How Olympics Participation Affects NBA Stars' Productivity and Longevity

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How Olympics Participation Affects NBA Stars' Productivity and Longevity
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The 2012 London Olympics could be the last time basketball fans get to see the NBA's best and brightest suit up together on the grandest of international stages.

That is if NBA commissioner David Stern gets his way.

Stern has made no secret, however fruitlessly, of his desire to promote a Basketball World Cup (by which the FIBA World Championship will now be known) in which the NBA and its owners will presumably have a greater measure of control and an even greater stake in the potential profits.

But Stern, ever the crafty politician, hasn't exactly framed it that way. He's bandied about the idea of instituting an age limit for prospective Olympians, suggesting that only those under 23 should be allowed to partake in the Summer Games while leaving the door open for players of all ages to suit up for the World Cup.

His reasoning? Aside from granting greater exposure to the game's younger stars, Stern seems to think older players would benefit from not having to endure the additional wear and tear of training, exhibitions and actual games that comes with representing one's country on the court.

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Stern has said that such rules would be in the best interest of player welfare, thereby suggesting that those who've carried their respective flags have seen their playing time and performance on the court.

Interesting thoughts, to say the least, coming from a man who felt it prudent to stuff 66 games into a span of four months after the lockout.

But for the sake of argument, we'll bite, Commish. We'll play naive and take your concerns at face value.

The question then becomes, are Stern's "worries" warranted? Are they backed up by facts or data or anything more than anecdotes about Zydrunas Ilgauskas' skyrocketing healthcare costs?

In short, does Olympic participation make players more vulnerable to decline or injury?

We decided to find out, with a helping hand from Basketball Reference, that all-encompassing bastion of hoops knowledge.

 

How We Found Our Numbers

To do so, we looked at data from NBA players who competed at the 2004 Athens Games, the 2008 Beijing Games or both.

Not just any NBA players, though. I restricted my search to those who played in the NBA before and after a particular Olympiad. After all, there's no use trying to measure the effect of the Olympics without information on both temporal sides of the event.

In that regard, we included up to three seasons of data for each player on each end, but no fewer than one. For example, with LeBron James, we had three seasons of data prior to and three seasons of data following the 2008 Olympics. But, because he'd just finished his rookie campaign prior to the 2004 Olympics, we had only one season to use as a "baseline", if you will.

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As such, the data itself isn't entirely exacting or strict in its parameters, though it should provide some sense of direction to the aforementioned discussion.

All told, there were 42 NBA players who "qualified" for inclusion from 2004 and 2008. Six players—LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Carlos Boozer, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili and Yao MIng—appeared twice because they participated in and played in the NBA before and after both Olympic tournaments in question. Unsurprisingly, the majority were members of Team USA. Emeka Okafor was the only American who was left out, on account of the fact that he hadn't played a single minute in the NBA before he went to Athens in 2004.

 

A Look at the Data

Below is a table with the average percentage changes seen in games, minutes, points, rebounds and assists for those 42 NBA players between their collective performance before and after they were Olympians.

  Games Minutes Points Rebounds Assists
Average Change (+ or -) -7.0% +2.5% +10.4% +3.1% +14.0%
Average Deviation (all) 15.4% 10.1% 21.5% 13.9% 24.7%
Average Change (- only) -16.7% (out of 27) -7.0% (out of 23) -11.1% (out of 19) -14.2% (out of 16) -13.2% (out of 17)
Average Change (+ only) 12.6% (out of 14) 14.8% (out of 18) 29.8% (out of 22) 14.3% (out of 25) 35.3% (out of 23)

 

For the first row—labeled "Average Change (+ or -)—I simply took the percentage changes for every player in a given category (positive or negative), added them up and divided that number by 42. This should give us a sense of whether the overall trend was positive or negative for a particular stat.

For the second row—labeled "Average Deviation (all)"—I did the same thing as in the first row, except I made all of the numbers positive. The point here is to look how much the players' stats changed after the Olympics, regardless of direction.

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For the third row— labeled "Average Change (- only)"—I added up only the percentage changes of those whose numbers declined in a given category and divided the total by the number of players included to find the average. I included how many players were taken into account in parentheses. These numbers are meant to clarify how negative the change was, on average, for those who experienced negative change in a particular regard.

For the fourth and final row—labeled "Average Change (+ only)—I followed the same protocol as in the third row, except I used only the numbers from those who saw positive change in a given category.

In each statistical category, there was at least one player whose numbers didn't change after the Olympics.

 

What We Might Know

Here's what the above data may suggest:

1. On the whole, Olympians played an average of seven percent fewer NBA games after the Olympics when compared to their average from before. In fact, nearly two-thirds of those sampled (27) played fewer games in the seasons following the Olympics than they did before. One-third (14) played in more games, while one player (LeBron after the 2004 Olympics) saw no change on average.

Also, those who were adversely affected in this regard saw a slightly stronger impact than those who were positively affected.

2. As one might expect, most of the games missed were accumulated on account of injuries. Of the 42 players sampled, 17 suffered injuries of some sort before the Olympics, 27 went down with injuries afterward (16 in the season immediately following the Olympics) and 13 saw their bodies betray them before and after Olympic play. Knee, leg, foot and ankle injuries were the most common, as they tend to be for all pro basketball players.

3. As far as actual productivity is concerned, the Olympics would appear to have something of a positive effect, if anything. The average NBA Olympian saw a positive percentage change in points, rebounds and assists, as well as minutes played, after the Olympics.

What's more, those whose productivity increased in any given category typically saw a much more dramatic change than those who fell off, except in rebounding, which sat at just over 14 percent either way.

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This may or may not have something to do with the supposed boost of confidence that some players (most notably Carmelo Anthony and Lamar Odom) have been known to take away from competing in the international tournaments. Anthony had a banner year in 2008-09, leading the Denver Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals, just after winning gold in Beijing. Odom, on the other hand, garnered the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award in 2010-11, immediately following his triumph with Team USA at the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey.

 

Why We Don't Really Know Anything

The problem with trying to draw conclusions from any of this, though, is that we can't be sure whether Olympic basketball is a cause, much less the cause, for a number of reasons.

1. We don't have access to adequately compiled data for those who played in the Olympics, but didn't play in the NBA. Most Olympians play in other leagues around the world, but complete stats for those leagues are difficult to come by, to say the least. As such, it's difficult to consider, with any accuracy, whether Olympic wear and tear was an NBA phenomenon or something that all participants encountered in the aftermath—whether the NBA Olympian experience was, indeed, unique to the NBA.

2. We don't have access to adequately compiled data to calculate percentage changes in the NBA-wide averages for statistics over the periods of time examined. That is, we have no way of knowing, with any certainty, whether the statistical changes seen amongst Olympians were due to Olympic participation or if they were simply reflective of wider statistical trends among all NBA players, Olympians and otherwise, over a given period of time.

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Hoopdata.com has some of the compiled data we're looking for, but only goes back as far as the 2006-07 season. Surprisingly enough, NBA.com and even the vaunted Basketball Reference don't have such information readily available among their stores.

In scientific terms, we don't have a well-established control group (of average NBA players) that can tell us if our test group (of NBA Olympians) was markedly different.

3. Even if we did, there would be no surefire way for us to know if the Olympics were, indeed, the cause of the change in question. There's no means by which we can determine with any conclusiveness that injuries and declining production are the results of Olympic competition rather than, say, age, average wear-and-tear and/or random chance.

Injuries, in particular, are capable of cropping up at any time and under the most random of circumstances. For example, if a given player goes to the Olympics, comes back and rolls his ankle or lands awkwardly the following season, can we reasonably attribute the resulting injury to his having spent the bulk of his summer training for and competing in a meaningful tournament?

Frankly, we don't have enough accurate information on the types of injuries and their severity that Olympians suffered to consider a widespread connection. Neither do we have access to comprehensive data regarding injuries suffered by NBA non-Olympians and non-NBA Olympians.

Again, there's no control group to which we might compare Olympians.

4. Similarly, we can't assume that players didn't or wouldn't have put their bodies in harm's way in the offseason had they not gone to the Olympics. There's no data available that tells us how Olympians and non-Olympians spent their respective summers, and whether what they did had any connection to or effect on whatever happened to them later on.

Perhaps some guys spent their summers relaxing while on vacation. Perhaps others spent their free time lifting weights in the gym or practicing by themselves (or with a trainer) on the court, or even jumped into informal recreational leagues.

The only ones whose summers we have any clear idea about on paper are those who played in the Olympics and/or the FIBA World Championship. 

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Of course, that doesn't mean that such players are the only ones grinding down their bodies on the hardwood. As Kobe Bryant noted to Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times when asked in early July about the potential institution of an Olympic age limit:

If I'm an owner, I would want my player to play [internationally] because I understand that they're going to be playing anyway, going to be playing pickup basketball in the summertime, and I'm not going to be able to know where they are. They could be playing against a bunch of bums — no, really — guys that feel like they have something to prove and all of a sudden, a [star player] goes to the rim and a guy takes them out and now he's hurt.

Here you're playing against the best guys, you have treatment around the clock, your [NBA] coaching staff can always come sit in the stands and view practice. To me, playing on an Olympic basketball team is actually better if you're an owner.

In other words, the best players are likely to spend their offseasons on the basketball court in some form or fashion, whether they're competing internationally or not.

And, if anything, it's better to have guys competing in official tournaments like those in the Olympics—where trainers, coaches and medical personnel can closely monitor them—than on playgrounds and/or at local indoor courts, where the rules are about as strict as those that governed the Wild West.

Now, it's possible that commissioner Stern, being the omnipotent figure in the basketball world that he is, is privy to information that we don't have. It's possible that he and his legions of minions at the NBA's headquarters in New York City have crunched the numbers, run the statistical tests and come to their own conclusions, or are at least able to do so if they please.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

However, as far as we, the inquisitive public, are concerned, there's no concrete evidence, as of yet, to substantiate the commish's supposed concerns about player safety and well-being in the aftermath of the Olympics.

Which may lead some to conclude that Stern is once again full of it, that his push for an Olympic age limit is just another in a long line of power plays for a man who's fashioned a historic career out of wielding the collective influence of wealthy owners over their (decidedly rich) players.

But, unfortunately, we don't have any hard data on that, either.

 

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