Finals ratings while going up against the NFL may have ignited desire to get the league closer to its regular schedule.
Thursday's vote, conducted by player reps within the National Basketball Players Association, is just one part of the process. Among the primary matters still to be determined before the restart can become official: how much more escrow will be taken from players because of the shorter-than-usual season, and how the league and the players will navigate testing and other health and safety issues amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Still, the possibility of NBA players participating in the Olympic basketball tournament that begins July 25 has reopened.
Canada, however, has yet to qualify, leaving itself to a last-chance tournament in Victoria, B.C., beginning June 29, where only the victor heads to Tokyo.
In a regular year, that late-June date would come a week or two after the Finals, meaning many Canadian NBA hopefuls would have had a month or more from the end of their season.
In 2021, however, June 29 could fall right in the middle of the playoffs, with the Finals wrapping shortly before the Olympics.
And that means there are even more questions for the Canadian men's basketball team. Most crucially: who will be available for the qualification tournament?
Considering the schedule crunch, there's almost no chance Canada boasts a full roster in Victoria. But that also means competitors won't have their NBA talent either — including Greece's Giannis Antetokounmpo.
So what might Team Canada look like?
Projecting the 'Dare-to-Dream Team'
The first question comes at coach, where the Raptors' success will be inversely correlated to Nick Nurse's availability. The further the Raptors advance, the less likely Nurse is available to coach in Victoria. Meanwhile, lead assistant Nate Bjorkgren now helms the Indiana Pacers; his availability will be in question too.
That equation is fairly simple.
It's tougher to parse how players might be thinking on the heels of the NBA season.
It'll be tough for the Nuggets to return to the West final in a loaded conference, but they've proven capable. Even a second-round exit might make Murray question heading straight to Victoria.
Murray, however, was the first player to tweet his commitment to the team for the Victoria tournament way back in November. It's an understatement to say lots has changed since then, but his willingness to lead the charge, plus his guaranteed contract with Denver through 2024-25, portend good things for his participation.
WATCH | Murray drops 50 in potential elimination game:
Behind Murray, the second-most impactful player would be OKC point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who followed Murray's footsteps in November by committing to the national team.
Also like Murray, Gilgeous-Alexander's contract status is set, so barring injury he should have little reason not to attend.
That guard duo is a virtual lock to start, but the other three spots are all up in the air. At the wing, there's Memphis' Brandon Clarke and Dillon Brooks, as well as OKC playoff standout Luguentz Dort and national team stalwart Kevin Pangos.
Potential starting bigs include veterans Tristan Thompson and Kelly Olynyk, Dallas' Dwight Powell, who's recovering from a torn Achilles, and Pangos' Gonzaga teammate Kyle Wiltjer.
And then there's Andrew Wiggins and RJ Barrett. Wiggins famously hasn't played for Canada since 2015, but indicated a willingness to mend fences. His star has faded since being drafted No. 1 in 2014, but there is certainly appeal for him on Canada as a microwave bench scorer.
We'll know a lot more about Barrett after next season. If it goes like his rookie campaign, there won't be much case for him to be on the team — despite his father being GM.
There should also be consideration given to those who have consistently shown up for Canada, like Melvin Ejim, Brady Heslip and Phil and Thomas Scrubb. Raptors depth players Chris Boucher and Oshae Brissett could also be options.
Canada is ranked 21st in the world by FIBA. It will play No. 7 Greece and No. 28 China in the group phase, where the top two teams reach the semifinals. The other group contains No. 43 Uruguay, No. 15 Turkey and No. 9 Czech Republic.
If Canada can dress its full team, it should be favoured to book its ticket to Tokyo. But that's still a big if.