We had finished interviews with Team USA players, wrote our stories for the day and were picking over a late-night dinner at the hotel bar two blocks east of the Las Vegas strip last week when a prominent New York writer first mentioned it.
“The Olympics,” he said, “are ruining the NBA.”
Upon further review, he’s right.
The formation of the NBA’s superpower teams can inevitably be traced back to the Olympics, where superstars from across the league gather in hotels for about a month — with plenty of down time involved to hatch these plans of some day playing together on the same team.
It has been established that LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade first created the idea of one day playing together during the march of the Americans’ “Redeem Team” to gold at Beijing in 2008.
Now Deron Williams is conceding he and Dwight Howard held similar discussions in Beijing. They would’ve pulled it off and could’ve been teammates next season in Brooklyn, but Howard inexplicably waived his right to free agency this summer at the NBA’s trade deadline in March.
Now as the Americans prepare for the London Olympics, it’s fair to wonder who is whispering in whose ear now?
Who is recruiting Chris Paul? One of the five best point guards in the NBA will be a free agent next summer. Think Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler have mentioned how good he’d look in a Knicks uniform?
When FIBA changed its rules in 1989 and opened Olympic competition to professionals, no one could have predicted this. The 1992 Dream Team was the most beautiful collection of basketball talent ever assembled on a single roster — despite Kobe Bryant’s delusional belief that this summer’s version could actually beat that one. This team couldn’t come within 20 points of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, but that’s a debate for later.
What made the Dream Team so unique was how they didn’t particularly like one another — going so far as to keep Isaiah Thomas off the team because if they could agree on anything, it’s that no one could stand him.
This was a team that practiced harder than they played, a team of legends who couldn’t bear the idea of getting shown up in practice against one another for fear of the damage it would cause to their pride and street cred.
But somewhere between Team USA’s gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the Redeem Team’s march to gold in ’08, the culture inside the NBA began to change. Players were no longer adversaries, they were merely business associates forced to play in different cities — for the time being.
After the bronze-medal debacle in Greece in ’04, Jerry Colangelo was brought on to overhaul Team USA basketball and he did a magnificent job. He immediately sought long-term commitments from the NBA’s top stars. If they wanted to play in the Olympics, they had to prove it first with participation in events like FIBA’s World Championship. All of it has become a breeding ground for more collusion, more opportunities for players to destroy the small markets across the league.
Perhaps this was the underlying reasoning to NBA Commissioner David Stern’s proposal to adopt an under-23 rule, which would prohibit Olympic play for anyone over the age of 23.
Bryant lashed back that the idea is “stupid,” but a 23-and-under team this summer would still feature NBA stars such as Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin (prior to the knee injury). It would also most assuredly include the Cavs’ Kyrie Irving.
Players 23 and under, coincidentally, are typically still locked into their rookie contracts and under their NBA team’s control for a few more years. The idea already has been met with enough resistance to probably keep it from happening, but if Stern pushed through the new rule, it could be just the first step.
An under-23 team could evolve into an under-21 model, eventually making Team USA rosters more resemble the team of college amateurs from the 1980s.
A significant amount of the time spent renegotiating the league’s collective bargaining agreement was devoted to making it more difficult for stars to leave their current teams and pair up with other stars in new markets. What couldn’t be bargained was the impact the Olympics make on players’ thinking. That isn’t going away as long as the league’s elite stars gather together every couple of years for a month at a time.
The Americans should win another gold medal next month, but what will be the price of victory? The fallout and repercussions could be felt across the league for the next four years and beyond.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.