The Olympics are the biggest stage for athletes who don’t play the big team sports we watch throughout the year. We get to watch swimmers, archers, runners and water polo-ers —I think that’s a technical term — compete and display their talents in front of the world. Even though they work as hard as our favorite basketball, football or baseball players, nobody hears anything about them at any time except during the Olympics.
But without even trying, the men’s basketball tournament steals attention from these deserving athletes simply because it’s such a special occasion to see these big stars play together for the USA, as well as for other countries. However, the most interesting part for me is noticing the small nuanced differences in the game compared to the NBA. Whether it’s seeing how Durant and LeBron play together or how nervous Tunisia is to play the USA, the Olympic basketball tournament is one of the most exciting brands of basketball there is.
The first change you immediately notice, especially when watching the USA, is the shorter 3-point line. The FIBA 3-point in is 20-6.25, while the NBA one is 23-9. Although three feet may not seem like a lot, it is. Try going to your local gym and shoot from the NBA line, which is approximately three steps back from the college line in most gyms. It is far. The results show this — the entire USA team shot 44 percent from three compared to the NBA, where the best team (the Spurs) shot just 39 percent. In fact, with the lack of bigs for the USA, I honestly think Spain, with its trio of the Gasols and Serge Ibaka, would have beaten the States in the gold medal game if it were not for the shorter 3-point line.
Another thing you notice is how different some players play for their country compared to their NBA team. For smaller countries, players who are benchwarmers in the NBA are the stars of their national teams. They have a different swagger, a different role and are really a whole different person. One great example is Patty Mills of Australia. He is a bench player for the Spurs who averaged four minutes a game in the postseason last year, but led the entire tournament — including LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Pau Gasol — in scoring at 21.2 points per game. He was the focal point of the offense and created every good look at the basket for Australia, a far cry from the NBA, where he is expected to stand in the corner and wait for Parker, Ginobili or Duncan to create a shot for him.
Even more interesting is watching the players who don’t play in the NBA and are complete mysteries coming into the Olympics. My favorite such player was 23-year old guard Alex Shved of Russia, who recently signed a 3-year, $10 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves, as they continue their goal of passing the Indiana Pacers as the whitest team in the NBA — featuring Ricky Rubio, Alex Shved, Andrei Kirilenko, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, with Luke Ridnour and JJ Barea off the bench is mighty impressive. He creatively set up Russia time and time again with poise and skills that will extrapolate nicely into the NBA.
Another interesting group of players are the foreign ones who have played in the NBA but chose to play overseas. The most prevalent example is Juan Carlos Navarro of Spain, who played one year for Memphis — averaging 10.9 points a game and starting 30 games. He clearly has the talent, as he destroys the USA in international competition every chance he gets. He scored 19 points in the first half of the gold medal game, but he prefers playing for his home team back in Spain. It’s interesting to see that not everyone feels that the NBA is the best path to take as a professional basketball player.
However, the most appealing aspect of Olympic basketball has to be watching these players play with a passion rarely seen in the NBA. When you consider that the best players in the world are risking injury by playing basketball for free, it’s pretty amazing they play with such intensity.
When asked if he would play for his fourth Olympics in 2016, LeBron James replied, “If I have the opportunity to be out there, I will do it. I love it. I love being a part of it and representing my country. I don’t know what may happen in four years, but it would be great to be back out there again.”
The US players are not the only ones who think like this. For example, Tony Parker of France was in an accident at a nightclub that almost made him blind, yet he chose to play with his injury, wearing some ridiculous looking hipster glasses. China was even more dedicated, as they played more than 40 games just in preparation for the tournament.
With the end of the Olympics, we have to say goodbye to international basketball for now, but the NBA this year should be even more exciting than the last. The Olympics was just something to hold us over until the new drama-filled NBA season, and boy did it do its job.