Want a professional athlete to grind through an interminable regular-season schedule, then embark on an even more grueling postseason march? No problem. But when players start participating in events outside of that familiar cycle — such as when NBA stars head to the Olympics — concern starts to build about wear and tear. Even putting aside injuries that happen during extracurricular play, it’s not unreasonable to expect that tired stars would be predisposed toward injury and underperformance upon rejoining their teams for the ensuing season.
According to the numbers, however, there’s not really any reason to worry about Dream Teamers coming home from Rio in a weakened state. If anything, playing for Team USA at a big international tournament seems to be associated with a boost in performance the next season.
My colleague Jim Pagels came to that conclusion in 2014 when comparing Team USA members’ per-minute production with what would be predicted by Basketball-Reference’s Simple Projection System, finding that players produced better NBA Player Efficiency Ratings and Win Shares per 48 minutes than expected after donning the Stars and Stripes. My own research backs this up; U.S. players tend to exceed their projected Box Plus/Minus (BPM) by about 0.4 points per 100 possessions the year after playing a major tournamentFIBA World Cup.">1 for the United States, and they beat projections by nearly 0.7 points/100 possessions after playing in the Olympics specifically.
But by definition, these projections deal in per-minute rates, which don’t account for the possibility of lost playing time because of injury. So as an alternate method of checking up on U.S. players the season after a summer tournament, I generated projected wins above replacement (WAR) totals for them each year — since replacement-level analysis factors in both performance and playing-time — and compared their actual WAR with what the system projected.Tiger Woods’s major-winning pace in golf. For each age, I ran a regression predicting a player’s final, end-of-career WAR total (zeroing out negative-WAR seasons) based on his career sum to date. A player’s projected WAR the following season, then, is the number of WAR he’d have to produce that year in order to be on pace for the same final, end-of-career WAR after the season that he was before the year began.">2 For seasons coming off of a Team USA appearance, our method would have expected the average Dream Teamer3 to produce 6.9 WAR; instead, he generated 8.4 WAR — a difference with high statistical significance.p-value was 0.006. ">4 In fact, 65 percent of Team USA members outperformed their WAR projection the year after suiting up in a major international event.
This isn’t to say that playing in the Olympics or FIBA Worlds caused those players to create more wins. (Although plenty of young players do credit the international experience with improving their skills.) It may also be a case of coincidence over causality — perhaps USA Basketball tends to select players who are particularly primed for improvement; or who feel they have few enough nagging injuries to participate, implying they’re overall healthier than the average player; or maybe the standard aging curve of our projections doesn’t perfectly apply to the kinds of transcendent players who are usually tabbed for the Dream Team.
But it does provide decent proof that declines in production aren’t traditionally associated with the extra pounding of an event such as the Olympics. For most players, the international stage is a springboard to bigger and better things, not a career-hampering pitfall.
CORRECTION (Aug. 16, 5:05 p.m.): An earlier version of the chart in this article misidentified the year in which Kevin Garnett competed in the Olympics. It was 2000, not 2008.