Team USA’s seventh-place finish in the 2019 FIBA World Cup was an aberration last seen thirteen years ago. When team USA lost to Greece in the 2006 semi-finals. The immediate search for blame includes varying factors however the team’s lackluster finish is due to the NBA’s evolution.
Shunning an opportunity to represent the country was once seriously frowned upon. Now player contracts are too significant for society to overlook the potential financial ramification. The “player empowerment” movement deserves some blame although the negative stigma has dissipated due to the league’s growth.
The team’s reconstruction was lead by Jerry Colangelo. Who asked players for a three-year commitment. This in large part was to create a team culture the players could trust and commit to. The move proved fruitful but this World Cup was different. This off-season was unique due to the enormous contracts signed, a heightened focus on player injury avoidance and the movement of multiple perennial All-Stars throughout the NBA. These are all new normal’s ushered in by the “player empowerment” movement. Participants are wielding the power once reserved for NBA owners.
These are the players that declined to play for the World Cup squad. Their reasoning in all cases was legitimate but hurt Team USA none the less.
Cleveland Cavaliers Kevin Love, Washington Wizards Bradley Beal, Philadelphia 76ers Tobias Harris, Trail Blazers Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, San Antonio Spurs DeMar DeRozan, Los Angeles Lakers Anthony Davis, Houston Rockets James Harden and Eric Gordon, New York Knicks Julius Randle and Los Angeles Clippers Landry Shamet.
The NBA is about leverage and who can exercise it best. Yet to fully understand this journey a considerable amount of nuance is paramount. Players have always wanted more power so this “movement” began long ago. Recent history has provided a major piece to the league’s evolution.
Lebron’s “The Decision” took place on July 8, 2010. We watched the exuberant superstar take ownership of his career unlike any player before. He cultivated his resources to create a winning situation. Sure, players switch teams during free agency, but not like this. The broadcast mixed with the growing anticipation was groundbreaking and simply lite the NBA on fire.
James would go on to win two championships with Miami and another with Cleveland. During this second stint with the Cavs, he went head to head with Dan Gilbert the team’s owner. Lebron continued to sign one-year deals seemingly holding the front office accountable every off-season. These are unorthodox methods but served as breadcrumbs. Players began utilizing similar tactics and applied the same logic to their careers. The impact James deployed proved to only be the tip of the iceberg.
Players are taking team building into their own hands once again utilizing their leverage. Take a look at how the Clippers, Lakers, and Nets rosters were constructed and the point is proven. With player and owner power low-key being equal the decision to play for Team USA becomes more difficult. In turn, making their mission even tougher.
The New Normal
To maintain some level of power the NBA and its owners responded by implementing the max-contract aka the “Designated Veteran Player Extension”. This rule allows teams to re-sign qualifying players to maximum five-year deals worth up to 35 percent of the salary cap with an eight percent rise in each following year. This extension gives owners an even larger money truck to curtail players from changing squads. Its the American way! The leagues objective is to keep superstars with their original teams.
The causality of this situation is clear. Team USA will undoubtedly struggle as American born NBA players climb the industries power structure. The power shift that began with the creation of the NBPA in 1954 is now thriving. According to Forbes total revenue across the NBA reached $8 billion last season. The average NBA team is worth $1.9 billion. This is 13% better than last year and three times better than five years ago. To say the owners are doing well is an understatement.
This equation does not include the consistent construction of a competitive US National Team. NBA players and owners are naturally working to better their agendas by utilizing their leverage also an American stronghold. It would seem the dance once lead by owners is being refreshed. While the league continues its ascent Team USA is once again being forced to adjust.
American Capitalism is the bedrock of professional sports. From the outset, team owners understood and took full advantage of this American cornerstone. The only caveat is players were never intended to be full beneficiaries. Instead, they were seen as employees, not partners. They were given percentages under a false premise that devalued their importance. These notions are now a thing of the past.
The NBA’s evolution could continue to hurt Team USA if adjustments aren’t made. The persona of those that declined should not be spoiled and entitled but paid and enlightened. The decision to play is far more difficult than years past. Ultimately the players will determine the success of Team USA. Barring injury Stephen Curry & Damian Lillard have committed to the 2020 Olympic team which is welcomed news to a squad thirsty for redemption.
Finishing seventh in the FIBA World Cup brought Team USA’s issues to the forefront. The upcoming redemption tour most likely will be a success however making it sustainable long term is the goal. This finish proves the world is working to close the basketball gap. Not to mention international players made up four of the five major NBA Awards last season. It’s not time to panic but Team USA should be on notice.
To be viable Team USA must cultivate a plan that both players and team owners can trust. They must work together to secure a successful national team. It’s the only way forward!