The trials and tribulations that Team USA have recently gone through prior to the 2014 FIBA World Cup tournament speak to some of the biggest issues surrounding American players and their involvement in international competition.
On August 30, Team USA will open their campaign against Finland, the minnows of international basketball. In truth, the preliminary round doesn’t get too much harder after that, with perhaps Turkey the only team capable of giving Coach K’s side something resembling a challenge.
Once the tournament transitions into the knockout phase, however, Team USA could be in for some tricky games. France, Argentina and their hosts, Spain, look set to contend for medals. Although Team USA are the favourites, an upset at the hands of one those aforementioned teams wouldn’t be shocking. The potential gold medal game against their Spanish hosts in front of a hostile crowd in Madrid could be quite a challenge.
Things wouldn’t be quite so complicated if Team USA had not been decimated by withdrawals and injuries in recent weeks. Prior to training camp, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul all announced that they wouldn’t be participating this summer. Then, after the initial training camp roster was announced (it will be trimmed to 12 players in the next few days), LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard and Blake Griffin all withdrew, citing a need for rest and recuperation. Just days after that, Kevin Love, at the time embroiled in trade speculation, also pulled out, leaving the team worryingly thin in the frontcourt. (At the time of writing, DeMarcus Cousins suffered a knee injury in training. Yikes.)
Team USA experienced its two biggest blows most recently, however. Paul George was lost to a devastating injury—an injury which will remove him from any basketball participation for the next 18 months. Then Kevin Durant, the tournament’s best player, withdrew, telling the coaching staff that he was physically and mentally drained from the NBA season. In a matter of days, Team USA had lost both its most versatile defender and its most explosive scorer.
Team USA, with the likes of Derrick Rose (a rejuvenated Derrick Rose, by all accounts), Damian Lillard, Steph Curry, Anthony Davis and James Harden still on the roster, are still more than capable of winning the gold, but it will now be infinitely more of a challenge. Add to that Americans’ perception of the tournament as second-rate, and the podium pictures gets a little more unclear.
First and foremost, for American players, the NBA is priority number one—it’s where they make their money and where they become household names. International basketball is usually an afterthought. If a player is good enough to be selected for the Olympics or the FIBA World Cup, it’s a nice bonus—a sign that they are doing all the right things for their respective franchise. But few players grow up dreaming about winning the World Cup over winning the Larry O’Brien trophy.
For non-American players things are a little different. The top players on the other contending nations’ teams—guys like Marc Gasol, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili—are NBA stars, but not every player on the rosters of Spain, France and Argentina are household names. The Olympics and World Cup give players the opportunity to showcase their skills on a bigger stage, in front of a global audience—an American audience, perhaps. In Europe in particular, there is also a feeling that the international game in soccer, rugby, or other sports represents the pinnacle of competition. Stateside this certainly is not the case—for obvious reasons, kids don’t grow up passionately rooting for a Team USA in football or baseball.
More fundamentally, however, international basketball has a timing issue. The World Cup starts right in the middle of the off-season, at a time when many players are recovering from a grueling 82-game NBA season—and for those players whose teams went deep into the playoffs, something closer to a 100-game season. A guy like Kevin Durant loves to compete—he’d probably play basketball every day if he could—but he sensibly recognizes that he’s burnt-out from the season and could use the summer to rest, as opposed to playing more high-level basketball.
There is a major international basketball tournament every two years. The Rio Olympics are in 2016 and if FIBA wants maximum participation from NBA players—particularly the American players—they should consider removing basketball from the Olympics, or returning the tournament to its pre-1992 roots, meaning college players only.
In soccer, for example, the World Cup is the only worldwide tournament that truly matters. Soccer at the Olympics is for players who are 23 and younger, and few fans put much stock in the tournament. A FIBA World Cup every four year—marketed as the most prestigious (and only) international basketball tournament—could stand to get greater commitment from the superstars of the NBA.
The other issue, of course, is whether the NBA itself is cooperating in terms of making international competition more viable for American superstars. As mentioned, the NBA season is a long, arduous affair, potentially making the prospect of playing high-level ball in August unappealing. One idea—albeit an unrealistic one for financial reasons—would be to shorten the regular season by 10 games during World Cup years. Players might not get as tired after a 72-game regular season.
The idea of the NBA shortening its season to accommodate international basketball will only happen, however, if the NBA has control of whatever tournament its players are involved in. Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban has been for many years a critic of international basketball in its current state. Cuban believes that the NBA should own and operate its own international tournament. The argument is that if teams are going to allow their players on their payroll to participate in international competition and risk injury, then the NBA and its owners should profit from the tournament, as opposed to FIBA and the International Olympic Committee.
Regarding Olympic competition, Cuban is quoted as saying, “The greatest trick ever played was the IOC convincing the world that the Olympics were about patriotism and national pride instead of money. The players and owners should get together and create our own World Cup of Basketball.”
Cuban’s position as an owner, although self-serving, is understandable. If Dirk Nowitzki, a player he’s paying $10 million a year, is injured playing for Team Germany in the summer—in a competition that he has no financial stake in—his team is in big trouble. The Indiana Pacers, for example, now look set to be a lottery team after losing George to that horrific leg-break—an injury that might have played a role in Kevin Durant’s decision to withdraw, despite what he said on record.
The fact is players can get injured at anytime and anywhere. Kevin Love sustained a ridiculous injury two seasons ago doing knuckle push-ups, and Paul George could’ve sustained a similar injury playing at Rucker Park this summer. And it wasn’t like he suffered his injury in a game situation—it was a scrimmage.
That said, the optics for international basketball weren’t good. Some players, owners and general managers would’ve looked at the idea of off-season play in a different light after George’s injury. A prominent general manager told Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski (the all-seeing, the all-knowing) that George’s injury “could be a game-changer for international basketball.”
The majority of American players are still going to suit up for Team USA in international competition, whether playing under the auspices of the IOC or under FIBA—barring some kind of basketball revolution (or Team Canada getting it together), they’ll always be the heavy favourites. But with NBA basketball as all-encompassing as it currently is, and the spectre of an off-season injury looming large in players’ minds, expect many more summers of disruption for Team USA going forward.