Four months ago Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard had no hope of playing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. But since Lillard was re-added to the USA Basketball roster pool in February, shoo-in point guard candidates Stephen Curry and Chris Paul have both withdrawn from the team, opening the door for Portland's star.
Lillard will be competing against Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, and Mike Conley for three point guard spots on the roster. Of the four, only Westbrook has been considered a sure-thing, leaving the other three to battle it out for two spots. In the eyes of most, Lillard has passed Conley in terms of notoriety, which would slot him as the third point guard on the roster even if Krzyzewski's perceived Duke bias for Irving remains intact.
If Lillard does make the team, he will join Clyde Drexler (1992) and Steve Smith (2000) as the third player to participate in the Olympics with team USA while also under contract with the Blazers.
If selected, should Lillard go to Rio?
On the surface, Lillard on the Olympic team would be a slam dunk positive from a Blazer fan's perspective as there have been tangible benefits to Olympic experience in previous years. Past participants have touted the importance of playing alongside elite peers; being literally on the same team as other superstars has been cited as a way to improve diet and training methods, learn new techniques, and also serve as motivation.
Charles Barkley, for example, used playing with Michael Jordan in 1992 as a motivation to get in shape and have his best season ever in 1993 - Barkley won the NBA MVP that year and took the Phoenix Suns to the Finals. Similarly, Lebron James has mentioned Kobe Bryant's competitive spirit in the 2008 Olympics as a point of education for his career. James has since gone on to play in six consecutive NBA Finals.
Likewise, playing in the Olympics raises the profile of those on the roster. The NBA is a star-based league and being hailed as one of the top-12 American basketball players could certainly play a role in how a player is perceived during the following season. It's possible that Olympic participation could earn Lillard more respect from the officials, or even play a role in recruiting free agents in future seasons.
But those benefits do come with a cost. The NBA season is already long and grueling - to the point that Gregg Popovich and a handful of other coaches believe it's advantageous to rest players in games rather than try to win every night. Adding the burden of a summer of competitive basketball onto 100 or so NBA games does wear on players.
Long-time Blazers fans have seen the negative consequences that fatigue from playing for national teams during the summer can have. Clyde Drexler provided a classic example: After filling the summer of 1992 with a Finals run and Dream Team appearance, Drexler fell apart during the 1993 season, causing the Blazers to tumble from title contenders to first-round fodder. In recent years, Nicolas Batum frustrated Blazers fans with inconsistent play, hitting a nadir during the disappointing 2014-15 season. During that campaign, Batum admitted that playing repeatedly in the summer had fatigued him to the point that it affected his play for the Blazers.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has publicly bemoaned the negative effect of international basketball, arguing that NBA teams take on significant financial risk when their players suit up for the Olympics or other international competition. His argument came on the heels of Paul George's catastrophic injury during USA Basketball's 2014 intra-squad scrimmage.
Serious injury risk aside, it's unclear how an additional month of competitive basketball in the summer would affect Lillard's regular season form. He has been durable for most of his NBA career, missing only seven games in four seasons, but his energy levels also appeared to wane toward the end of this year. Lillard denied that fatigue was a factor, but his field goal percentage slumped as the season progressed and he was noticeably exhausted at several points of the year (e.g. during the extended March road trip and in the series against the Warriors).
A middle ground for Lillard?
The Olympics have undeniably had positive effects on the careers of many NBA players. It's very possible that Lillard and the Blazers would benefit from his participation if Coach K does select him to play in Rio. This would be a rare chance for Lillard to play with other superstars for an extended period of time, giving him an opportunity to become intimately acquainted with the training habits and attitudes of his peers. Lillard's increased notoriety also wouldn't hurt during free agency recruitment or when he drives the lane during NBA games.
These positive benefits, however, are presumably front loaded during a player's international career. Lillard will certainly learn a lot this summer, but once he becomes an international team veteran new benefits will slowly dry up. Eventually he would become the experienced player helping to improve the games of younger rising stars, and his star will already shine bright enough that little extra notoriety would be gained from playing in the summer. As an established veteran and previous national team member, it's unlikely, for instance, that the decision to skip this year's Olympics will have a measurable effect in either direction on Chris Paul's career.
At the same time, repeated international team participation has already had a negative impact on at least one Blazer (Batum) and it's unclear how an extended playoff run plus several weeks of high-level summer basketball might impact Lillard's long-term energy levels in the future.
Thus, perhaps the best option is for Lillard to take a middle ground approach. Play in the Olympics this summer while he's still early in his NBA career and has much to gain from international experience, but pass on future opportunities when the Blazers have, hopefully, made some deep postseason runs and fatigue is becoming more of a factor.
Readers - what do you think? Is Lillard playing on the 2016 Summer Olympic Team a good idea? Let us know in the comments below.
Eric Griffith | @DeeringTornado |