For a brief period of overlap, the 2014 NBA Finals will be besieged and one-upped by an alien sport. SportsCenter—normally accustomed to housing some baseball highlights and standard NFL blabber while the Finals roar on and dominate airtime—has to make room for the world’s game for one summer month every four years. Kids are playing 2K and FIFA, copping basketball jerseys and soccer kits and are just as thirsty for the Nike Magista as they are for Nike Flyknit Kobe 9s.
If you’re one of those millennials out here playing pick-up ball in your Mario Balotelli kit because you studied abroad in Milan and feel a “connection” to Italy, you know this. In that case, the Complex World Cup Guide is your friend. For the rest of you who think that a “centre forward” is just a fancy way of describing Anthony Davis’ position, let’s break down the World Cup 2014 in familiar terms so you can have some semblance of a clue of what everyone else is talking about.
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Place: Brazil, duh
Brazil, duh. It’s home of Nene, Anderson Varejao, Tiago Splitter, Leandro Barbosa, Rafael Araujo and Vitor Faverani. That’s not an All-NBA lineup by any means, but they wouldn’t have the most ping pong balls in the lottery. Should the Spurs take the title this year, Splitter will become the first Brazilian-born NBA champion, a feat that’s been a long-time coming. Basketball has been in Brazil since the late 19th century, and their national team first organized games in 1922. They even ended the United States’ 16 year unbeaten streak in the Pan Am games in 1987. Growing up overseas, Kobe Bryant idolized Oscar Schmidt, the star of that 1987 Brazilian squad. Soccer rules the country, but if you were caught talking NBA down there, it wouldn’t be the most foreign thing you could do—basketball’s up there with volleyball, MMA, and Formula 1 as far as non-soccer sports go in Brazil.
Players: LeBron James = Argentina's Lionel Messi
Kevin Durant may be the reigning MVP and Cristiano Ronaldo won the 2013 Ballon d’Or (or “Golden Ball,” which is basically FIFA’s MVP trophy), but LeBron and Messi will gladly let their contemporaries take the individual honors that they’ve swept as of late. They’re the best two players in their respective sports and fulfill similar tactical roles for their teams. As Creators-In-Chief, LeBron and Messi carry the burden on the offensive end and we’re not just talking about getting buckets or scoring goals. Each is as much of a distributor and a creative catalyst as they are scorers and have seen their coaches design systems to take advantage of that. LeBron leads the Heat as something of a power point guard and in 2010, Messi switched to a more centralized forward position, giving him more touches of the ball in tighter positions to attack. The Heat and the Argentine national team both assign the most difficult tasks to their best players—a situation in which LeBron and Messi each relish and thrive.3 of 13
Kevin Durant of Oklahoma City = Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo
The second best basketball player meets the second best soccer player. Durant and Ronaldo may have snatched the highest individual accolades going into the playoffs and the World Cup, but like, if you were doing a fantasy draft of all players, these two wouldn’t be the first choice. Durant and Ronaldo each gained traction to snatch that “best player alive” crown over these past few months, and are certainly regarded as such in some circles—when you’re player #1A, you’ll sometimes be #1. Either way, Ronaldo is the most devastating pure scorer right now, a superlative that Durant’s held for quite some time. If there’s a player in Brazil who can pop off and score a two or three goals out of very little, it’s Ronaldo. Dude has no chill this year.
Damian Lillard = Brazil's Neymar
Starting at 4 PM EST tomorrow, the world will focus its attention on soccer’s new Golden Child, Neymar. Hailed as “the next Pele” by Time, Neymar’s prodigious talent will be called upon to bring the World Cup title back to Brazil. Lillard, who’s only one year older than Neymar, is the NBA’s brightest young star at its deepest and most important position. Both Neymar and Lillard have seen their abilities tested rigorously at tender ages, but have responded well thus far: Neymar scored nine goals in his debut season at Barcelona, and Lillard has hit like a billion clutch shots and won the 2013 Rookie of the Year award. You just can’t take your eyes off either when they’re on the ball.5 of 13
Russell Westbrook = Uruguay's Luis Suarez
There’s no #LetSuarezBeSuarez on soccer Twitter. When Suarez screws up and people question his “teamwork” or “decision-making,” it’s because he’s been known to quit teams, flip-off fans, bite people, refer to opponents by the color of their skin and embellish contact. Westbrook just takes bad shots when he’s feeling himself. That’s the difference between Russell Westbrook, polarizing folk hero, and Luis Suarez, polarizing but overwhelmingly villainous figure. Where they’re not so different is in their playing style—each might as well be from the same mother. The streaky, aggressive, hounding, erratic, show-stopping slew of plays that come from the arena whenever Westbrook or Suarez are in make them threats to elevate or crush their teams.6 of 13
Tony Parker = Spain's Andres Iniesta
It feels like every year Parker and Iniesta have incredible seasons, but you wouldn’t know it if you weren’t a fan of their teams. Parker keeps the Spurs ticking and attacking on offense, similar to what Iniesta will do for Spain. Their full spectrum of abilities trickle out throughout their games—a clean pass here, an unreal dribble there, a clutch play near the end of the game. While players like Blake Griffin or Ronaldo produce mind-melting, GIF-worthy plays in huge flashes of talent, Parker and Iniesta prefer a more nuanced approach.7 of 13
Teams: Miami Heat = Spain
Right now, Spain are the reigning champions of international soccer. They won the European Championship in 2008, the World Cup in 2010 and the European Championship AGAIN in 2012. They’re a modern sports dynasty and are trying to become the first nation to repeat as World Cup champions since Brazil did 1962. Like Spain, the Heat have won everything in recent years. Four straight Finals appearances and a chance to three-peat have them on top of the NBA, but as we’ve seen so far in the 2014 Finals, the team has a few cracks. Likewise, Spain’s star has been under threat lately—they lost the 2013 Confederation’s Cup to Brazil, and will need to trump history in order to win it all this summer: No European team has ever won the World Cup on South American soil.8 of 13
San Antonio Spurs = Brazil
Over the past 50 years, Brazil has cemented their own style, much like how Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have held down the Spurs for over a decade. Brazil plays with the flair of an expressionist painter, dazzling crowds and opponents with step-overs, marvelous bits of skill, acrobatic goals, and creative, daring passes.The Spurs averaged 60 to 70 more passes per game than the Thunder this season, consistently outplaying the field with their own brand of basketball that’s really unique to the Spurs and only the Spurs. Both teams have clear identities and systems that have stood the rest of time, and aren’t likely to be copied any time soon.9 of 13
Oklahoma City Thunder = Germany
When will the Thunder get over the hump? For about the past three seasons, the Thunder have been Western Conference favorites—the supposed foil to LeBron’s Heat (this may be more attributed to our hero-worship of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as an easier narrative to peddle than the reality of the situation: the Spurs are, and have been top dogs out in the West). And yet, the Thunder have yet to push themselves to a title. Likewise, Germany—a team that also loves to play at a hyperactive, breakneck pace—have been serious contenders for the World Cup and European Championship for at least the past eight years, and have failed to secure silverware. It’s a bit unfortunate, because the Thunder and Germany have both peaked as the Heat and Spain forged historically great teams to win everything in sight. The Germans will probably dominate the Group Stage of the competition before losing deep into the tournament, kind of like what the Thunder have done every regular season since Durant and Westbrook grew up.10 of 13
New York Knicks = England
An expensively assembled side that can never find stable management because of internal disfunction and cultural hysteria due to conservative and illogical decision making. These are your New York Knicks, a franchise that hasn’t won an NBA title since 1972, and what England’s been since they won the World Cup in 1966 (they’ve averaged a 7th place in the World Cup finish since, and haven’t returned to the Finals). The NBA and international soccer are both more enjoyable when these two teams are on and firing because of things like “pride” and “tradition,” and that’s really just a bunch of shit. We’ve had Jordan and Maradona since England and the Knicks were winning trophies. It’s been cool.
Atlanta Hawks = United States
Both the Atlanta Hawks and the United States Men’s National Team are both decent to good teams every World Cup cycle and playoff appearance. Each team usually has one or two marquee names, but lack the bottom-up talent to be taken too seriously. The United States have Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, but they also have Graham Zusi on the wing and godforsaken Jozy Altidore at the forward position. It’s like having Pero Antic and Elton Brand play 25 minutes a night each. Yuck. The United States, like the Hawks every playoffs, will be just happy to get out of the first round. Having no expectations, however, sometimes breeds pleasant surprises.