The NBA preseason, which began this week, includes a record number of games against international teams and presents a unique opportunity for international players and the NBA.
Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv (Israel), Maccabi Haifa (Israel) and Flamengo (Brazil) will play nine games in North America against NBA teams, with an additional five league games scheduled in Europe, Brazil and China. It might be expected that these teams hardly stand a chance against NBA rosters, but Alba Berlin, a middling team in Germany’s Basketball Bundesliga table, defeated the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday.
However, these exhibitions are less about competition and more about marketing. The NBA has embraced international expansion, with the league even considering earlier tip-offs to accommodate fans abroad. The NBA is also continuing to stage regular-season games abroad (this season in Mexico and England) in an effort to provide international fans the chance to see its stars in person.
Though these trips force teams to lose home-court advantage, they provide ample opportunity to connect with fans abroad. The NBA’s international fan base is exploding; the 2014 Finals were broadcast to 215 countries and in 47 languages. Individual teams and players have made extra efforts to connect with foreign fans, perhaps none more successfully than Kobe Bryant in China.
The expansion of the NBA’s international market has coincided with the increase of international players. During the 2013-14 season, a record 92 NBA players were international imports, filling more than 20 percent of the league’s roster space. International players hoping to break into the NBA use preseason and exhibition games to demonstrate their skills to NBA teams, and they’re willing to suffer potentially embarrassing losses for the opportunity.
Fewer scouts watch international games than NCAA games, making these exhibitions especially important to international players. In fact, a slew of athletes turned their performances this summer in the FIBA World Cup into NBA interest. These games are especially vital for Americans who found playing time abroad after being unable to make the leap into the NBA. Case in point: Alba Berlin’s game-winner against the Spurs came from James McLean, a forward from Xavier.
Whether the next Dirk Nowitzki or Pau Gasol comes out of these exhibitions remains to be seen. However, when the first international friendly tipped off between Maccabi Tel Aviv and the Cleveland Cavaliers, an obvious manifestation of the NBA’s international reach was on hand: Cavs head coach David Blatt, who was Tel Aviv’s coach just a few months ago.