Remember Olympic baseball? No? Well, I do—sort of. Baseball is a sport dominated by the Americans with little—though growing appeal. Yet it happens right in the middle of the Major League Baseball season, leaving few professional players to play for their country in what they saw as a meaningless tournament. Basketball has the exact opposite issue: there are too many stars on one team in Olympic Basketball, making the tournament immensely unbalanced. The International Olympic Committee must be happy that the sport’s best players are on display, but they should be concerned about hosting a tournament so unbalanced it’s in danger of becoming irrelevant. The IOC and the United States Basketball Association should give basketball fans, coaches, and scouts a look at the league’s future stars, whether they are in college or in their first few years of professional basketball.
(Click here to read Bijan C. Bayne on Olympic basketball before the Dream Team)
USA fans only really need one night per year of incessant alley-ooping, and the NBA All Star Game satiates that need. Having three straight weeks of it once every four years just ruins the spectacle, and instead of being the worldwide competitive sport that the Olympics want it to be, NBA stars just use it as a chance to humiliate other nations. The one time they haven’t done so is when the USA lost to Argentina in 2004, when Manu Ginobili went off for 29 points against arguably the worst defensive backcourt in USA basketball history in Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson.
So far, with around a month left until the Rio games begin, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry and LeBron James—four NBA household names—have pulled out of the running to be chosen to play for their country in Brazil. Each have cited nagging injuries as a reason to pull out of the games, but if they were, say, handball or volleyball players instead, no slight injury would keep them out of the games as it would be one of their few chances to shine on the world stage. The fact that the stars do not care about the Olympics is out of the IOC’s hands—but it should use this opportunity to make Olympic Basketball the competitive tournament it has always wanted to be. As an American, I take no pride in my country beating Nigeria by a score of 156-73 like they did in 2012.
The USBA should put self-imposed restrictions on who can be selected for Team USA. Younger players have more to play for—which would make games more interesting—while fans would be able to see the future of the NBA. Plus, the Games would be much more competitive and maybe even draw a bigger audience as a result. The Olympics would then be like the USA Rising Stars Challenge team mixed with some college players taking on the best players from around the world.
Imagine, for example, seeing how incoming Duke power forward Harry Giles would stack up against the Gasol Brothers of Spain or Al Horford of Brazil. NBA scouts could get a very early look at how Giles would stack up against NBA-caliber talent so teams can make a more informed decision come Draft Day. College coaches could get an early look at how much work they have to do with their top players to get them ready for deep tournament runs. Younger players would get a chance to prove themselves and play their best. A good showing at the Games could raise their draft stock.
Another route the USBA could go is to select young, developing players who are borderline stars, but still need to prove themselves on a big stage. This would lead to a team with players such as Gordon Hayward, Nerlens Noel, and Derrick Favors, who would provide more even competition with teams like Canada, Brazil, and Spain. Fans would get a chance to see the next wave of stars before they break out in the next season.
Seeing underrated and/or on-the-rise talent on full display for three weeks seems like much more fun than watching proven, somewhat bored stars throw down dunk after dunk on considerably worse players. The Olympics have always been about unknown athletes becoming household names, so the USBA and the IOC should honor that by letting the future generation of NBA superstars become the present generation of American basketball. America always loves an underdog story, and even though the USA will never be a true underdog in basketball, the people at the top of the rankings should give the nation’s young talent a chance to show that they can hang with the world’s best.