For every NBA heavyweight on the Olympic roster for Tokyo, there’s another whose absence is just as conspicuous. Kevin Durant is there; LeBron James isn’t. Draymond Green is there; Stephen Curry isn’t.
It’s definitely disappointing when key NBA players opt out of Olympic appearances, and it might even make you think a loss like Sunday’s against France deserves a disclaimer along the lines of “Yeah, but some of our best athletes weren’t there.” But the trend isn’t new. James and Curry both declined to play in the 2016 Olympics, too, for example; Dwyane Wade withdrew his name from the 2012 roster; and so on.
The reason is almost always for rest and recovery. If you make it to the NBA Finals (which James and Curry both did in 2016, and James and Wade did in 2012), you’re not finished until about mid-June. Training for the next NBA season usually starts somewhere between August and September, which doesn’t give you much time to address whatever injuries you’ve muscled through during the playoffs. Practicing for and competing in the Olympics falls right in the middle of your time off—and if you need surgery, like Wade did in 2012, it’s either ill-advised or downright impossible to fit the Olympics into your schedule. The timeline is even tighter this year because of the pandemic: The NBA Finals ended on July 20, and a few players had to hop a plane to Tokyo mere days later.
Even if their injuries are mild enough to allow a player to compete at the Olympics, they might exacerbate any underlying issues, which could then interfere with their next NBA season. For athletes whose primary focus is making it to the NBA Finals, sacrificing rest and recovery time just isn’t worth the risk. When James announced his plans to skip the Rio Olympics in 2016 after a grueling seven-game Finals series against the Golden State Warriors (James clinched the win for the Cleveland Cavaliers), he simply said, “I could use the rest.”
But not every NBA player is looking to join Team USA, anyway. Dozens of them compete for their home country’s team—like the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Dončić (Slovenia) and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Marc Gasol (Spain). The French team that just beat the U.S. boasts six current NBA players, including the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert and the Boston Celtics’ Evan Fournier.