Post-Olympic drop-off simply doesn't exist
APR 03, 2013 5:00a ET
On Friday night, Ricky Rubio took the court for the Timberwolves against the Thunder, with Serge Ibaka lined up just feet from him. Andrei Kirilenko was out there, too, and Alexey Shved was soon to sub in at shooting guard. Kevin Love sat on Minnesota's bench, willing his right hand to heal. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder's biggest names and brightest stars, started too .
That night, the lines were clear: Love, Rubio, Kirilenko and Shved vs. Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka. It was easy to forget that just seven months before, Love, Westbrook and Durant had all been teammates on Team USA and won a gold medal, defeating Ibaka and Team Spain. Rubio would have been out there as well, had it not been for that torn ACL, and the year before that, at Eurobasket 2011, he and Ibaka were teammates, bringing home gold. In the bronze medal game in London, too, Kirilenko and Shved prevailed, defeating Argentina to bring home their own hardware and a dose of glory to mother Russia.
If you've learned anything from that jumbled mess of alliances, it's that international basketball complicates things. It forms friendships and camaraderie where some might say rivalries belong, and after chatter last spring and summer from men like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and NBA commissioner David Stern, it seems there might be reason to question the way the system functions for NBA players.
The phenomenon began with the Dream Team in 1992, when NBA players were allowed for the first time to compete on Team USA. The concept was an instant sensation, with players from all over the world appearing downright giddy to take the court against – and be soundly walloped by – the best of the NBA. That model has persisted ever since.
In 2012, though, murmurs began about changing the selection criteria for Team USA again. There was talk of an age limit, of making the Olympics an under-23 or under-26 competition, or even of capping each player's allotment of Olympic appearances at two. Nothing has come of it – not yet – but the conversation itself created a new, if flawed, perspective on Olympic basketball: that it might not actually be in players' best interests.
And so now we look for signs of fatigue. We check to see which players are falling off, which players are injured and how, if at all, we can tie said phenomena to the Olympics. Especially early this season, the questions flew to players and coaches about how to handle the post-Olympic haze or falloff or whatever the concept du jour might have been. In Minnesota, Love admitted to a level of fatigue, to needing to take some time to get back on track. But for every such perspective, there were several players who continued with the status quo, as if the Olympics never happened.
"We haven't really handled them any differently," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of his three Olympians in December. "I think they come back … better players. They've been able to be with all the best players in the world every day, (being) around them and (seeing) how their habits are. You learn from practicing and playing against the best players."
Brooks' mindset held in October, still held in December, and should hold throughout the rest of this regular season and however long his team's playoff run lasts. It's not a unique perspective, either. Popular opinion around the NBA is that the Olympics are an unquestionably good thing, and an honor, too. And to question that seems close to sacrilege. Oh, and the numbers, by and large, back that up, too. There are outliers, of course, and caveats, but to attribute any harm to the chance to compete for a gold medal is to fabricate a mammoth argument on the shakiest of legs.
Fabricated argument No. 1: Players will get tired toward the end of the following season.
This particular argument, perhaps the loudest, has crept up especially in recent weeks, when the Olympics have been far from most players' minds. Just ask Clippers point guard Chris Paul, who in March said that he doesn't even think about the Games, that he's forgotten about them until someone asks. But the argument is here, and largely because of the players who were absent in London, not the ones who actually played there.
Since the All-Star break, both Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade, both of whom missed the Olympics due to injury, have been playing markedly better. Since the All Star break (all such numbers in this story are through March 30), Howard's scoring is up, from 16.3 points per game to 17.0, and he's averaging 14.8 rebounds to his pre-All-Star average of 11.8. Wade's scoring has increased, too; he's averaging 22.3 points per game after the All-Star break, 21.0 before. He's also shooting at a higher percentage – .555 to .505 – and dishing almost a full assist more per game.
Those numbers have fueled the argument, but to assume simple causality – restful summer leads to productive second half and more stamina – would be to miss a major factor. Both players were injured, not fully healthy when the season began, and it's most likely that improved health has caused them to hit their respective strides.
After the 2008 Olympics, eight of 12 players on Team USA made the 2009 playoffs, and all eight played as well as they did during the season or even better during the postseason, thus calling into question the notion of decreased stamina. In addition, of the 22 post-Olympic seasons by the last two iterations of Team USA, only five have involved a player performing noticeably worse in the second half. (That number, 22, excludes Love in 2012 and Michael Redd in 2008, both of whom missed the majority of their post-Olympic seasons due to injury.)
Fabricated argument No. 2: Players will play worse the season after the Olympics than they did the season before.
Just ask Paul about this one. He'll tell you what he thinks.
"I had my best year since I've been in the NBA after the (2008) Olympics," he said. "It ain't nothing."
He isn't exaggerating. Paul did have the best season of his career in 2008-09, averaging 22.8 points on 50.3 percent shooting and 11.0 assists per game. He's showing similar stamina this year, and his second-half numbers are continuing to improve.
Even Paul's great 2008-09 season didn't mark a precipitous jump in his output, though. In fact, only three players in the past two Olympics have seen sizeable improvements after the Games: Carmelo Anthony and James Harden in 2012 and Wade in 2008. That's hardly an argument for the competition stalling players' growth, though. Just think about it: In order to be selected for the team – with the exception of Anthony Davis last summer – a player has usually proven a sustained level of talent to the league.
In fact, the bulk of the players who competed in the past two Olympics had very similar years after the Games to the ones before them. Thirteen of those 24 performances, in fact, showed steady numbers, and only seven exhibited either worse output than the one before or major injuries.
Chris Kaman, who played on the German national team in the qualifying tournament in 2008 (it didn't make the Olympic cut) and now is a member of Cuban's Mavericks, understands the various hesitations. In fact, the Dallas big man is not the most gregarious of proponents for international play and admits to the fatigue factor, but even he knows that concern over the damaging impact of competing is more an abstract worry than something based upon a preponderance of evidence.
"I know that Dirk (Nowitzki) has done it for 13 years or whatever, and you don't see any negatives there," Kaman said. "At the same time, you know that this is why Cuban is fighting the idea of his players playing overseas in the summer just as a precautionary measure if nothing else."
Fabricated argument No. 3: The Olympics cause injuries.
Welcome to the least informed of all the arguments, which is also hardest to prove. "It is impossible to make the correlation between having played in the summer and then coming back and being injured," Kaman said, and it's hard to argue with his logic. An MRI won't tell teams that a bone or tendon has weakened due to fatigue, and injuries are caused by real-time collisions, mistakes, brutal twists and bumps. The strongest argument to this point, in fact, is Yao Ming's experience on the Chinese team and the long-standing hypothesis that it contributed to his injury-plagued and ultimately shortened career, but even that's a stretch. Perhaps it was true for Yao, but to use the Chinese center as a case for massive reform would be a grandiose generalization.
Of course there have been post-Olympic injuries other than Yao's. Look at Love's hand this year or Redd's ACL in 2008, or even at Deron Williams' and Carmelo Anthony's nagging problems. None of those can be traced in any scientific way back to the Olympics, and there are just as many players who sat on their rear ends all summer and are injured as a direct result of that.
"It's not about injuries," Harden said. "You just play the game and don't worry about the other stuff. Playing the game is what keeps you sharp, whether it's the Olympics or something else."
So let them play
There are, of course, downsides to the Olympics, but the benefits loom larger in number and scope. Of course competing in the Games can take away from other pursuits for a player, but that's a choice he and his team make by accepting. Just look at Deron Williams, whose play this season is one of those seven performances that marks a drop-off from pre-Olympic levels. Williams was out of shape last summer, USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo told the New York Daily News in February, and then the point guard aggravated an ankle injury in London that further hindered his weight loss and ability to get back into shape.
Even Williams' performances are looking up, though. He's been much better since the All-Star break, now that he's healthier and in shape, averaging more than five points more per game than before. Williams is hardly the rule, but rather an exception, and for one player's mishaps to color the perception of an international phenomenon would be facile.
When it comes to the notion of Stern's age limit, though, there is cause for discussion. The average age of the U.S. Olympic team in 2012 went down, from 26.0 in 2008 to 25.8, and when Brooks discussed his players' seamless transition back from London, he cited their youth above all else. They're 23, 24 years old, the Thunder coach said, and so fatigue is really never an issue.
In fact, of the five post-Olympic performances that were noticeably worse in the second half of the season, four have been by players who were 26 or older at the time of the Games. Only Kevin Durant this season – he's 24 – bucks that trend. That at least somewhat validates the idea of the age limit, but there are too many arguments against it. For one, so much of the perceived benefit of the Games is not only for elite players to play with other elites but also for the younger players to learn from veterans.
In addition, there's the notion of exclusion and of breaking tradition, which doesn't sit well with many.
"I think it's the wrong thing," said Kirilenko, who retired from the Russian national team this winter after 12 years. "I think the Olympic Games, everybody's supposed to play. Everybody who wants to play, everybody who's eligible to play. I don't think there should be an age limit, because you see what's going on in Olympic … soccer. It's (a) completely not interesting tournament. Stars are not coming."
There are too many reasons not to accept the status quo, too few correlations between the Olympics and injuries or career declines. There's a sense of pride to be selected, and to even call it a question of whether to play seems almost an insult. Injury is about the only reason to say no, and these players are the best of the best, the truly elite. They welcome challenges, and apart from all the benefits they swear to, the Olympics is just that. It's another chance to prove their greatness, to win, to learn.
"I don't see it as a risk at all," Harden said. "In fact, for me it was a benefit. I got to play with and learn from LeBron and Kobe and KD. There is no way to look at that as anything but a plus."
Best of luck in trying to argue against that.
Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.