On Aug. 1 in Las Vegas, the heartbreak was tangible. There was a special silence; one intensified by the sudden transition from boisterous cheering to thousands of gasps crying out all at once.
With a little over nine and a half minutes remaining in the USA Basketball Showcase, the Houston Rockets’ James Harden received a pass on a fast break and went up for what should have been an easy layup, if not for the efforts of Paul George, a young superstar for the Indiana Pacers.
George leapt in an attempt to block Harden’s shot and came down awkwardly against the stanchion, shattering his leg in the process. The injury was horrific to watch and surely worse to experience, and besides the obvious problems presented to one man’s health, the injury could cause a truly troubling precedent.
When organizations consider allowing their young superstars to play in international tournaments, what will be the biggest factor in their decision making?
Pride for country? Glory on an international stage? The lure of a gold medal?
Maybe, but odds say no.
What really matters to organizations is protecting their investments. George is making over $14 million this upcoming season, one in which he almost certainly won’t play considering this injury.
Let’s say the injury, suffered in a virtually meaningless contest, “only” forces him to miss one year, he recovers fully, and is the same caliber of player when he returns for the 2016-2017 season.
The Pacers will lose all the money they are paying him this year, as well as any hope they had of finally making it to the finals, a stage they’ve been chasing for the past few years and a goal that only the LeBron James-led Miami Heat could crush.
The NBA has an insurance policy in place, so the owners will get some of their money back for the contract, but the cap hit for George’s contract remains the same as before the injury. He is the second-highest paid player on the team, second only to center Roy Hibbert, and the Pacers are now at the point where they may have to “tank” this year away, hoping for a decent draft pick next year.
Without George, the Pacers’ offense is going to be abysmal. Last year, they finished No. 22 of 30 teams in offensive rating, and much of the team’s offense ran through George. Without both George and Lance Stephenson Jr., who departed to the Charlotte Hornets, the offense will have to be run through George Hill, David West and Hibbert. While these three have occasionally proven themselves to be capable NBA scorers — particularly West, who scored 14 points per game last year — they aren’t nearly enough to carry a team.
The injury will probably take the Pacers from legitimate contenders to possible bottom feeders in the East, depending on how Hibbert recovers from his dismal playoff performance in last season’s playoffs.
And that’s the risk.
If organizations allow players to play in international tournaments, their domestic play could suffer, which is not worth it in the eyes of owners paying hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
However, this isn’t a definitive death sentence for superstars’ involvement in international play. Soccer, for example, has had similar issues with injury concerns, but fan and player interest in the events grows every year.
Even just this year, Brazilian forward Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. suffered a horrifying looking back injury that ended his FIFA World Cup participation early and seemed to even threaten the longevity of his career with his club team, FC Barcelona.
The world didn’t even blink. No changes were proposed in response to the injury, there was no outcry for age limitations on competition and the tournament went on as if nothing had happened.
The difference between soccer and basketball in terms of international play? Competition.
The U.S. men’s national basketball team has won five of the previous six Olympic gold medals and went 8-0 with an average margin of victory of 32 points in the 2012 London games.
Contrarily, Brazil has won the most FIFA World Cup championships of any country with five in a tournament that has been held since 1930.
In 20 years, the U.S. team won as many titles in the Olympics as any team has won in the 84-year history of the FIFA World Cup.
At this point, every year is an assumed victory for the U.S. men’s basketball team, while one of the favorites this year for the World Cup, Spain, failed to advance past the first round.
Playing against mostly awful international competition doesn’t matter to basketball players that can only be truly challenged by domestic competition and to whom an injury could possibly mean the end of a career that could yield them hundreds of millions of dollars.
This isn’t to say soccer has an advantage over basketball overall, because it doesn’t. The NBA provides yearly competition on a high level that is unparalleled even by soccer’s best leagues. Due to the nature of club soccer having competitive, successful leagues in many different countries, the talent pool of soccer players is spread throughout countries all over the world. This means that rather than having the best players in the world play against or with each other every season, they are in different countries playing against only a portion of the top-level players.
That’s why the FIFA World Cup is so important; watching the best players all on the same stage competing is unique in the soccer world. But it’s not important in the basketball world, where the best players compete with each other on a daily basis throughout the season.
However, this isn’t an argument against international play. Watching the best dominate on the biggest stage is thrilling and one of the best parts of the Summer Olympics.
It’s scary for teams and players to put aside their injury fears, but it has to continue. Basketball is bigger today than it’s ever been, and spreading the sport is pivotal. Cutting the best players out of international play would not only be overly reactionary, but it could hurt the league as a whole to a certain extent. It would be unfair to the players, the ones who want to put on a show for the world and spread the sport that they cherish.
The argument is larger than one broken bone. It’s about legacy and love of sport. What happens in the coming years in response will show the world where the loyalty of the NBA really stands, with its fans and the game of basketball or with the wallets of the billionaire owners that would object.
Here’s hoping it’s the former. The International Basketball Federation Basketball World Cup begins Aug. 30.