Should NBA players be allowed to play for their countries?

Posted: 08/02/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

You’ve probably already heard about it, but if you haven’t, yesterday Paul George suffered a horrific leg injury. In many ways, it was a mirror image to Kevin Ware’s injury in the 2013 NCAA tournament, as George’s leg clearly snapped. He broke both his tibia and fibula, and his future is very much in doubt. I’m not going to link a video of the injury because it’s that gruesome. The best case scenario is that George rehabs for the next year and is 100% healthy entering the 2015-16 regular season. The worst case? He rushes his rehab (like Ware did) and is never the same player that he was before the injury. Either way, the Indiana Pacers just got the worst possible offseason news: their franchise cornerstone got injured and will likely miss the upcoming year. That basically crushes any hopes the Pacers had at sniffing their regular season success last season. Last season, they started Lance Stephenson and George on the wings and relied on those two to provide the bulk of their scoring. With Stephenson gone and George out, they’ll likely be forced to start free agency signings Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles on the wings.

Wait… It’s the offseason, so how did George get injured? It’s good that you asked, because that’s why I’m writing this blog post. If George had been working out or playing a pickup game, we would have called this a terrible fluke and moved on. But George wasn’t playing a pickup game. He was in the midst of preparation with other NBA stars for the 2014 FIBA World Cup which will take place in Spain. He and his teammates were in the middle of an intrasquad scrimmage when he tried to block a James Harden shot and flew into the padding under the basket. His leg ended up bent at an angle that no leg is supposed to be at, and it snapped. This injury will spur a question that has long been controversial: should the NBA allow its players to play for their country? In this post, I’ll touch on each side of the debate. I’ll name one side “Team Mark Cuban” and the other “Team Larry Bird and Other Patriotic People.”

Team Mark Cuban: As you can probably guess, Mark Cuban is against the idea of an NBA player participating for his country in an international competition. His stance is simple: the players are employed by NBA teams an by extension the NBA. Therefore, they should be resting or training for the upcoming season during the offseason rather than performing in another competition where they aren’t being paid. Cuban feels that it’s unfair that FIBA and the Olympics, among other “corporations” (in his words), can profit off the NBA’s product without paying for their services. He doesn’t feel that teams should be exposed to the risks associated with international competition, which obviously include injury but also fatigue. Cuban has long been hoping for a league-wide vote that would forbid players from performing in international competitions, and wants to turn these competitions into 21-and-under-tournaments. The crux of his and other owners’ argument is this: the league pays the players to perform at peak condition during the season, so the players shouldn’t be allowed to risk injury or fatigue during the offseason by playing in international competitions like the FIBA World Cup and the Olympics.

Team Larry Bird and Other Patriotic People: This is the other side of the argument. The interesting part of this is that Bird, who was a member of the US’s legendary 1992 Olympic “Dream Team”, is the team president of the Pacers, the same team that Paul George is a part of. That makes the statement that Bird made following the injury all the more interesting:

”We still support USA Basketball and believe in the NBA’s goals of exposing our game, our teams and players worldwide,” Bird said. “This is an extremely unfortunate injury that occurred on a highly-visible stage, but could also have occurred anytime, anywhere.”

When you consider who Larry Bird is, this statement is not surprising at all. Bird believes that a player should be able to represent his country in international competitions, and that belief isn’t going to be changed by one flukey injury. He’s not only a patriotic person, though: Bird also thinks that allowing these players to compete internationally will enhance the NBA’s global appeal. Basically, he’s answering Cuban’s complaint by saying that, while there is a risk, allowing players to compete internationally in the end greatly aides the NBA’s quest to become more popular globally. Don’t you think Cuban’s Mavericks are helped by Dirk Nowitzki’s participation in international tournaments. Do you think the Mavs would get as much revenue from Germany as they undoubtedly do if Nowitzki were prohibited from competing internationally? The answer is no. There’s also the fact that George’s injury was again a fluke, albeit a tragic fluke. It didn’t happen in a pickup game, but it easily could have. So these are the three main arguments: players should be able to represent their countries (the patriotic argument), allowing players to perform internationally helps globalize the game (the business argument), and George’s injury could have happened anywhere (the fluke argument).

In the end, it’s an interesting debate, and it’s one that has no right answer. Cuban’s points make sense, but so do Bird’s. I think players should be able to perform internationally, although maybe they could get paid at least a marginal amount for their efforts in international competitions. George’s injury happened during Team USA training and stinks for the Pacers, but it wasn’t caused by the fact that George was playing for Team USA. It was a fluke injury that could have happened anywhere, so the Pacers just have to deal with it and move on. It seems like Larry Bird has already done so, and Mark Cuban would likely be forced to do the same if one of his players were injured during an international competition, because it doesn’t seem likely that players will be prohibited from performing internationally, at least not anytime soon.

  1. dpcathena says:

    Team Mark Cuban always consists of one member when you strip away all the bluster.

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