No Easy Answers in NBA's International Competition Conundrum

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No Easy Answers in NBA's International Competition Conundrum
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The tragic broken leg Paul George suffered during a Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas may not be a game-changer in terms of international competition, but it was certainly a conversation-starter.

"Thank God he signed his contract and got that out of the way first before the injury," Derrick Rose said this week, per CBSSports.com's Ken Berger. "Because when it happened, you could put yourself in his shoes and say, 'Damn, that could've been me.'"

"That's my first time ever witnessing something like that," Rose added. "When it first happened, it kind of took me by surprise, because you see how talented he is and how young he is. You don't want that to happen to anyone."

Rose has dealt with more than his fair share of recent injuries, of course, playing a total of just 49 games over the course of the last three seasons.

The chance that Rose—or anyone else on Team USA—could be subject to a freak injury like George's during international competition has sparked concern, if not outright criticism.

"Everybody in the NBA ought to wise up," wrote the Chicago Tribune's Steve Rosenbloom (subscription required). "George’s gruesome-looking injury over the weekend changed everything, or at least it did in the minds of people who aren’t brain dead."

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"You have to be an idiot owner to let your players participate in international hoops. You have to be a stupid and selfish player to do it," added Rosenbloom.

Stupid and selfish?

Whatever happened to representing your nation on a global stage?

Rosenbloom isn't having any of it, writing, "I don’t care if your country is calling. Hang up. Your NBA team pays you millions. That’s who you work for. Tell Uncle Sam and Coach K to find some college kids who aren’t the difference between an NBA championship and a waste of time."

There's little doubt that some sympathize with Rosenbloom's blunt opinion, particularly those Chicago Bulls fans holding their breath every time Rose makes a cut or explodes to the basket.

But there's a strong argument to be made that the risks of summer competition are overstated, that George's injury was by far the exception rather than the rule.

As The New York Times' Harvey Araton contends, "While playing outside the N.B.A., the stars of the league have always accepted risk, minimal as the statistical evidence screams it has been. Some players have struggled during the season after a Team USA summer. Many others have soared."

ESPN Insider's Jay Bilas (subscription required) echoed that sentiment, writing, "In the past 10 years under Colangelo and Coach K, there have been no other major injuries, and players have left USA Basketball performing better than before, to the point of having career seasons after participation."

That's certainly how George sees things.

Indeed, the proliferation of summer pick-up games and other training rigors suggest that NBA players will be vulnerable to risk one way or the other, perhaps even more so outside the closely monitored confines of Team USA.

Even so, offseason injuries of any significance are rare.

And in the eyes of many, there remain compelling reasons to incur that oh-so negligible risk.

"When people are willing to put themselves on the line, and maybe even lose money, potentially, they’re willing to do it because they care," said USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo, per Araton. "How can someone take issue with someone willing to represent their country?"

Indeed, it's a calling that extends beyond the United States' own players. Players like Serge Ibaka (Spain) and Nene Hilario (Brazil) face similar motivations to represent their countries too. Were it not for a nagging leg injury, Manu Ginobili would be suiting up for Argentina this summer.

This isn't the first time the chairman has approached the issue, flag firmly in hand.

Just four days after George's injury, Colangelo spoke about just that calling, per NBA.com's John Schuhmann:

To be able to represent your country is what it’s all about. It is about being patriotic. It is about selfless service. And our players get that. All you need to do is ask any of them who have been involved with us in our last three competitions and they would, to a man, say they feel they’re better people, better players, and felt a real warming within their soul to represent their country.

Warmed souls weren't enough to sell a number of the league's stars on taking their talents to Spain this summer. 

LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony—all participants in the 2012 London Summer Olympics—elected to sit things out during the offseason. LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love soon joined them. 

Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook opted out on account of health issues.

Then came Kevin Durant's surprising withdrawal.

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"I need to take a step back and take some time away, both mentally and physically in order to prepare for the upcoming NBA season," Durant said in a statement, per ESPN.com. "I will be rooting for USAB and look forward to future opportunities with them."

To be sure, Durant's decision can't be definitively linked to George's injury, lest we resort to completely baseless speculation. The big takeaway—in terms of Durant and others staying home—is that summer competition can certainly be a taxing distraction from the NBA cycle.

"Whether it played a role or not in Durant's decision, George's injury already had jump-started the conversation about whether NBA stars should be playing internationally anymore," wrote CBSSports.com's Ken Berger. "The best players tend to be on playoff teams, logging 100 or more games during the eight-month grind of the regular season and playoffs."

That view is consistent with what at least some in league circles have expressed.

"People are being irresponsible if they don’t think this type of play impacts franchises and careers," said one Eastern Conference executive, according to The Washington Post's Mike Wise. "Not just the catastrophic injuries, but the constant wearing down of joints and muscles that leads to burnout and these type of freak injuries."

Sometimes patriotism takes a backseat, given the demands of an NBA season. Even without taking public stands against international competition, the uneven participation this summer has spoken volumes.

Berger described it as, "a summer to forget for USA Basketball."

If Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has his way, it could be the first of many.

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Cuban's position is more nuanced than most. He doesn't oppose international competition in and of itself. He merely opposes the current system in which it operates.

"The [International Olympic Committee] is playing the NBA," Cuban said after George's injury, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein. "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."

"Teams take on huge financial risk so that the IOC committee members can line their pockets," Cuban added. "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 makes a fair point. And he isn't the only one making it.

If NBA organizations are the ones incurring all the risk, why aren't they also reaping their share of the reward? It's the franchises themselves that consistently stand the most to lose—whether that loss is catastrophic or simply manifests itself as wear and tear. 

So perhaps there's still room for patriotism, but that doesn't obviate the need for reform—or even a new international coalition in which profits are shared among teams providing the talent.

Other solutions are less ambitious, particularly when it comes to NBA teams deserving the authority to permit their own players to participate in FIBA competition.

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As The Washington Post's Mike Wise argued, "Iis responsible to question how FIBA, the sport’s international governing body, can continue to enforce its agreement with the NBA that prevents teams from influencing their players to play or not play unless there is a pre-existing injury."

One way or the other, owners probably deserve increased control over the process—even if they've largely remained quiet on the issue altogether.

For their part, the players themselves have to use some discretion as well. Beyond patriotic fervor, international competition also affords them opportunities to grow their global brands—selling more shoes and merchandise in the process.

This isn't just about outreach for the NBA; it's also about expanding player exposure and marketability.

As the San Jose Mercury News' Marcus Thompson II hypothetically put it, "Stephen Curry shouldn't have to miss out on selling his Under Armour shoes globally because the Warriors don't want him to risk another ankle sprain."

Yahoo Sports' Chris Chase similarly observed in 2012 that "basketball players are a global brand. The Olympics are their biggest platform. When Nike signs Wade to that contract, it's not just because he's an NBA star. It's because he'll be wearing that Nike swoosh while playing in a gold-medal game in front of hundreds of millions of viewers."

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But that exposure can clearly come at a cost, even if it's less dramatic than George's setback.

And it's a cost their own teams have to bear.

"We still support USA Basketball and believe in the NBA's goals of exposing our game, our teams and players worldwide," Pacers President Larry Bird said in a statement after George's injury, per The New York Times' Andrew Keh. "This is an extremely unfortunate injury that occurred on a highly visible stage, but could also have occurred anytime, anywhere."

A noble gesture, but one that some might find too charitable.

While Paul George's misfortune is highly atypical, it's raised a host of related questions that remain unanswered. 

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