Friday, August 15, 2014

Basketball Needs to Quit Acting Like Soccer

By Ross Lancaster

It should come as no surprise to anyone who normally reads this site that I'm about to make the following statement: I absolutely love the NBA.

In fact, in spite of all its warts, it's probably my favorite pro sports league to watch at the moment. And the biggest reason for that is because the quality of play is so strong compared to 10 or 15 years ago. Some of that is attributable to a more watchable style of play, but most of it is because of the players, some of whom will be on display during the FIBA World Cup starting in a few weeks.

Sure, there's no LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, or, after this past weekend, Kevin Durant, on Team USA. But names like Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, DeMarcus Cousins, Damian Lillard, and Derrick Rose wouldn't at all look out of place on All-NBA teams. That's not even mentioning the NBA talent and future talent on other national teams.

Yet, I probably won't even watch a minute unless there's a Spain/USA championship game. Four years ago, I didn't watch at all when the U.S. defeated Turkey in Istanbul.

There seems to be a desire from both FIBA and the NBA to grow basketball into something as popular as soccer, as impossible as that may sound. After all, basketball is really the only inherently North American sport that can rival soccer from both an accessibility and a cultural standpoint. But moves like calling what was once the World Championship the World Cup just tell me that the powers that be in global basketball don't really understand how basketball will always be a "club over country" sport.

In soccer, the growth of the sport, largely due to the tentacles of the then-vast British Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, meant that talent developed in various countries simultaneously and relatively equitably. It was really only natural to create a World Cup in that sport and various continental competitions. National team competitions have mostly always been and will forever continue to be important to the sport as a whole.

With basketball, the best talent has always been in America, and true international competition has only occurred in the last quarter-century. The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia may have won plenty of gold medals and world titles, but communism allowed those countries to work around the regulations of amateurism. However, as media and technology have improved and become ubiquitous, the rest of the world can now tune into to NBA games on any night at very short notice.

Still, for some reason, even though soccer only has a true global competition once every four years (I refuse to count the Confederations Cup if we're being literal here), basketball has one in all even-numbered years. If you're not familiar with the way a typical soccer season works in Europe, this is a sport that takes up to three or four two-week breaks in the middle of the August-to-May club season for players to join with their international sides. Tell me what Mark Cuban would think about that in the NBA.

You're probably thinking, or have thought, sometime in the last 500 or so words, "He wouldn't even be bringing this up if it weren't for the Paul George injury." That's completely fair, and 100 percent accurate. But sometimes it takes something bad to happen before the powers that be wisen up. It's exhausting enough for players, and the stressful for the league's teams, that many players are playing international games just after an NBA season reaching up to 110 games including playoffs and preseason, but it's nowhere near as bad as some international players have it.

If you're someone like a Dirk Nowitzki or Manu Ginobili, or any other NBA veteran that's not from the United States, your national team usually has to qualify for the competitions in the summers of the even-numbered years during the offseason in the odd-numbered years. And with those countries' NBA players likely to be key players for their national teams, it's that much more pressure on a player than say, Tyson Chandler sitting out when DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond are there to fill in. So, there's the big possibility of star players effectively playing year-round every year under the current system, even after an NBA season.

I will grant you that a world championship of basketball is a good thing. But that's what the Olympics are every four years. A World Cup isn't needed, especially in a sport where international competition has never been the peak of quality or interest, and when player safety can be so endangered after a long season.

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