How to make international basketball work for NBA players and teams

Christian Petersen

There's a dead simple way to make international basketball work for NBA players and the teams that pay them: negotiate everything.

FIBA and the NBA always claim to be looking for solutions to the issue of international basketball. FIBA needs the best players in the world available to play in regional and global tournaments; the product clearly and dearly suffers when nations' best players are held out. Look at Great Britain, which vacillates between completely awful and decent dependent entirely on whether Luol Deng is in uniform. Or Germany, which relies totally on Dirk Nowitzki's availability. FIBA needs those players, and its recent calendar change -- one I criticized on Tuesday -- is a nod to that. It de-emphasizes the continental tournaments by creating shorter qualification periods, which won't force stars to make two-month commitments to their countries. Instead, it'll be a couple of weeks here, a couple of weeks there. (Of course, the FIBA calendar's overlap with the NBA and Euroleague calendars is another issue entirely.)

NBA teams don't want to see their players risk injury and stack up wear and tear playing for someone who isn't helping pay their salary. The grumbling is understandable, if self-centered to the max. International basketball is hardly new -- it predates even the NBA, and the regime in which pro players represent their countries in the summer certainly predates the NBA ownership of the loudest critic, Mark Cuban. This has been a part of the equation since 1992. At some point you need to stop bitching about what is and investigate what could be. Holding players out unilaterally isn't a solution. Forcing small national programs to find massive insurance policies for star players isn't a solution. It's lunacy that doesn't even solve the real problem, which is the short supply of NBA-level basketball talent in the world. Locking the Olympic tournament to only players 23 or younger is silly, and hurts the game worldwide. A blanket rule banning this or that is not going to help the sport.

But there's a dead simple solution to all of this: negotiate international appearances into NBA contracts. If players want free reign to participate in international competition, they need to bargain for it when they negotiate their deal. If Dirk wants the ability to play in all EuroBasket, World Cup and Olympic tournaments for which Germany qualifies, but does not want to play in qualification games, put it in the contract. Negotiate the salary or other benefits (trade kickers, no-trade clauses, etc.) accordingly. If Nikola Pekovic wants to miss time during the regular season to help Montenegro qualify for the World Cup, negotiate it in Pekovic's contract. The NBA could set some ground rules if it absolutely does not want players missing NBA games in November or February. But otherwise, leave it up to the market.

It's not particularly fair to the players to be forced to "get permission" from their teams to do something they are currently allowed to do. But it'll help their national teams massively. Hopefully, this would end the ridiculous insurance demands of NBA teams -- if it's an allowed activity under the contract during specific periods and barring pre-existing injury, then there's no need for hefty insurance against the contract beyond what the teams already acquire, right? If an NBA team like the Mavericks wants to impose a blanket no FIBA rule, the market will decide whether that's an appropriate restriction. Maybe they miss out on an international free agent or two.

There will still be some controversy if this were to become widespread, but only in cases where the player is already injured, like Deng heading into the Olympics last summer. But that can be mitigated through NBA regulation -- there can be a third-party doctor that examines players in dispute with their NBA team over whether they are "too injured" to play international ball. It's not perfect, but it's a whole lot better than what we have now, and it fixes a lot of problems FIBA is trying (and failing) to solve.

Infusing more power into the art of negotiation, where priorities can be expressed and risk can be weighed appropriately, can fix a lot of the ills of the NBA. Partially guaranteed contracts, heavy use of incentive clauses, opt-out options left and right -- it can all be a part of a better, more compelling NBA. International basketball fits in there, too, if the parties can stop shooting themselves in the foot long enough to see it.

***

The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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