Kevin Love recently withdrew himself from Team USA’s FIBA World Cup squad, citing that he might be traded soon and doesn’t want to pick up any sort of injury that might delay his exit from Minnesota. LaMarcus Aldridge has always been somewhat noncommittal about playing for his country, despite being selected to the national pool several times. He pulled out a couple weeks ago. Blake Griffin announced last Thursday that he’s no longer interested in the World Cup, wanting to instead focus on the upcoming NBA season. Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski, faced with a thin big man rotation, are calling Paul Millsap into service, which is like feeling helpless and insignificant in the face of the universe’s totality, then shrugging and going inside to make yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Team USA is decadently well-stocked at times and calling up perfectly OK Paul Millsaps at others. As we’re closing in on the World Cup, which tips off on Aug. 30, it appears Team USA is in the midst of one of those relative lean spells. This makes enough sense. The World Cup winner gets a spot in the 2016 Olympics and not much else. If playing internationally is about glory and legacy-building for American players as much as it’s about anything else — patriotism, or whatever — then it’s understandable that some of the NBA’s stars wouldn’t be interested in participating in a minor tournament. It’ll be news if the U.S. fails to win, but news that won’t make much of a dent in the cycle. (The NFL’s first regular season Sunday is Sept. 7.) And if they dominate? Well, that’s supposed to happen anyway.
A month ago, the best soccer players from their respective countries were playing in the FIFA World Cup, and a lot of those same players will take part in either the European Championship, the Copa Sudamericana or the African Cup of Nations in 2016. In international soccer, the World Cup is the ultimate prize, but continental tournaments also matter. (Incidentally, the Olympics don’t.) As a result of this, every other year, players like Karim Benzema and Robin van Persie play almost year-round. Cristiano Ronaldo, for instance, has, over the past year, played in 31 La Liga matches, 11 Champions League matches, six Copa del Rey matches, five international qualifiers, four friendlies and three World Cup matches. Real Madrid opened training camp a couple weeks ago. He’s currently in the U.S., playing in a money-grab preseason tournament. The Supercopa de España and European Super Cup are on the horizon. La Liga starts up again on Aug. 24. Ronaldo’s been carrying a knee injury since spring, and despite his claims to the contrary, hasn’t looked completely healthy in months, in part because he hasn’t been able to take much time off to let it heal.
One fears for the quality of play in the major European leagues this season. Some guys come back from World Cup summers looking ragged or entirely burnt out, the most famous recent example being Diego Forlán, who had the best season of his career in 2009-10, won the Golden Ball at the World Cup, then was dreadful once he returned to Atlético Madrid in August. Bayern Munich, which employed a bunch of internationals from various nations at the time, was a mess following the 2010 World Cup, dropping points early in the season to underpowered sides and eventually finishing third in the Bundesliga. It’s likely that we’ll see a few clubs and more than a few players dip slightly or sink altogether this season due to exhaustion. The body can only take so many training sessions and so much game action before it needs an extended break.
Which is to say it’s an act of prudence, if you’re LaMarcus Aldridge or Blake Griffin, to pass on Team USA involvement in non-Olympic years. The 2010 FIBA World Championship squad (in case you’re confused: the international basketball tournament we used to call the World Championship has since been rebranded as the World Cup) is renowned because seemingly everyone who played for that team came back to the NBA the following fall and had a terrific season. One wonders if this 2014 experience might be similar, in which case, who wouldn’t want to participate? The thing is, a lot of those 2010 players — Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, et al. — were in their early 20s at the time. They weren’t, as many of them are now, competing for titles and facing the prospect of 100-game seasons. Curry, Durant and Rose are all coming back — though it remains to be seen if Rose can shake the rust off and make the team — and perhaps they’ll get a boost from that. But World Cup squads tend to be made up of young guys, and it’s entirely reasonable for any player in his prime or just entering it to not want to rack up any additional mileage before the NBA season starts.
Professional sports run closer to year-round now than they ever have. If you’re a great athlete in high demand, you have to make choices about when to play and when to rest, because if you meet every request made of you, you’re liable to wear yourself out. Jerry Colangelo takes a hard-assed stance with regard to national team selection, claiming Team USA isn’t just something you can show up to whenever you want. (Unless you’re one of the very best players on the planet, like LeBron or Chris Paul.) Guys have to commit to USA basketball if they want USA basketball to commit to them. That sounds fair in principle, but it doesn’t account for the fact that an NBA player’s’ number one goal is to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, and sometimes, international play can get in the way of that. The stars who have dropped out of the squad aren’t entitled or lazy; they’re prioritizing. They’re looking after their bodies the best way they know how, because they know if they don’t, no one else will.