The offseason is normally a time to worry about everything that happens off the court: trades, signings, retirements, comebacks. Which jerseys to burn, which ones to buy. Actual games are few and far between, unless it's an Olympic year. The World Cup this fall won't be broadcast at normal hours or even on tape delay - September and October belong to baseball and its boys of summer. Grainy cell phone clips of Rucker Park magic or private scrimmages occasionally pop up on the Internet, but otherwise, the summer is slow business for the NBA.
Last night, the USA Basketball Blue vs. White game - 20 NBA players vying for roster spots on the national team - was a showcase of everything that us fans had been missing for the last month and a half. Derrick Rose threw down a signature two-handed tomahawk and blew past everyone for a coast-to-coast layup in the opening minutes. Steph Curry's lightning-quick release drew oohs and ahhs from the Las Vegas crowd. Anthony Davis emphatically swatted a Kevin Durant shot. Everything was going well, 20 players were having fun and balling out, and the return of Rose - seemingly even quicker and more explosive than before - was more than enough cause for celebration.
But the ball giveth and the ball taketh away. Late in the second half, Paul George went up to deny James Harden, only to snap his right leg coming down on the stanchion. Cue emotional benches, nauseated audience, Coach K ending the game, immediate surgery, and probably 9-12 months away from even running, let alone playing ball. This was just as bad as Kevin Ware's injury, maybe even as bad as Shaun Livingston's. A freak accident.
George will still get his cool 15.9 million next year, part of a five-year extension he signed last summer for over 90 million. Even if he never plays another NBA game, he will be set for life, assuming he takes care of his fortune well. If he misses half the upcoming season, the Pacers will begin to recoup some of his salary through insurance payments - but money can't buy back championship aspirations. With both George and Lance Stephenson gone, the Pacers could very well fall into basketball purgatory: a 5-8 seed caught between rebuilding teams and title contenders.
This is exactly why players like George and Stephenson should take the money when they can get it, when they are young, healthy, and looking forward to promising careers. LeBron, Wade, and Bosh coming together for two rings, Duncan taking less and less money to keep the Spurs going, Dirk doing the same for the Mavs - these are exceptions to the rule, from aging players who have usually already made their money and their careers. Kobe might have crippled the Lakers by signing a max contract last year, but it is up to front offices not to offer big bucks. Parsons took the money to go to Dallas, Harden took the money to come to Houston, and Howard is probably saving enough money on alimony and income taxes to be making more money here than in Orlando or LA. But a single awkward landing can end or ruin a career - think of how much better Livingston could have been - and then a player is left out to dry. Wear and tear can easily do the same; Rockets fans might remember the teams built around Yao and T-Mac in their primes, and the Blazers they faced, led by Brandon Roy and Greg Oden. That was only five years ago.
Fans point fingers. Any superstar signing a max contract wasn't doing enough to help his team win. A player who leaves his original team for more money is a traitor. But Paul George's accident last night is a sobering reminder of how fragile NBA careers are, just as fans were beginning to rejoice over Derrick Rose's return. There are plenty of happy recovery stories throughout the league's history - Livingston coming back with the Nets, Oden finding his spot on the Heat, Grant Hill carving out a long career in Phoenix, Magic Johnson leading the Dream Team while battling HIV - but for every Rose there is a thorn. Here's to a speedy and successful recovery for Paul George, and a resurgence for Derrick Rose.