So, Are the NBA Champions Also Really ‘World’ Champions?

The recent controversy surrounding the appropriateness of the “world champion” title given to the best NBA team originated last month, when American track star Noah Lyles became a world champion himself, winning the 2023 World Athletics Championship in Budapest, Hungary.Denver Nuggets championship parade

While Lyles became the first male sprinter to win both the 100m and 200m events since Usain Bolt, the 26-year-old made headlines more for his press conference after the race, when he criticized the NBA.

“You know the thing that hurts me the most is that I have to watch the NBA Finals and they have World Champion on their head,”  Lyles said. “World champion of what? The United States? Don’t get me wrong, I love the U.S., at times, but that ain’t the world. That is not the world. We are the world. We have almost every country out here fighting, thriving, putting on their flag to show that they are represented. There ain’t no flags in the NBA.”

This plainspoken opinion was met with backlash from both fans and media alike, not to mention even NBA players sounded off against the USA track star, as Kevin Durant stated, “Somebody help this brother.”

In addition, former Wizards star Gilbert Arenas, who is known for being outspoken and speaking his mind, aired his opinions on the No Chill Podcast.

During this particular podcast episode, Lyles’ comments were disputed between Arenas and former Timberwolves guard Rashad McCants, who also had a professional career playing overseas. McCants was asked by Arenas if his former team in Lebanon could beat the current NBA champion Nuggets, and his answer was that his team “would have a chance to win.”

This then incited exasperation from everyone on the show, as former Nuggets player Kenyon Martin was seen shaking his head while sitting next to McCants, as well as this answer set off this response from the host Arenas, “No, you can’t! Get the f*** out of here. You’ll lose by 200!”

Technically speaking, those arguing on behalf of Lyles’ main point of emphasis are not wrong, as the NBA is a league full of only American city club teams (besides the Toronto Raptors). That said, there aren’t many basketball fans on McCants’ side of the argument, because it would seem quite presumptuous to assume that one’s international club team from another country can beat the best team in the NBA.

While there have been upsets before in past exhibition games, the modern-day international club teams have a significant disadvantage when compared to the talent of an NBA roster. For example, is there a real comparison between the Nuggets and the best club team in Europe, the 2022-23 EuroLeague champions, Real Madrid? The Real Madrid roster is led by ex-NBA players such as Rudy Fernandez (9.1 ppg in the NBA), Mario Hezonja (6.9 ppg in the NBA), Guerschon Yabusele (2.3 ppg in the NBA). Another player, Facundo Campazzo (5.3 ppg in NBA), notably played for the Nuggets from 2020-22 before he was cut, and now the 32-year-old guard will return to be on the 2023-24 Real Madrid roster, the team in which he played for off-and-on since 2014.

“The NBA is the best league in the world,” Arenas said. “The best players in the world gravitate here. The best talent in the world is here.”

There are probably some players in other leagues with NBA-level talent, but as a whole, no basketball league in the world can compare. By all means, the NBA has the best competition, highest highest-paying contracts, and the most worldwide exposure.

Last season, there was international talent represented on every NBA roster, with a total of 120 foreign players from 40 different countries across six continents playing in the league. Some of these players include the best superstars in the NBA: Nikola Jokic (Serbia), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece), Luka Doncic (Slovenia), and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Canada). Likewise, from Arenas’ point of view, since the top players from around the globe come to play in North American cities instead of playing for club teams from their native lands, then that is justification for the best team in the NBA being called “world champions.”

In other words, the idea of any team in an international league defeating the NBA champion Nuggets seems far-fetched, unless you are on McCants’ Lebanon team, Homenetmen … then there may be a chance. 

All in all, no one disagrees that the sport of basketball is growing worldwide. By and large, when looking at international play instead of league play, some on the world stage feel Team USA has taken a step back regarding its world dominance.

Mavericks’ forward Markieff Morris recently appeared on an episode of the All The Smoke podcast, in which he stated that for U.S. players to better compete against international players, they need to step their game up.

“Their [international players] game is different,” Morris said. “We behind the eight-ball here. But we gonna catch up.”

Despite being ranked No. 1 worldwide and winning the last four Olympic gold medals, the U.S. men’s basketball team has failed to reach the podium in the last two FIBA Basketball World Cups.

In 2019, the world was shocked as Team USA finished in seventh place, and in the 2023 World Cup, the Americans finished fourth. To clarify, the rosters chosen for the World Cup tournaments are not on the same level as the Olympics when considering the selection process. Nevertheless, skeptics wonder how a roster full of NBA talent can lose to international teams, who only have a few NBA players representing their country.

For instance, in the World Cup, first-place Germany had only four NBA players: Dennis Schröder (Raptors), Franz Wagner (Magic), Moritz Wagner (Magic), and Daniel Theis (Pacers). And the second place Serbia team only had two NBA players on the roster: Bogdan Bogdanovic (Hawks) and Nikola Jovic (Heat). In the semifinal round, Germany defeated the USA, a team made up of 12 NBA players, while Serbia defeated a Canadian team with seven NBA players on the roster. This World Cup result only added more weight to the ambiguity of Lyles’ comments, as it pertains to the bigger question of whether the NBA is valid in calling the league winner “world” champions.

Taking that into consideration, Team USA will have another chance to prove their world dominance next summer during the 2024 Olympic games in Paris, as they look to win the gold medal in basketball for the fifth straight time.  LeBron James has reportedly expressed enthusiasm in competing in the 2024 Olympics, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania, and he’s also said to be recruiting superstars to join him, in a short list that includes Durant, Stephen CurryAnthony Davis, and Jayson Tatum.

James, who will be 39 years old for the Paris Olympics, will look to win his third gold medal and help the USA hold onto their title of being Olympic champions. That is to say, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer should have a lot of support, as there have already been other NBA stars that have verbalized interest in suiting up for Team USA — such as Devin Booker, Damian LillardDe’Aaron Fox, and Kyrie Irving. There’s no denying, this lineup will be night and day better than the World Cup roster, and will make Team USA the heavy favorites to win gold. The only real competition for the Americans will come from the other foreign NBA superstars who will represent their respective countries. 

Former USA national team coach Gregg Popovich, who also holds the title of winningest coach in NBA history, made a statement regarding the “world champion” debate back in 2010.

“It doesn’t make sense for an NBA team to call themselves world champions,” Popovich said. “I don’t remember anybody playing anybody outside our borders to get that tag. Isn’t that true? I keep waiting for somebody to tell me I’ve missed something.”

Popovich makes a good point, if a team is being represented on an international level, only then are they theoretically allowed to be deemed “world champions.”

Popovich reiterated, “There are no world champions in the NBA, so anybody that has the flag up that says world champions is not correct. It’s not appropriate. The world champions, I believe, are the Spanish team right now. USA is the Olympic champion. The Lakers are the NBA champion.”

Although Popovich and Lyles have a clear and valid point, not everyone looks at the World Champion title in a literal sense, such as former Laker Metta Sandiford-Artest (formerly known as Ron Artest). Artest published his own rap song after he helped the Lakers win Game 7 of the 2010 Finals over the Celtics. The lyrics state, “They screaming… the champions! ‘Cause we are… the champions! There ain’t no competitors… Now I’m a world champ and reppin’ everywhere.”

In essence, if the best players in the world are playing in the best league in the world, then it is also difficult to find fault with awarding the NBA winners with the title of being champions of the world. That is, if Artest refers to himself as a “world champion” and feels that way after winning the NBA Finals, then can anyone say he isn’t?

Still, this may end up being an unresolved argument. Five months after Artest’s song “Champions” was released, some might remember there was an exhibition game that featured a matchup between the 2010 NBA champion Lakers and EuroLeague champion FC Barcelona. The unthinkable happened, as a 19-year-old Ricky Rubio and company defeated Artest and the back-to-back champion Lakers, 92-88. At that moment in time, FC Barcelona might have been considered the new “world champions.”

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