Globalization has been a theme of the early part of the 21st century. The NBA and Commissioner David Stern have not been shy about their intentions to join in this phenomenon.
Specifically, Commissioner Stern has targeted basketball hotbeds like Europe and Latin America for NBA expansion. Preseason games in Europe and Asia have been played over the past few years and this year, for the first time ever, two regular season matchups have been scheduled in the UK between the Nets and Raptors. Stern is also sending out a vast contingency of ambassa-ballers this preseason: Lakers vs. Timberwolves in London, Wolves vs. Knicks in Paris, Nets vs. Rockets in Beijing, and Spurs vs. Clippers in Mexico City.
More interestingly, NBA teams will be tipping off against some of the best teams the Euroleague has to offer. The Knicks will play Armani Jeans Milano (Danilo Gallinari and Mike D’Antoni‘s former team) in Milan on Oct. 3. The defending NBA champion Lakers will face-off against the defending Euroleague champion Regal FC Barcelona (Pau Gasol‘s former and Ricky Rubio‘s current team) in Barcelona on Oct. 7. A few Euroleague teams will be coming to play stateside as well. CSKA Moscow will throw down with the Miami Heat, OKC Thunder, and Cleveland Cavs on their U.S. tour; Maccabi Haifa of Israel will travel to Newark to face the Nets; and Caja Laboral from the Basque region of Spain will head to Memphis to play Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies, then to San Antonio to face the Spurs. This experiment began a few years back with interesting results.
So where is this all leading? To begin, Euroleague Basketball recently changed their rules to be more like NBA rules. Among these rule changes are an altered key from that awkward trapezoid to a good old-fashioned rectangle, and an extended three-point line. The changes were made to move basketball closer to a single set of rules, presumably to make it easier for NBA teams to play European teams. Who knows? Maybe the games will eventually start counting.
I wouldn’t expect an organization as rich and powerful as the NBA to want to even the playing field, but entertain this idea:
What if the NBA sent its four best teams (the two Eastern Conference Finals teams and two Western Conference Finals teams) to play against the best teams the world has to offer?
Europe already does it. Leagues from Spain, Israel, Germany, Italy, Greece, France, Turkey, etc., all send their best teams to compete against each other in the Euroleague — Tournament of Champions-style — to decide who the true champs are. With the way these internationally flavored exhibition games have been set up, it seems like the NBA is interested in following suit. The only European teams the NBA has scheduled exhibition games with are Euroleague-affiliated teams, the European Champions League of Basketball.
Now, I’m going to talk about soccer for a second, so sit down, just don’t freak out, this will just take a second. Besides the Super Bowl, the other most-watched sporting event in the world is the UEFA Champions League Final. That’s the championship game of the soccer version of Euroleague. People want to see the best teams from different countries and different styles compete against each other.
Imagine the Lakers win the NBA title, but then (along with three other NBA teams) they go play meaningful games against Euro squads like Regal FC Barcelona, Olympiacos, or Real Madrid to decide the literal world championship. Who wouldn’t want to see that? Even if our teams trounce them, how cool would the city and cultural matchups be, especially when they would be real and meaningful? L.A. vs. Barcelona. New York vs. Moscow. Miami vs. Rome. Even Milwaukee vs. Istanbul would be cool. The games don’t have to be every year. They could start at once every four years. Thirty-two team tournament, round robin. Hell, let’s do a 64-team NCAA-style tourney and we’ll really see some upsets. Why not?
People could say this would dilute the importance of the NBA regular season (yawn) and the playoffs and Finals (better argument). The NBA Finals would essentially still be the “world championship,” because even if they actually created this post-Finals world tournament right now, it would probably take decades for a non-NBA team to win it.
Right now, there’s virtually no competition between an NBA squad and a Euro team. That will be evident this preseason. Kevin Durant and Team USA Jr. just cleaned up at the FIBA World Championships. While the team wasn’t always dominant, they were clearly more talented player-for-player than any team in the tourney. A cohesive, experienced unit that trusts each other, forged and tested in the fires of the NBA playoffs pitted against a gritty, upstart European team with nothing to lose would be a fascinating display of competitive spirit and national pride. The likes of Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki, Rudy Fernandez, Tony Parker, and countless other European players came to play in the NBA for the advanced competition, coaching, and, of course, pay.
However, recently the reverse situation has become true as well. Starting with Brandon Jennings, some high school studs have been looking to get their checks in Europe instead of going to some small college town to play a year of ball for free. Also, big-money Euro teams have begun poaching NBA free agents to supplement their burgeoning rosters. Remember a couple of years back when Josh Childress got a big contract from Olympiacos in Greece? He took that paycheck instead of being the sixh man on the Hawks, gained some experience as a starter in a different setting, and now he’s back in the NBA with a fat contract in Phoenix. Even if Europe is just poaching American players, the level of competition there has increased. The waters of international ball are becoming more brackish and coupled with the Euroleague rule changes, now may be the beginning of the rest of the world catching up to us in basketball.
All that being said, I don’t think the NBA is interested in letting players from European or Israeli leagues showcase themselves and their talents against NBA brand names like the Lakers, Celtics, and Knicks, without making a nice chunk of change from it. But who says they wouldn’t be even more profitable by being pioneers? Untapped markets in Japan and Turkey would likely be very lucrative for the NBA’s growing brand. In fact, the argument can be made that NBA stars are already global brands (even “stars” like Damon Jones and rookie Evan Turner have landed shoe deals in China).
Commissioner Stern has seen what the World Cup has done for soccer around the world. He has seen and fostered international interest in his league through exhibition and cultural infusion. The next step is to introduce the best his product has to offer to the international commercial and competitive markets. The only way to expand now is globally, but not expansion like we’re used to, like the Hornets and Heat in ’88 or the Bobcats in ’04. That model of expansion has become dated, mainly because we’re running out of American cities to put teams. The NBA would be investing in, or possibly even buying a good chunk of Euroleague and its affiliates. Expansion for the NBA would now be incorporation. With travel becoming faster and communication becoming easier, it’s not that far-fetched. The NBA is ready to take the world by storm, something the NFL and MLB wish they could claim.
Remember what JaVale McGee wrote on Twitter: “In 1200 yrs it’s not gonna b USA vs Brasil it’s gonna b mars vs earth….imagine how hard tryouts for earth r gonna b… Wow.”
He’s right, but let’s start with just Earth.