MINNEAPOLIS – The Minnesota Timberwolves’ roster boasts three Olympians – four if Ricky Rubio were healthy. It’s a point of pride for the team and its fans, no question, but to have so much talent competing on the international stage can also be an intense worry.
After the Timberwolves signed Russian forward Andrei Kirilenko on Friday, president of basketball operations David Kahn announced that the team was finished with acquisitions until after the Games. He wants to wait to ensure that Kirilenko, Kevin Love and Alexey Shved all return from London injury-free before making any further moves. It is a prudent decision, but many people within the NBA, Kahn included, have come to question whether general managers should even have to make such choices.
Kahn was present at the NBA Board of Governors meeting in Las Vegas on July 20, where Olympic reform was discussed, however briefly. In the days leading up to the Olympics and the first week of the London games, change to the format for basketball has been a hot topic, however wide-ranging the proposals might be. The conversation stems from two very different lines of concern: health and, of course, money.
Many plans have been put forth, the most popular of which would limit the U.S. Olympic team to NBA players under 23. Other proposals have been for an under-26 squad or a two-Olympics maximum. The under-23 plan has gotten the most press and perhaps the most criticism, but Kahn pointed out that much of the backlash is due to a glaring misconception.
“The one thing that seems a little bit of a misnomer to me is under 23, I’ve seen people say this would be the last Olympics with NBA players,” Kahn said. “But if it’s under 23, that doesn’t mean there won’t be NBA players. In fact, with the way that kids now come into our sport at the age of 19 and 20, logically there will be NBA players on those rosters, too.”
Kahn said the fact the reform was even discussed at the Board of Governors meeting means that this is a real concern, not an issue that’s been blown up by a few men speaking out. The league wants to begin a discussion, Kahn said, and he is formulating his own opinion as the proposals continue to emerge.
The under-23 plan appeals to Kahn because it would still allow NBA players to participate on the international stage. In fact, he said, those young players might benefit more from the exposure than their older teammates, and with the ages at which players are joining the league, plenty of 22- and 23-year-olds are already big enough stars to stir international attention as well. In fact, five of the 12 current players on Team USA would still be within the age limit under such rules.
That proposal and the varying age and experience restrictions have also been floated in conjunction with a scheme that would draw from both soccer’s World Cup and FIBA’s current basketball world championships. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has spoken about the NBA creating its own World Cup, independent of FIBA. It could then control both the medical treatment of players and the finances of the tournament, creating the perfect situation – for NBA owners.
The health concerns are definitely laudable, though they too stem back to the economics of it all. A player gets injured in the Olympics, and his team is sunk. It’s paying his contract, not the IOC, yet he can’t perform for it, making the NBA the big loser in those situations. In fact, those health concerns are most pressing with the international NBA players, whose coaches and training staffs aren’t under the eye of the NBA. International NBA players are often the faces of their countries, getting their one shot at competing against Team USA. They’re pressured to play regardless of any existing health conditions.
Just look at Yao Ming, who competed for China after injuring his foot and having surgery in 2008. He initially said competing would be the wrong choice in his recovery, but he took the court regardless. As stirring as were the images of him and the young earthquake victim, Lin Hao, in the opening ceremony back then, they’re even more shocking now, after Yao’s career ended just three years later because of those same foot problems.
In 2011-12, NBA rosters boasted 74 international players from 35 countries, so these concerns are all too real. Kahn admitted that watching the Russian national team play its most recent game – he recorded the event, which was played in the middle of the night, and watched in Thursday morning – made him hold his breath and hope that his players wouldn’t be injured. With the proposed new format, that worry would abate, and his most talented players could compete in a venue that the NBA would regulate.
But really, this all comes down to money. The NBA can’t capture the financial gains in the Olympics as it could in its own tournament, through marketing and highlights and general promotional activities. In order for such a tournament to succeed, the NBA would have to ensure that basketball have an international cache similar to that of soccer – or it would have to accept the losses in that growing period as it built such a reputation around the world.
However, Kahn is confident that a plan modeled after soccer’s could work for basketball if done right.
“Just because it’s not quite in the same stratosphere doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be also profitable and a healthy business, so I wouldn’t use that as the singular measuring stick,” Kahn said. “And I also believe our sport continues to be on a healthy incline. If this is a vehicle to further increase the popularity worldwide, then that should be something too that needs to be looked at.”
Right now, these discussions are in their earliest form. The U.S. has several more games, and fans have ample opportunity to gasp as their players tweak knees, ankles, backs, anything, before icing them and returning to action. This plan, in whatever form it takes, will require time to mature and be implemented, and more options will likely be presented. Regardless, Kahn said that any of these reforms seem like something he could support.
“I’d be supportive of (it) if it meant we had a little bit more control over the situation in terms of preventing injuries and the like,” Kahn said. “That would be important to me. But I also, it seems to me that no matter what direction it is, NBA players would be involved no matter what.”