Canada's structural issues prove fatal as Olympic hopes die

·NBA reporter
·7 min read

Here are five takeaways from Canada's 103-101 overtime loss to Czech Republic at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, B.C.

One: One miracle beats the other

It took a miracle just to force overtime, so it shouldn't be so stunning that Canada is out of the tournament having failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. 

Czech Republic was billed as the underdogs, yet led the entire way in regulation, building what looked to be a secure lead up 10 points with 52 seconds left. However, that's when Canada pulled off a stunning comeback that was capped off by a six-point possession by Andrew Wiggins, who first drove the ball the length of the floor for an and-one, then nailed a three after Nickeil Alexander-Walker stole the inbound pass. 

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That sequence should have given Canada all of the momentum, but their offense stagnated in overtime and key mistakes allowed Czech Republic to pull ahead yet again. A broken defensive sequence left Blake Schilb wide open for his seventh triple of the game, and after Wiggins tied it once more with a jumper, it was Tomas Satoransky — the lone NBA player for Czech Republic — who produced a miracle of his own with a banked-in jumper against defensive specialist Lu Dort.

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Canada still had one last chance with 1.8 seconds left, and a brilliant play was called by Nick Nurse that freed Trey Lyles for a wide-open look around the baseline, but his attempt spilled out. It was a heartbreaker for Canada, which is all too often the victim of misfortune during international play, but it was also the deserved result as Czech Republic outplayed them for the majority of the game.

Two: Structural issues proved fatal

The Canadians had the most talented roster in the competition, but there were two glaring weaknesses and both came to hurt them in their loss on Saturday. Canada lacked size and reliable shooting, and while their wing talent was overwhelming in most games, they couldn't cover for both weaknesses at once.

The lack of size was always concerning. Dwight Powell was excellent in Canada's two group stage wins, but even against Greece and China there were moments where his hustle couldn't cover for what he lacked in size.

But the real issue was depth. Powell could at least hold his own, but none of the reserves were any good, and that cost them in this game. Powell landed in foul trouble and Nurse couldn't find anyone to plug the gap. Lyles is a power forward who contributes little on defense, and he was also 1-for-7 from the field. Andrew Nicholson fits a similar profile, and while he was a plus offensively, he gave it all back with his inability to move on defense. 

Or put it this way: Canada's frontcourt was single-handedly outdone by Ondrej Balvin, who had 14 points and 19 rebounds. Balvin grabbed as many boards as four centers combined did for Canada, and the only time he was stopped was when Lyles accidentally elbowed him in the head.

The other weakness on this team was outside shooting. It wasn't a problem against Greece and China, but there was always a lingering fear that Canada might get cold at the worst time since they lacked consistent perimeter threats. Wiggins and Alexander-Walker were their best shooters, and even they are streaky at best. Canada was 4-for-23 from deep at one point, while Czech Republic hit at a 46 percent clip. The three-pointer is the great equalizer and it's especially dangerous in a one-off game.

Canada is officially out of Olympic contention. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Canada is officially out of Olympic contention. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Three: Recruitment will always be spotty

The recurring trope after each disappointment is that Canada just needed a bit more talent. As frustrating as it sounds, that was once again the case in this run toward the Olympics. Another veteran center — such as Tristan Thompson or Kelly Olynyk — would have made a huge difference in this game and that was likely the difference between Canada finally returning to the Games and having to wait another cycle.

But then again this problem will always exist, and the dream of gathering all of Canada's top players is unrealistic. There will always be contracts to protect, injuries to rehab, and personal needs that arise, so the excuse of attendance can always be used. The decision for Canada is how they want to model their program moving forward.

For most countries that compete in international basketball, they draw from a core group that shares high commitment and forms a distinctive style of play. The most commonly cited examples are Spain and Argentina, who have both achieved tremendous success in the last two decades at the Olympics and at the World Cup. For these teams, they form an identity and put practice and faith into it each time out.

The other route is to copy the Americans, who have so much talent that it overwhelms the competition. There is often the same issue of recruitment with Team USA, but their roster pool runs so deep that only in occasional moments will there be instances like the 2004 Olympics or 2019 World Cup. 

Canada has produced a significant number of NBA players over the last decade — the most of any country other than the United States — so they seem to be taking the same approach. But there are two issues here. One, to overcome the gap in continuity and experience, the talent needs to be overwhelming, which isn't the case except for a small handful of Canadian players, whereas the States can call on two dozen stars. Two, Canada is still lacking a core style of play due to constant turnover, so they are almost always starting tournament runs as strangers. 

Four: Hope for the future

That being said, there is always hope for Canada so long as the talent keeps pouring in, and it's showing no sign of stopping. RJ Barrett was a breakout star in this run, not just with his play but also with his willingness to lead the group for such a young player. Alexander-Walker also showed moments of brilliance on offense, and Dort was the most terrifying defender in the entire tournament. All three should feature in the rotation in future tournaments that will hopefully also include Jamal Murray and/or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. 

Five: Disappointment will sting

The disappointment of this failed run will sting for quite some time. So much progress was made to get to this point between the improved recruitment of players, securing a winning bid for the qualifying tournament, and the hiring of a championship coach in Nurse. Everything was supposed to be lined up in their favour and still they weren't good enough.

It must be especially difficult for the long-serving veterans. Cory Joseph represents an entire generation of Canadian players, but despite their unwavering commitment Joseph and the others in his class will not see the Olympics. The same goes for Olynyk, Melvin Ejim, Aaron Doornekamp and others. Their efforts over the last decade deserved to be celebrated, but never got the chance to be. 

And it must hurt the reputation of the program, which will continue to be viewed with pessimism. Despite tangible improvements, the perception will be that Canada Basketball remains a letdown and this run on home soil only reinforces it. That's not quite fair, but the onus to keep improving is on them. Making the Olympics and eventually medalling has been their stated goal for over a decade, and still it eludes them.

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