Across the Atlantic

The destination of choice?

The destination of choice?

I have been pretty AWOL as of late. It’s been a busy summer on both the work and vacation fronts. Work hard play harder right?

Just last week I was in Europe so I wasn’t able to watch much of the summer league action which was disappointing. On the flip side I was in Europe. Yes, that same Europe that is now the hot topic in NBA circles.

Let’s just look at some of the headlines around the web the past few days:

"Jason Williams has an offer from Maccabi Tel Aviv." – Malaga Hoy

"Lakers reserve guard Sasha Vujacic, a restricted free agent, is prepared to leave the team and accept an offer from a European team in the next few days if the Lakers don't make him an offer he deems fair." (Since re-signed with the Lakers) – LA Times

"Andris Biedrins, according to a source close to the fifth-year lefty, is drawing interest from several teams in Europe." – Contra Costa Times (Since re-signed with the Warriors)

"The agent for restricted free agent forward Carl Landry told FOX 26 Sports Wednesday playing outside the NBA may become an option for his client." – MyFoxHouston.com

"Cornstein added that Krstic signing with a club overseas, as Bostjan Nachbar did on Monday, is "certainly an option." Nachbar, who signed with a team in Moscow, is also Cornstein's client." - New York Daily News

This is just the tip of the iceberg.
So what does it all mean? Do the Josh Childress, Boki Nachbar, Carlos Delfino signings represent a new dawn in the world of professional basketball? If the NBA is the WWF are the Euroleagues now the equivalent of the WCW as it was back in the 1990s?

At one point this show had higher ratings than its counterpart!

At one point this show had higher ratings than its counterpart!

At first glance it is hard to tell but as of now, it seems like the answer is no. Why? Two reasons. The first reason is highlighted in a piece recently posted on Draftexpress. The most interesting thing to take from the discussion was the following:

"The huge contracts those guys have signed are feasible only because, besides the strength of the Euro, some wealthy pockets are putting big money on the table. This is not any potentially profitable investment, there’s no monetary return expected, perhaps only some political favors or under-the-table agreements. But it’s not a real business, like for example, the NBA is.

The biggest problem European basketball faces is its minimal ability to generate income and revenues. In a Continent dominated by soccer, basketball is a secondary sport played in second-tier leagues (talent wise). No big attendances, small TV ratings, ridiculously low merchandising, it’s really hard to make money off it. And teams really don’t try to."

Well if there is one thing we know about the NBA it’s that it’s a business. So as a few Euroleague owners play the role of Mark Cuban, don’t for one second think that David Stern isn’t watching this play out and forecasting, what if anything he needs to do about it. It’s one thing when Josh Childress, a sixth man, takes the money and runs (although I think he is running AWAY from Atlanta as much as he is following the loot), it’s another if suddenly Lebron James starts considering a career in Greece.

Of course I can’t imagine that happening and frankly, it won’t. The NBA is constructed in such a way where the stars reign. I have said this a hundred times and I will probably say it a hundred more, it is a game of stars. This proposition doesn’t just apply to what happens on the court, it also applies to what happens off it. Even if in 2010 Olympiakos were to approach someone like Lebron James with a monster contract that makes zero sense, do you actually think he’s going to walk away from everything else playing in North America has to offer? Endorsements, publicity, and the direct spotlight help NBA stars not only supplement their income, in many cases these things are the lion share of their income. If they walk, it’s possible and more than likely that some of these things walk away as well.

On the other end of the spectrum are players like Kelenna Azubuike. Some players simply want to play with the best in the world and his story is a perfect example of that. Azubuike, since his days in Kentucky has battled his way into what now is a three year, 9 million dollar contract. He finally, after many bumps in the road, has "made it". It’s a success story, but one that could have ended very differently. As reported by Ian Thomsen at CNNSI.com, Azubuike had a great opportunity to sign abroad for more money than he was being offered on the home front. He made the decision to stay in the NBA. The driving force behind his decision? "He had worked too hard to reach the NBA, and he didn't want to abandon that goal now."

It’s not only players like Azubuike who are making the decision to play for less money in return for the opportunity to play in the world’s best league. Players like Marc Gasol, Roko Ukic and others are foregoing larger contracts in Europe for the opportunity to play in the NBA. The NBA remains the gold standard when it comes to professional basketball. Based on how basketball is organized abroad this is not about to change any time soon. We will be interviewing Rod Benson in the next week or so, and I would be hard-pressed to believe that playing in the NBA, rather than abroad, wouldn’t be his first choice even if it means foregoing some dollar bills (or rather Euro).

It is actually the average NBA player that should be considered the greatest flight risk and it’s the Josh Childress’ of the league that we will see move abroad more than anyone else. It is really a tit-for-tat. Over the past few years the NBA (the Raps very own Bryan Colangelo helping to lead the charge), has taken some of the best players in the Euroleague and lured them to the NBA. Sarunas Jasikevicius, Anthony Parker, Juan Carlos Navarro, Jorge Garbajosa and Jose Calderon to name a few. These are average NBA players who were stars abroad. To think that the Euroleague teams were not going to try and lure other players to replace them is simply naïve.

As a fan I am not overly concerned. It’s not the average NBA player that keeps me coming back for more. I mean I will watch summer league and random NCAA Division II games and enjoy them, but it’s players like Bosh, Lebron, Paul, Kobe, Nash and KG that make me such a fan of the game. It’s also those same players that win championships (hence me singing the high praises of the O’Neal trade).

Now to suggest that this new phenomenon gives us nothing to worry about is also naïve. Take a look at draft projections for the 2009 draft. The first player on everyone’s big board? Ricky Rubio. Is it possible that he pulls a Fran Vasquez? Suddenly is drafting a player who does not call the United States "home" too much of a risk? Even more importantly, is this something that Bryan Colangelo considered when he took Andrea Bargnani number one?

As one reader pointed out, "It's also worth noting that Bargnani is restricted in 09-10. How much are we prepared to pay him? I ask because I'm pretty sure that there's an Italian League Team out there that would offer a small fortune to have him head back to Europe. Are we prepared to pay him star money? Because it may take close to that to keep him here. So we have 2 years to decide whether he's a max-money player, or to move him before the summer of 09-10, because we'll get nothing for him if he bolts."

Could we see this image again a few seasons from now?

Could we see this image again a few seasons from now?

As much as Atlanta gets raked over the coals for letting Childress walk away for essentially nothing, I can’t blame them. The NBA salary cap is both a blessing and a curse. In one way it helps to establish some equality between the franchises. The small market teams are in theory no worse off then the big market teams despite their location. On the flip side, you only have so much flexibility when it comes to forming your roster. If you’re Rick Sund are you willing to match the Olympiakos offer and essentially make a bad deal? Is Josh Childress really worth sacrificing financial flexibility over?

In the end I think the European trend is here to stay. Some players want to maximize their earning potential in the small window of opportunity that they have. Some players will want to play with the worlds best. Each player will make their own decision based on their individual circumstances. It’s nothing for us fans of the NBA to get too upset about.

Knowing that there are owners in Europe willing to shell out exorbitant amounts of money just for the hell of it sure makes the thought of NBA expansion a more interesting one. Can you just imagine a division of teams all owned by individuals with no regard for the luxury tax? Maybe one day we will see Lebron James in Europe….

HOWLAND

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