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For Canada, pushing U.S. for Olympic gold is a process

Nash, Triano building program towards 2020 goal

POSTED: Feb 11, 2016 3:21 PM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen


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— The target year is 2020. The Olympic Games will be played that summer in Tokyo, and by then the old contenders will be expiring. The Gasol brothers of Spain, Pau and Marc, will be 40 and 35, respectively. Tony Parker of France will be 38. The stars of Argentina's greatest basketball generation -- Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni -- will be retired or close to it.

The rest of the world continues to provide talent to the U.S., but those high draft picks are now being scattered among a wider variety of countries. The old powers -- Spain, Argentina and France -- are not developing reinforcements at the same high rate of previous generations. Over the last five NBA drafts, the half-dozen lottery picks that Canada has produced outnumber the combined total from Spain, Lithuania, Argentina, France, Serbia, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, Greece, Australia, Croatia, Slovenia, China, Angola, Puerto Rico, Iran, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Germany.

Those nations - No. 2 through 20 in the current FIBA world rankings -- have combined to produce as many lottery picks as Canada since 2011.

International basketball will be undergoing a transition over the next several years, and the young Canadians -- currently ranked No. 26 in the world -- appear most likely to emerge as the main challenger to the U.S. Consider this potential Canadian lineup for 2020, made up entirely of NBA first-round draft picks:

Center: Tristan Thompson (No. 4 pick in 2011), 29 years old

Power forward: Kelly Olynyk (No. 13 in 2013), 29 years old

Small forward: Andrew Wiggins (No. 1 in 2014), 25 years old

Shooting guard: Nik Stauskas (No. 8 in 2014), 26 years old

Point guard: Cory Joseph (No. 29 in 2011), 28 years old

They will be coached by Jay Triano, currently an assistant with the Trail Blazers. The program will be headed by Canada Basketball GM Steve Nash, the greatest player his country has produced.

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"Steve and I talked about that when we started putting this team together," says Canada coach Jay Triano. "We're too competitive to not try for this Olympics (to be held this summer in Rio de Janeiro). But the reality is those Olympics in 2020 are when our best players are going to be at their best. You reach your potential as a basketball player at 27, 28, 29 years old. They'll still have enough balance and energy, but they will be seasoned a little bit. We don't have that right now, but that's part of the process we'll be going through."

The Canadians realized what they were lacking last summer at the FIBA Americas tournament in Mexico City. After losing the opening game to Argentina, they had won seven straight games by 25 points or more. In the semifinal, with a place in the 2016 Olympics going to the winner, they would be re-matched with Venezuela, which Canada had beaten 82-62 in the opening round. More crucial, however, was the disparity in experience: The average age of the Canadian starters was 22, while the Venezuelans were into their 30s.

"We were rolling offensively, and we were locking teams up defensively," Triano says of the lead-up to their stunning 79-78 loss. "And I was never comfortable."

Apart from Olynyk, who generated 34 points and 13 rebounds, Canada sputtered long before they wasted a 75-71 lead in the final minutes. They would complain of a phantom call with three-tenths of a second remaining that would enable Venezuela to score the winning free throw, but the Canadians had already made too many mistakes to keep the game close.

I think we are definitely going to be better next summer. Just having that experience together and knowing each other's games. From the top down -- coaching staff, training staff, players -- being together in situations like that just helps you get better.

– Boston Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk

Virtually all of the top contenders in the NBA or FIBA have experienced similar losses in big games as they learned how to win at the highest level. Will the Canadians' disappointment ultimately bring out the best in them?

"I think we have to approach it that way," says Nash. "We don't know how transformative the experience will be. We do know that we didn't have the experience to handle that moment. The moment was big for a new group like that that hadn't been in that type of situation before. You can't cheat experience. The only way to gain experience is to go through it."

"I likened it to 1999 when we surprised the Argentinians in the qualifying tournament," says Triano. "On that team was a young Luis Scola and a young (Francisco) Oberto and a young (Manu) Ginobili. We knocked them out of the Olympics, but that team stuck together and they were about to be very good four years later."

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Argentina would go onto win silver at the 2002 FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis, and gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

Canada can still earn one of the last spots in Rio by beating France and Turkey at the final qualifying tournament in the Philippines. In its favor is the fact that the best young Canadians are continuing to ascend in the NBA. Not only will the team figure to be improved since last summer, but it also promises to involve Thompson (who could not afford to play as he pursued a new contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers), Utah Jazz rookie power forward Trey Lyles, who was the No. 12 pick in the 2015 Draft, and Milwaukee Bucks' point guard Tyler Ennis, who went No. 18 in 2014.

"I think we are definitely going to be better next summer," says Olynyk. "Just having that experience together and knowing each other's games. From the top down -- coaching staff, training staff, players -- being together in situations like that just helps you get better."

The partnership of Nash, Triano and Canada Basketball executive VP and assistant GM Rowan Barrett had its beginnings in the 2000 Olympics. Nash and Barrett were players who helped lead Canada to fourth place in Sydney, and Triano was their coach. Triano was fired, unexpectedly, in 2004, and thereafter Nash declined to play for his country. But they were reunited when Nash was hired as GM in 2012.

Triano, 57, played in two Olympics for Canada in the 1980s. He became the first Canadian native to serve as an assistant coach in the NBA when he joined the Raptors in 2002, and from 2008-11 he served as their coach. Triano also has assisted Mike Krzyzewski at USA Basketball.

"Sometimes the losing stings enough that it brings you together, and that's part of our goal is to have our team compete this summer as well," says Triano. "But if not, we get more and more experience so that we can play in the next Olympics."

The ultimate aim in 2020 will be to challenge the U.S. in a gold medal game. "It's a long way away," says Triano. "But I'm a believer that you have to have your long-term goals, your short-term goals, your daily goals and your practice-day goals. Why not dream for the highest and most ultimate? For our country and the growth of basketball, that might be it."

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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