With the rash of injuries, why should any NBA player compete in Tokyo?

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·Columnist
·5 min read
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Kawhi Leonard is hurt, perhaps seriously. Kyrie Irving is hurt. James Harden is hurt. Mike Conley is hurt. Anthony Davis was hurt. The previously indestructible LeBron James was, too. Jaylen Brown was hurt. John Wall was hurt. Spencer Dinwiddie was hurt. Donovan Mitchell was hurt. Joel Embiid was/is hurt.

The list can go on.

And who knows who is next?

This NBA season, and especially these playoffs, has been rocked by injuries — from superstars down to role players. The eventual champion will win a battle of attrition as much as a basketball tournament.

Every ailment is unique unto itself, but it stands to reason that the COVID-altered schedule has played a role. Perhaps a major one.

The benefits of rest — whether it’s extended offseasons of load management that cuts minutes and games played — has become an accepted norm in modern exercise science. Not only is there limited wear on every athlete’s tire, but fatigue can lead to nagging, lingering injuries.

The NBA’s COVID shutdown in the spring of 2020 led for everything to be condensed into a smaller calendar. And with the 2021 playoffs going into mid-July, but the 2021-22 regular season set to begin as it usually would in mid-October, this offseason will be briefer than normal, as well.

Which begs a simple question: Why would any NBA player compete in this summer’s Olympic Games, which will run from July 23-Aug. 9 in Tokyo?

On Wednesday, league MVP Nikola Jokic announced he won’t play for Serbia this summer. The Denver Nuggets have to be thrilled. The last thing that franchise wants is to have its 26-year-old big man push through tired legs and risk injury during the Olympics or even increase the probability of breaking down next season.

Expect Jokic to be the first of many. LeBron, who has been a part of three gold medal teams, is reportedly out for the U.S. Anthony Davis is expected to not play either. Stephen Curry is said to be 50-50. We’ll see.

What’s clear is there hasn’t been a big groundswell of talent eager to go.

It makes sense.

These guys are getting paid tens of millions of dollars to play in the NBA. The International Olympic Committee meanwhile pays them nothing — it simply provides a platform to market themselves on a global stage. Even if the IOC did offer some stipend, it would pale in comparison to their main job.

And while companies such as Nike and Adidas love to have their stars playing and reaching new markets, that too is a side gig. The NBA has always embraced the Olympics as a way to grow its core business. It worked, and not just by creating fans around the world. You can draw a fairly straight line from the 1992 USA Dream Team to the last three league MVPs being non-Americans (Jokic and Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo).

Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Los Angeles Clippers warms up before the start of Game Four of the Western Conference second-round playoff series against Utah Jazz at Staples Center on June 14, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kawhi Leonard is the latest player to be injured in the playoffs. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

But what is normally a fairly risk-free promotional exercise can’t be seen that way this summer.

A superstar would be nearly crazy to give this a shot. Certainly no player who reaches the conference finals or NBA Finals (each of which will extend into July) should go — which could eliminate Leonard, Chris Paul, Devin Booker and others.

Maybe young players who were eliminated before or early in the playoffs — Zion Williamson, Ja Morant — and have had an extended break now (and will again post-Olympics) could give it a try.

Watching the nightly casualty list of these playoffs makes even that uncertain, however.

The NBA Finals usually end by Father’s Day, at the latest. That normally leaves a month of rest for even those players prior to the Olympics and four-plus months until the start of the next NBA regular season.

Right now, everything is still a mess. After COVID shut the 2019-20 season down last spring, the league reconvened in an Orlando bubble in July and concluded the 2020 playoffs on Oct. 11 when James and Davis led the Los Angeles Lakers to the title.

The 2020-21 regular season was pushed back from its traditional late October start until Dec. 22 — just 10 weeks of an offseason for L.A. and finalist Miami (perhaps not coincidentally both were eliminated in the first round this season).

These playoffs will conclude at some point in mid-July, which will cut the offseason by about a month, since the 2021-22 campaign is expected to go back to the NBA’s traditional calendar.

What team wants their players to jam an Olympics in the middle of that?

Add in the significant COVID restrictions in Japan, where the pandemic is still very much a thing, and this doesn’t seem like it would be too appealing to star players.

Jokic is the biggest name thus far — Serbia won the silver in Rio, losing handily to the Americans. More are to come. What Team USA will be able to put out there under Gregg Popovich is unknown. The U.S. will still be the favorites due to its depth of talent and the likelihood other countries will lose a similar number of quality contributors.

This could be one unusual Olympics though, with all sorts of second and third-tier players that don’t resemble any countries Dream Team.

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