George’s injury could be a blow to trend of NBA stars in international competition
You wouldn’t know it from the hyperbole of the past few days, but Paul George will recover. Medical professionals are even predicting the young star of the Indiana Pacers will play again, perhaps within the calendar year.
And as bad as it looked, it’s doubtful the gruesome leg injury suffered in a USA Basketball showcase scrimmage in Las Vegas on Friday night is going to halt his career.
As for the utopian idea of representing your country in international competitions during the summers, after 90- and 100-game NBA grinds, it will never be the same.
For most or all of the best players in the world, weighing the risk of a finite number of earning years against the Q rating and life experience of an Olympic gold medal probably just got easier.
This was always the nightmare scenario for any owner, general manager and all-star. Given the physical demands and time commitment required to be part of USA Basketball or any international program, where teams can often end up playing a rigorous tournament featuring nine games in 15 days, it’s frankly surprising it hasn’t happened sooner.
When George’s right foot caught the stanchion under the basket, leading to a grotesque compound leg fracture that ESPN’s producers thankfully refused to show after the first replay, Kevin Durant, James Harden, a tearful Kyrie Irving and others didn’t merely see their teammate’s career flash before their eyes. They foresaw their own playing days end the same way: on a non-NBA regulation playing surface, with the stanchion moved more than two feet closer than the four feet required in the NBA, in a game that meant nothing.
It’s impossible to get into the heads of Durant and his teammates to gauge the psychological impact of watching one of your peers suffer such a severe injury. But general managers spoke to each other Saturday. Most felt for Pacers President Larry Bird, who said all the right things about continuing to support USA Basketball but ultimately must deal with the fact that the Indiana Pacers’ best chance at making the NBA Finals is instantly gone and may never return.
Everyone from Bradley Beal to Kyle Korver – from a second-year player working toward his first big contract to a veteran ensuring he cashes out in his final years – is entitled to have greater misgivings about donating their ligaments and bones in pursuit of a goal with a time commitment that works at cross purposes against their full-time job.
It’s knee-jerk to assume George’s injury is going to dilute the Olympics of its star power. Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski, who have done more than anyone to rescue America’s international basketball reputation after a meltdown in Athens 10 years ago, had the right, wait-and-see tone afterward.
But it is responsible to question how FIBA, the sport’s international governing body, can continue to enforce its agreement with the NBA that prevents teams from influencing their players to play or not play unless there is a pre-existing injury.
“People are being irresponsible if they don’t think this type of play impacts franchises and careers,” an Eastern Conference team executive said, on the condition of anonymity. “Not just the catastrophic injuries, but the constant wearing down of joints and muscles that leads to burnout and these type of freak injuries. Many of us are just dreading the phone call and having to deal with all our plans blowing up.”
The San Antonio Spurs can be thankful they were allowed to order 37-year-old sixth man Manu Ginobili to forego what would have been his last international competition with Argentina because he is rehabbing a stress fracture in his right fibula.
No prominent player has put in more time playing basketball for his country than Ginobili. It’s also taken its toll. Ginobili was exhausted after playing in the London Olympics in 2012 and it clearly affected his performance down the stretch the following season.
He was injured in the 2008 Beijing Games and required surgery, ruining much of his next season. Ginobili has played nearly 20 extra months of basketball during his international career, sometimes for six-week stretches after a full NBA season.
Tony Parker’s French team won the European Championships last summer, but he was so physically spent when the NBA season hit its midpoint that Gregg Popovich shut him down for 20 days.
Pau Gasol broke his foot in the 2006 World Championships, missing the first 22 games of his season with the Memphis Grizzlies. Within two years he was traded to the Lakers.
“It’s hard because many of these guys who play for their countries, it makes them who they are as NBA players,” said a Western Conference team official. “But then when the guy suffers what could be a career-threatening injury, the team with no ability to impact the process assumes all the risk.”
The Pacers can receive a salary exemption for George, but not until he’s missed at least half the season. But their hopes of finally climbing the NBA Finals ladder after two straight losses to Miami in the Eastern Conference finals are devastated. And with Miami no longer the East’s uber-team, it’s conceivable the Pacers could have found a way with George this season.
The argument that the injury could have happened in a pick-up charity game or Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals or anywhere else is irrelevant in many ways. The reason George was on that particular court at that particular time was because he felt it was not just an honor to compete for a Team USA roster spot but, like many players, believed this was a necessary part of a larger marketing plan for any NBA all-star who wants to brand himself beyond his team.
Kevin Love didn’t feel he needed to be there because of the risks. Neither did LeBron James and Dwyane Wade this time around. How much longer before Durant, Harden and others decide it’s just not worth it, the risk of having your leg bent perpendicular to your body like George’s was Friday night – the night a young star volunteered to put on an exhibition for his country and left on a stretcher, wondering if he would ever leap like that again.