The pendulum has swung to the other side.
No doubt what happened to Paul George was gruesome. The fourth quarter of a relatively meaningless USA Basketball exhibition and one of the NBA’s rising stars goes up to block a James Harden shot, comes down with his foot on the base of too-close basketball stanchion and shatters his leg. He’s done for the next year, at least. Whether he is ever the same remains to be seen (although we all hope so).
It scared owners and GMs who have long feared such a thing and they leaned on their media sources about how this could be a tipping point for major NBA players in international competitions. How they don’t like to see the guys they are guaranteed to pay millions to playing for free internationally and risking these kinds of injuries.
Could what happened to George impact the USA’s roster for the 2016 Olympics in Rio?
Probably not much.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has already told the USA Today’s Sam Amick, “I don’t anticipate a major shift in the NBA’s participation in international competitions.”
Damian Lillard has already said he’s not backing away and his attitude will be the prevalent one among the ultra-competitive nature of NBA players.
Then there is the money. Many of the top players will want to go because the Olympics are a big stage and if you are an elite player trying to promote your brand it is the kind of platform you need to be on. To put it bluntly, if Kevin Durant wants to sell the latest Nike KD shoes in South America, Europe and China then the Olympics are a big marketing tool and everyone knows it. Same with Derrick Rose and adidas. Domestically NBA rings matter more than gold medals, but internationally that scale tips some. It’s hard to just say no.
Might LeBron James say no to chasing a basketball record fourth gold? Yes. But he might have anyway. There is no doubt some guys may be more hesitant and teams will be more cautious. But younger stars will want to go.
If a player is injured coming into the summer might the team pressure him to sit? Yes. But they would have done that anyway. See this summer when the Spurs would not release Manu Ginobili to play.
That summer is also a potentially big free agent summer and if a player doesn’t have a deal lined up or is trying to force a trade he may stay out. Think Kevin Love this summer.
But for the NBA to step in more unilaterally is hypocritical. The NBA asks players to play international exhibitions every year for free — NBA players do not get paid for those NBA pre-season games in China, Brazil, Mexico and the like (players are paid during the regular season, they get only a per diam during the preseason). The NBA is fine disrupting its schedule to have a couple of teams play one game in a week during the regular season in London.
But the Olympics would be bad?
NBA owners/GMs do have legitimate concerns. It’s less about Team USA and more about some international players who are pressured into EuroBasket and the World Cup and the Olympics and qualifying tournaments for all of them. It can be a drain. (It’s less of an issue with the very deep Team USA talent pool.) And Mark Cuban has an interesting idea in the NBA putting on its own World Cup so that the NBA owners would profit from these extra games (line their pockets instead of someone else’s’ and suddenly an international tournament is a good idea). Frankly both of those things can go hand-in-hand.
Former Commissioner David Stern floated the idea of doing with the Olympics what soccer has done — make it an under-22 tournament. The idea is to make the World Cup (run by FIBA or the NBA) a bigger event but limit the number of big events the main stars are asked to play. That can work, too, although it seems less likely.
The idea of limiting the number of international tournaments top stars are asked to play is a fair one.
But Pacers’ president Larry Bird is right that these kinds of injuries can happen anywhere. The NBA would be foolish to tell guys they can’t go to play at Rucker Park in New York, the Drew League in Los Angeles, The Goodman League in Washington D.C., the Seattle Pro-Am series or a host of other popular pro-ams in the summer because that helps grow the game, too.
It’s about balance. A better one may need to be struck with regard to international tournaments.
But the Olympics are too big a stage right now not to think the best and brightest will want to step on it and add a gold medal or two to their resume. To cut that off would be bad for the NBA.