Aug 1, 2014; Las Vegas, NV, USA; The USA Basketball team players and coaching staff look on as guard Paul George is tended to by medical personnel after suffering a leg injury during the USA Basketball Showcase at Thomas & Mack Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Team USA: Should college or NBA stars play?

In the wake of Paul George’s gruesome leg injury during the USA Basketball’s showcase in Las Vegas, the question has been raised yet again: Who should be competing in International basketball competition, college stars or NBA stars?

The answer depends on who you ask.

From a fan’s perspective, of course, the fans want the best players competing for the USA. I mean, it’s obvious: Who wouldn’t want to watch the best players play more? It’s a silly argument.

Fans, though, are very selfish. We want the best quality of basketball all the time. That means we want to see LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and all of the other American superstars destroy the competition abroad. If those superstars weren’t playing, would we even pay attention? Probably not.

Americans, traditionally, haven’t cared how the Team USA basketball team has fared in International competition, unless we lose. Obviously, we expect the team to win, regardless of who’s on the team. That’s why it was shocking and embarrassing in the 2002 World Championships, 2004 Olympics, and 2006 World Championships when Team USA lost in all three tournaments. Most average fans lost faith in Team USA and, essentially, stopped caring about USA Basketball abroad.

Of course, Team USA rebounded in the 2008 Olympics, 2010 World Championships, and 2012 Olympics, when USAB, led by Jerry Colangelo, created an environment worthy of the NBA’s biggest stars to compete. That alone led to a resurgence in people caring about Team USA basketball, and it helped when the biggest stars in the world opted to compete in the 2008 Olympics, instead of taking the summer off.

There’s always been die-hards who love Team USA basketball, but there’s also been people who’ve been very critical of the USA sending the top players to play against inferior competition and believe college players, amateurs, should be the ones representing the USA in the world competitions. Typically, I’ve laughed in the face of those people for years, but George’s injury has made me rethink my stance on the issue. Not change it, necessarily, just think more.

For one, I love watching the NBA’s biggest stars in international competition, but that’s because I love basketball way more than the average fan. I’m one the people who’d wake up super early in the morning to watch Team USA live during the Olympics and World Championships. Most people aren’t going to do that. I have to ask myself: “Would I wake up to watch the biggest college stars in the Olympics?”

Maybe. I can’t say for sure, but I definitely know I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. For the average fan, I can say with absolute certainty there is no way the average fan will watch college players as opposed to established NBA stars in the Olympics, especially if they have to make an extra effort to watch outside of primetime viewing. College stars don’t move the needle outside of March, so viewership would take a major hit.

It’s more than just about the fans, though. The owners are the ones who are risking their business by allowing players to play in competitive tournaments in the offseason. Mark Cuban, who has let his view be known for the better part of a decade on this issue, spoke out again to ESPN.com  and Marc Stein this week after Paul George’s injury:

“The [International Olympic Committee] is playing the NBA. The IOC is an organization that has been rife with corruption, to the point where a member was accused of trying to fix an Olympic event in Salt Lake. The IOC [pulls in] billions of dollars. They make a killing and make Tony Soprano look like a saint.

“The pros in multiple sports are smart enough to not play when they are eligible free agents. But teams take on huge financial risk so that the IOC committee members can line their pockets.

“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 also told this to ESPNDallas.com in 2012, which was also pulled from ESPN.com’s story:

“It’s just the epitome of stupidity that we would allow ourselves to be used so other corporations can make tens, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars. There’s some guys sitting at the Olympic headquarters going, ‘Those dumbasses, we’re taking all their best guys for nothing.’ ”

“I understand from Dirk’s perspective,” Cuban said then. “We should never put our athletes in that position. For some sports the Olympics are very, very important. For basketball, it’s meaningless. It’s not that they’re not decent games. All things being equal, it’s fun to watch us play Argentina and Spain, but it would be just as fun if they were 21 and under.”

For the most part, I agree with Cuban on the issue from his perspective. The NBA and its owners are taking a huge risk by letting their stars play in international competition with no compensation. The IOC and FIBA are raking in the profits without risking anything. If anything, the NBA should be putting on these tournaments and lining their pockets with all the revenue the events generate.

The IOC and FIBA make these tournaments possible, and they do allow NBA stars to promote the NBA and generate interest abroad. It’s a huge part of the reason why basketball is the second most popular sport in the world, and why American football hasn’t been able to take that leap internationally. International tournaments do help the NBA, but wouldn’t they help the NBA in a similar way if up-and-coming stars were playing overseas instead of established stars?

That’s an interesting topic for debate, and I think college stars would generate a lot of interest abroad. Definitely not as much as, say, Kobe Bryant would in China, but fans would still pile into the arenas in troves to see Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, and the best players college basketball has to offer.

The risk is still there for NBA franchises and for college basketball, too. Wiggins and Parker could easily have been injured just like George was. Imagine if Jahlil Okafor, Coach K’s prized recruit at Duke, would have broken his leg and missed the entire college season. That’d have a huge impact on the college basketball landscape and Duke, as well, but people would still watch college basketball.  The impact of George’s injury is much more devastating to the NBA. Is anyone planning on watching or going to Indiana’s games next season without George and Lance Stephenson on the court for the Pacers?

Even if the injured player was returning to college, like Okafor, the injury would have less of an impact on the NCAA. I’d argue the NCAA is more about camaraderie and supporting your school than it is about the stars. The NBA, however, is a star’s league. When the league has fewer stars, ratings and revenue suffer. With more stars, the NBA flourishes.

From an owner’s perspective, sending younger college players to play in international competition makes more sense than sending established NBA stars. There’s just a lot more to lose if you’re an NBA owner and you’re best player gets injured playing in a tournament that doesn’t matter.

Aug 1, 2014; Las Vegas, NV, USA; USA Team Blue guard Paul George (29) is carted off on a gurney after injuring his leg during the USA Basketball Showcase at Thomas &Mack Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Aug 1, 2014; Las Vegas, NV, USA; USA Team Blue guard Paul George (29) is carted off on a gurney after injuring his leg during the USA Basketball Showcase at Thomas &Mack Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Then again, what does and doesn’t matter is relative to the person deciding. If playing in the Olympics and World Cup matters to the players, then it does, in fact, matter on some level.

For the players, international competition is a way to grow their brand in markets that have previously been untapped. There’s more than a billion people in China, and there’s a lot of basketball fans. There’s basketball fans all over the world. These tournaments present opportunities for those fans to see the best players in the world, who also happen to be American, in their neck of the woods.

Playing abroad opens up new opportunities for players to make more money and become international superstars. Dwyane Wade, who played in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, left Nike and signed a shoe contract with China’s Li-Ning. Forbes reported the contract was a six-year, $107.5 million deal and gave Wade an equity stake in the company. It’s hard to imagine that contract would have been possible had Wade not played in the Olympics in China four years prior to inking the deal. Wade’s shoe contract is just one example of the many international endorsement opportunities for NBA superstars.

Playing abroad helps players grow their brand, but it also allows players room and time to get better. As Lee Jenkins pointed out in his piece on George’s injury, unlike some sports, players need to play basketball to get better. There’s flow and rhythm to the game that can’t be replicated without playing in highly competitive situations.

Because of Colangelo’s investment and Head coach Mike Kryzewski’s drive to bring Team USA Basketball back to the top of the world, the USAB training camp is a way NBA players can come together in the offseason and work on their game by playing against the best players in the world. Playing against international competition isn’t exactly challenging for most of the members of Team USA. Obviously, no one on Team USA in the 2012 Olympics got better playing against Nigeria and scoring 156 points.

It’s the day-to-day competition in practice; it’s seeing how stars like Bryant and James prepare and work on their game; it’s working everyday with some of the best coaches in the game that helps the Team USA players improve in the offseason.

If the best American players want to risk their bodies and play more competitive basketball abroad during the summer, then more power to them. If they don’t, that’s fine too. The problem is that the players will always choose to play, if they’re wired how we think they are wired. A player doesn’t become an NBA superstar by sitting around afraid to get hurt. These players put their livelihood on the line every time they step on the court, either to play in a pick-up game or the NBA Finals. The players will always want to play, and that’s why it’s not fair to make them choose between club (their NBA team) and country.

What’s the solution? How can this be resolved?

Well, first off, the irony of this debate is that George wasn’t injured playing in the World Cup or the Olympics. He was injured in a Team USA scrimmage, leading up to those events. It’s true his injury could have happened at any pick-up game, pro-am, or organized basketball event anywhere in the country. If owners are worried about players getting injured playing basketball, maybe they shouldn’t be owners of a basketball team anymore.

The owners should not have the ability to restrict what their players do and don’t do when it comes to playing basketball in the offseason. The owners, however, should find out what the exact appeal is for playing with Team USA. Is it to get better? Is it to play for your country? What exactly is the goal?

If the goal is to get better, then the NBA should put together a summer program for the elite players in the league to compete against each other on a daily basis. The NBA Summer League is for developing talent. The NBA could arrange the top players in the league to compete in a training camp, and then take it on the road and tour different cities, like the Harlem Globe Trotters. The NBA could even take the games abroad and play against other national teams, so the players could still have that international access. At least, the NBA would be keeping it and handling it all in-house.

If the goal is to play for Team USA, then the NBA should allow NBA players over-21 to play in one of the two tournaments, the Olympics or the FIBA World Cup. I stole this idea from how international soccer and the soccer clubs have negotiated their deal in the past. Basically, under-23′s play in the Olympics and three players over 23 years old are allowed to play for the team, as well. For the FIFA World Cup, any players can take part if they are selected to the national team.

It makes sense to have one tournament for helping develop talent and another for the already established talent. I’d like to see the NBA, IOC, and FIBA agree for something like that to happen in international basketball competition.

Obviously, I’m saddened by George’s injury, as a fan and a human being. You never want to see that happen to anybody, an NBA superstar, or an up-and-coming college star. You also hate to use that injury as a talking point when referencing a larger issue at hand, but it’s not until something like this happens that helps people gain perspective on what’s actually happening. It’s going to be a tough road back for George. I, however, am confident he’ll make a full recovery and this will just be a hiccup in his career.

I don’t have a direct answer for who should and shouldn’t play in international competition. I’m torn right down the middle. I love watching the NBA stars as much as possibly can. On the other hand, I absolutely hate seeing George go down injured in an exhibition game. I can’t have my cake and eat it too, as they say.

Right now, the owners seem like they’re at a disadvantage because of the NBA’s agreement with the IOC. Although if the Donald Sterling situation and the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement are any indication, it doesn’t seem like some of the owners give a rip about the players anyway, so definitely do not, under any circumstances, feel bad for them.

Perhaps, there is no right or wrong answer, but compromise seems like the best way to accomplish that goal. Though, if you’re relying on the players and the owners to agree on anything lately, DON’T!

I have a feeling this issue is about to get messy, with the possible lockout and new CBA coming in 2017. We better have our bibs ready.

 

Tags: FIBA World Cup NBA Paul George Team USA

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