Playing an intense sport like basketball can lead to an injury at any time. Whether you're at the local gym, in the NBA Finals or suiting up for an international exhibition in a small European country, high-level basketball means putting your body at risk of things going awry.
Utah Jazz point guard Dante Exum learned this in the cruelest way Tuesday when he tore the ACL in his left knee while playing an exhibition game with the Australian national team.Now Exum could miss the entire season. This all because of an injury suffered in a game that didn't count for anything in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
The development is potentially terrible news for Exum, but it's similarly unfortunate for his employer. The Jazz spent most of this summer banking on a playoff push, with the second-year point guard playing a central role. Now, the team may need to rally if he's forced to undergo rehab over the next several months.
The Jazz are surely frustrated with seeing one of their top guards go down with an injury in international play, and they're not alone. Exum's injury isn't the first example of a prominent NBA player getting hurt while representing his country. This isn't the first time we've wondered whether teams should have more control over their players competing in international events. The talk will only get louder as the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro near.
NBA owners seem increasingly weary of watching their players go all-out in competitions that do little to serve their professional teams. Players understandably want the right to represent their country during offseasons. The question is what both sides can do to address a situation that's created some conflict for various teams and players.
One team that knows the Jazz's pain is the Indiana Pacers. They lost their superstar forward, Paul George, to a broken leg suffered during a Team USA scrimmage last year. George ended up missing most of the 2014-15 NBA season and the Pacers, once a feared East team on the doorstep of a finals appearance, fell into mediocrity.
The counterargument: while nobody wants to see these huge names miss time due to injury, it's in the very nature of basketball that players risk getting hurt. George just as easily could've broken his leg during a practice in Indianapolis. The only way to prevent basketball injuries is to not play basketball.
Nevertheless, the concern is growing because NBA teams have little control over whether players participate in international competition. Players can only be held out because of a "reasonable health concern." Otherwise, the only requirement in the CBA is that the player must be properly insured by their respective national team.
NBA rules state that teams must allow their players to participate in International competition.The players INT team must take out insurance— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) August 4, 2015
Players can, of course, decide to sit out international competition on their own for whatever reason they want. But if they want to play, the end result is many owners spend the summer crossing their fingers and hoping their highly paid employees don't get hurt while playing on someone else's dime. If it happens, tough luck.
Some teams have been willing to fight with players over their ability to participate. The San Antonio Spurs often had issues with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker playing for Argentina and France, respectively, and the team recently used an ankle injury to force new Serbian center Boban Marjanovic to sit out of this year's FIBA Eurobasket competition. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently wondered why FIBA makes all the money off NBA players' services (SB Nation's Tom Ziller, we should note, was very critical of Cuban for those comments). League commissioner Adam Silver said last year following George's injury that the league would continue evaluating its participation in international competition.
The real frustration from the league and its owners stems from a lack of control over what players do during the summer. The collective bargaining agreement bans players from participating in "unsanctioned events" during the offseason, but that doesn't apply to international competition, the NBA Summer League or other exhibitions that require NBA approval.
One solution, at least for owners like Cuban, would be to re-classify the international competitions as unsanctioned events. That would allow teams to levy fines and/or suspensions against players who represent their countries over the summer, which we've seen in the past.
In 2013, the NBA fined players who participated in a University of Washington alumni game over the summer. Last year, the league threatened to fine several players who were planning a special exhibition game in Manila, Philippines. The group, which included George, James Harden, Blake Griffin and Damian Lillard, ended up cancelling the event.
Later that summer, George broke his leg while playing for Team USA. The Pacers, in hindsight, probably would've liked the ability to pressure George not to play in the same way they did with the Manila game. The CBA currently doesn't allow for any of that, at least legally. Teams technically aren't even allowed to ask players not to participate in international events.
It all creates a situation where owners are unhappy, and as we've seen in the past, NBA owners wield an incredible amount of influence and leverage over the league's operations. It'll be interesting to see if this issue is brought up when the current collective bargaining agreement concludes in 2017. If owners push for a compromise that gives them greater control over players' freedom to play for national teams, will the players concede in exchange for movement on another issue? What could players push for that would make the whole trade-off worthwhile for both sides?
If a compromise can be reached, it may be a good thing for the overall health of the league. Preventing injuries may be impossible, but maybe it's time for everyone to alter the odds in their fashion.
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