It's probably fair to say that the Australian Boomers' preparations for the 2019 FIBA World Cup has not exactly been smooth sailing.
The highly anticipated seven-game exhibition series involving Canada, Team USA, New Zealand and Boomers on Australian soil - and the World Cup itself - has been hit by a mass exodus of NBA stars. The reasons for the non-appearance of star players, including Australia's Ben Simmons are varied. FIBA moving the World Cup to less than 12 months before the Olympics may also have something to do with it.
However, given the fact that the World Cup doubles as a qualifying event, its importance has never been greater.
For Australia, the buildup to the exhibition games against Canada and Team USA have been a marketing and public relations disaster. From Ben Simmons committing to the Boomers' World Cup and Olympic campaigns before changing his mind, through to the host of Canadian and US stars withdrawing; it all culminated in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) becoming involved due to the nature of the marketing material being rolled out, eventually leading to refunds being offered to consumers. Public expectations could certainly have been managed better, and it has left the public with mixed emotions.
Simmons' withdrawal was a major setback for the Boomers and their World Cup medal aspirations. How it was handled and communicated could well have been the first sign that all is not right within the Boomers enclave. Simmons went as far as saying he would suit up for the Boomers in their series against the USA at Marvel Stadium, before this was then reversed by Simmons in collaboration with the coaching staff, in favour of team continuity as they prepared for the World Cup.
The Australian media's critique of Simmons that followed was at times unfathomable and unconscionable, drawing the ire of the Australian basketball community. It certainly did not help the Boomers, perhaps going as far as to harm the potential of Simmons to represent his country in future. The whole 'Simmons Saga' was unfortunate, and it could have been avoided if managed better. But then again, who doesn't like bringing down a tall poppy? Simmons was an easy target.
When the Boomers team of twelve for China was named on August 7, many were shocked by some of the omissions.
Those not selected included 2016 Rio Olympian forward Brock Motum, a long-time veteran of the Boomers program and proven winner in the EuroLeague - the best competition outside of the NBA. Mitch Creek, having made his NBA debut this past season, was overlooked despite exhibiting the type of work ethic and passion for the national team that has epitomised the Boomers program for decades. There was also the absence of Deng Adel, another NBA player who boasts the type of athleticism and length the Boomers have rarely - if ever - seen before.
NBL stars Nick Kay, Nathan Sobey and Cameron Gliddon were selected over players who have been playing in two of the best leagues in the world. Head coach Andrej Lemanis selected the team that he and his support staff believed could win a medal at the World Cup, but one narrative was obvious to those on the outside looking in - how could players in the NBL be picked over those playing in the NBA and in the Euroleague?
Not long after landing in Perth, promising forward Xavier Cooks went down with injury, unfortunately forcing him out of the World Cup. Lemanis had to reconsider his team makeup. One could imagine that phone call to Creek, who was back in Melbourne training with the South East Melbourne Phoenix, might have been an awkward one.
Team USA have avoided that potential issue, bringing a squad of 13 with them - that was originally 14 before De'Aaron Fox's late withdrawal. Their final team of twelve will be determined at a date closer to the World Cup, and most likely after their exhibition games Down Under comes to an end. Given Australia was playing on home soil, perhaps it would have been prudent to wait a little longer before finalising the the World Cup team? Maybe it is easier said than done, with players having other playing commitments. Maybe.
Australia then lost to Canada in their opening exhibition game. Sure, it was just an exhibition game, the result is meaningless and it was just their first real hit out. However things just did not seem right with the Boomers.
It was obvious that the Boomers are not going to give away the game plan that they may be brewing for when they meet Canada in their opening game of the World Cup, but there were some worrying signs. The defence was porous, especially in guarding the pick and roll, while the shooting was largely absent. 21 different 5-man rotations were used by Lemanis in the opening game loss, and there was no sign of Aron Baynes who sat the game out. Jock Landale was one of the few promising outcomes of that game, playing aggressively while providing consistent scoring.
While the Boomers improved their defence and shot the ball better in their game 2 win, Sobey and Gliddon continued to look out of place. Landale again started and starred, appearing to have solidified his standing ahead of Philadelphia 76ers big man, Jonah Bolden in the Boomers rotation. Bolden's potential was obvious to all who watched game 2. His length caused issues for the Canadians defensively, and he showed range from beyond the three-point arc. But his body language did not seem positive, and it was becoming all too obvious that something was bothering him.
What followed was Bolden's sudden withdrawal from the Boomers' World Cup campaign, citing personal reasons.
Perhaps it should have stated personal differences. Sources close to the Boomers have suggested that Bolden's departure related to his lack of playing time and the role he was being earmarked to play at the World Cup. This reinforced Andrew Gaze's view shared on radio this week.
"I suspect that Jonah's seen what Jock Landale do what he's been doing, seen how he might fit into the program," shared Gaze on Macquarie Sports Radio.
"And these days, and its a sad thing, but these days, players are so concerned about their brand, and how it would look, if you are going over there and playing behind a guy that is not in the NBA, maybe not featuring in the rotation like you probably would have expected."
Gaze would go on to draw a comparison with the withdrawal of Team USA's Fox after he received limited minutes in their exhibition win against Nigeria, before the team departed for Australia.
If Bolden did in fact withdraw to protect his 'brand', especially after committing to the Boomers' World Cup campaign, he certainly deserves his fare share of criticism. However, managing high-profile athletes being paid significant contracts is certainly becoming an art, and something Australian basketball needs to master, and fast - especially with the record number of players stepping out in the NBA.
The Bolden situation also calls into question how the Boomers coaching staff are managing player expectations, and the roles they are being asked to play. Did the expectations of Bolden change from being selected to the team through to the second game against Canada? Were there mixed messages? Perhaps we will never know. Yet the team have left it up to Bolden to explain further, and it is what not has been said that is damning.
With Creek having already replaced Cooks, many observers were of the opinion that Motum or Adel would be the most logical replacements. However Lemanis had other ideas, bringing in 35-year-old veteran forward David Barlow from outside the training camp squad.
“As we spoke about it, David’s name got brought up early on in the piece, and kept sorta coming back around the his ability defensively," Lemanis shared during a media session on Wednesday. "We obviously hang our hat on the defensive end. To be involved in disruptive defensive systems, to be able to switch and hold his own against guards, but also against bigs. His basketball IQ; he’s been in the system before, he understands our offensive structures very well, he knows how to manipulate it.
“Even when the guys worked out with him two weeks ago, he was helping some of the posts on how to manipulate the offence because of his understanding with it. We thought, in terms of a smooth transition and minimising disruptions, would be good for all those reasons.”
What Lemanis failed to share, was that Barlow - who last played for Australia against Iran in November last year - had a back injury suffered a week earlier. This came to light on the eve of the Boomers' first game against the Americans in Melbourne, when it was made known that the Melbourne United sharpshooter would not be suiting up against the USA.
"David has been around us and the core is so strong," Lemanis said. "In terms of chemistry, [it] doesn't affect us.
"The thing it interrupted, I guess, or had some disruption was just in terms of rotations and how we're going to play together."
As of now, Barlow likely has not interrupted anything, given his health status. The forward deserves full credit for his experience and skills, but let us spare a thought for Motum, Adel, Mitch McCarron, Todd Blanchfield (and perhaps Jason Cadee). They were all part of the original squad of 18 chosen by Lemanis and his coaching staff, only to be overlooked in favour of someone else. Were any of them considered, available, and contacted? How are they feeling about it all?
Barlow's inclusion, in light of his injury, borders on the near bizarre. If he was really a possible option for the Boomers, why was he not in the squad of 18 in the first instance - or added as a late replacement instead of Brisbane Bullets point guard Jason Cadee?
While Barlow has been a long-time Boomer, and has undergone a literal rejuvenation in recent years following his battles with injury, one could argue he's still past his prime. With the depth of talent available, it is difficult to imagine that Barlow is the best available option. Would it not be better to select one of the players in your original squad of 18? Even if they were indeed unavailable, for the future of Australian basketball, would it not have been better to blood a Boomers star of the future?
Australia boasted a record 13 players who logged minutes in the NBA last season - the world's best league. At this stage, only five will feature for the Boomers in China at the World Cup. To be fair, this isn't a unique situation - the United States and Canada are facing similar woes.
While Lemanis is contracted to coach the Boomers through to next year's Olympic Games, Australia is only guaranteed to play in that event, should they place higher than New Zealand at the World Cup. Medals are difficult to win at the best of times, and they have so far proven elusive for the Boomers, whose best result at a World Cup is 5th, a feat achieved twice, in 1982 (Colombia) and again in 1994 (Toronto).
Australia's build up and preparation for the World Cup has been nothing short of perplexing. Lemanis has selected his team and must now live or die by their on-court results in China. Could we see Australia's young talents such as Simmons suit up for the Lemanis-led Boomers at the Olympics next year?
One can only hope so.