The fallout of Paul George's grisly injury in a scrimmage this summer for USA Basketball has seen much of public opinion coalesce around a mushy middle idea. The idea goes that player and team should come together to make a decision about whether to participate in international tournaments.
Certainly, there are people like Mark Cuban who have made arguments that extend beyond just player and team—essentially, that the NBA as a whole ought to shut participation down unless it and the owners are getting a piece of the action. It's a particularly revolting argument, coming from a billionaires' club that has taken a disproportionate share of NBA revenue, but one for which a lack of public understanding of the league's economic issues provides public relations cover.
Coming to any conclusion other than a simple one—that each player should have the right to make this decision—relies on some disturbing assumptions about the cost, and even the basic humanity, of an individual basketball player.
Let's start with this simple question: Would the NBA be just as successful if it didn't have a virtual monopoly on the world's best players?
It's an absurd question. The NBA has grown exponentially in popularity over the last three-plus decades and that era of prosperity began with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The NBA struggled mightily until Bird and Magic came along and nothing about being part of the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics made Magic and Bird great. Conversely, it was Magic and Bird who made the Lakers and Celtics cultural institutions.
And no one who saw what replacement players looked like in Major League Baseball, or the National Football League, is under any false illusions that a uniform, even a major league one, confers with it the ability to enthrall an audience. So when we start evaluating things like what value is brought to the NBA by the greatest players of today, let's start by remembering this: NBA franchises are worthless if the greatest players in the world aren't participating.
Cuban mentioned the NBA's willingness "to commit what amounts to more than a billion dollars in salaries" to the cause of international basketball. Ah, but which salaries? Player salaries. Mark Cuban's not committing a damn thing. He doesn't own his players, as much as his dehumanizing description of human beings as "player salaries" would make you think otherwise.
Those player salaries, by the way, were earned because the league profited from selling the chance to watch those players—in person, on television, intermittently on League Pass when it decides to function—not as some independent entity that, say, Dirk Nowitzki is lucky to have found. Those player salaries, incidentally, that are part of a shrinking percentage of NBA revenue, revenue that keeps on growing and disproportionately flowing back to... Mark Cuban.
Which brings us to the other half of the equation: Whose risk? The player's risk. Sure, if the best 450 players collectively disappeared from the NBA, the league would have a problem. But any one player? Well, the business model survives. Paul George will miss a season—you can be sure the NBA will make a ton of money this season anyway.
Fun fact, Paul George has a max contract, an Orwellian phrase if one ever existed. Remember, we're supposed to honor a team's desires here because they've invested so much money in a player. Of course, it is the artificial construct of the salary cap, and the tightly controlled salaries within it, that had an otherworldly player like George limited to five years, $90 million on a "max contract" in the first place. In a true free market, George would make many tens of millions more. Instead, thanks to a swell-for-owners collective bargaining agreement, he's getting paid like Brian McCann of the New York Yankees. McCann is a fine player, but he's not even one of the ten best players in Major League Baseball, or close to it.
But of course, the players accepted the current salary cap and a greatly reduced share of total league revenue following the most recent lockout. The common, condescending perspective that players owe their livelihood to the owners helped the owners in the court of public opinion, as it so often does during labor struggles in professional sports. But here we are, with players like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony forced to choose between getting paid as close to fair value as the system allows or taking a pay cut to play for a winning team, like Tim Duncan does. Naturally, Duncan is held up as a model without anyone asking "Why on Earth is that a choice he's forced to make?"
The common refrain: because he makes "enough." Never mind that we're talking about money that exists because Duncan and Anthony are so compelling to watch that millions of people the world over tune in to do just that. Never mind that this money, if not spent on Anthony and Duncan, isn't going to hire more teachers or provide health care to needy children. It's going into the pockets of owners who were so unhappy with their "more than enough" that they locked out the players and reduced their share of the league's revenue from 57 percent to around 50 percent.
That's 50-50—you earn 50 percent by doing things no one else on the planet can, and we'll earn 50 percent by letting you.
It's the kind of deal a union makes when its leader, Billy Hunter, acted in a way characterized thus by his successor, Michele Roberts, "The good news is that nobody was indicted from the union. There are fiduciary responsibilities that the union has with respect to all of this money it collects from its members, and that really was not being managed in a way that was consistent with the law."
So now that we've established who the players choosing to play internationally are supposedly beholden to, let's consider what the freedom to play internationally really is.
If you believe, by signing players to a contract, NBA team owners have a right to veto not only their players' offseason activities, but in this case, one that those who experienced it swear by as instrumental in improving their games, then a consult between player and team makes sense. If Stephen Curry's summer is the property of the Golden State Warriors, strictly because that team pays him a cut-rate salary of four years, $44 million, then sure, the Warriors should have some say in whether Curry can participate in an event on his own time, for no money, that is likely to increase his value to the Warriors even further.
If, however, you think that the Golden State Warriors didn't purchase Curry's life, but merely the chance to utilize him in basketball games during the NBA season, it's hard to imagine a more ludicrous argument.
"It should be the player's decision, for sure," Curry said to me following USA Basketball's Thursday practice at the New York Athletic Club. "It shouldn't be forced or limited—a player forced to sit out. Everybody's at a different point in their career, and has to make a personal decision. We all have families, we all have other things going on, especially in the offseason. But if this is important to you, and you want to do it, you should be able to do it.
"Obviously, there's risk. A lot of aggressiveness... we have high hopes of remaining our whole careers here. But it's a risk you know you take if you're gonna be here, and this experience is so rewarding, I'd be disheartened if people were unable to have that opportunity because people said they couldn't."
Curry acknowledged that even now, the decision to play isn't his alone. And should he get hurt, perhaps so seriously it kept him from playing, the Warriors would be paying him a sunk cost. Curry, though, would be in poor position to pursue a max contract after his current deal expires, a discount bargain influenced by the Warriors weighing the risk of a potential injury.
For the team? The loss of Curry would likely plunge the Warriors into the lottery, where league rules would allow them to draft a top prospect and pay him a small portion of what lottery-level prospects would make as free agents out of college. The Warriors would be just fine, especially in terms of their finances.
"I had conversations with them, especially after Las Vegas," Curry said, referring to the aftermath of the George injury. "Feeling them out, where they stood. And they were very supportive, about whatever I wanted to do, they backed me. That's good to know, that everybody's on the same page, there's no second-guessing."
Again, if we move beyond the ideas of "enough" on player salaries and the authoritarian notion that things like personal agency cease to exist after signing a contract to play basketball, the absurdity of the idea that owners should play any part in this decision is laid bare. I asked Mike Krzyzewski, head coach of USA Basketball, whether he thought it should be up to the players, or a decision made in conjunction with the organization.
"To me, I always would weigh what you get from it," Krzyzewski said Thursday afternoon. "So what price do you pay to get better? And do you want someone in your organization to grow, to get better not only as a player, but as a person, as a leader."
Before you dismiss the idea as the natural bias of someone from the USA team, it's worth remembering that the very best in the world, from Magic and Bird and Jordan in the Summer of '92 on through to James, Anthony, Bryant, and so many others who have participated for the very reasons Krzyzewski laid out.
"Everybody's got their own scenario, I would say," Derrick Rose told me Thursday. "Some are here to build their brand. Some are here because their organization, the franchise put them here. Some are here because they wanted to come. So it depends on who you ask, they'll tell you why they're here. My thing is, I'm trying to knock the rust off. Just trying to get in a groove. I've been coming here ever since I've been in the league."
As USA Basketball assistant coach and longtime Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim pointed out, the workload, coaching, and potential gains dwarf what most players can get in more typical offseason regimens. "Well it's always on the players," Boeheim said. "They would be working out, playing every day if they weren't with us. So there's not necessarily more risk by playing. That's a myth.
"I just don't think it's valid. We've had one guy get hurt since 1992. Well, I know five or six guys who've gotten hurt in the summertime, playing pickup. I think we've got a better chance—it's easier to get hurt playing outdoors, or in little gyms. I think you've got more of a chance of getting hurt in that situation, against guys who can't play, playing for two hours... with us, we're not going to tax you. You're in there 20 minutes. These guys play 40 minutes per game during the year."
Again, if you don't want to take Boeheim at his word, the proof is is how many of the very best players choose to do this. These guys are constantly looking for a way to improve. It's what drove George to participate in USA Basketball this summer, as surely as it sent him to Los Angeles for specific skill work last summer.
Try and picture anyone in any other line of work getting criticized for this.
Then again, if the exercise of playing internationally existed purely for the pleasure of the individual—if it were simply a craze among the best players in the NBA for, say, yachting—what say should the owners have in saying no to it?
We'll see how greedy these NBA owners get at the next collective bargaining negotiation. We'll see if Michele Roberts is as impressive in that room as she appears to be to all who know her, and how much better the players fare when their leader isn't as compromised as Hunter was.
For now, it's up to each individual player to negotiate for himself.
"Whatever they do contractually—there's exclusion clauses, there's the right to play—if I'm a player, I'd want as much freedom as I could get," Krzyzewski said. "So if I'm an organization, and you're good enough—what time do you have to be back in your office?"
I told Coach K I had the whole afternoon.
"You can play at any time. You see how cool that is? You can do a much better job at your job. That freedom's pretty cool."
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