Roundtable: Will European Basketball Affect The Lockout

Perhaps the biggest news of the lockout thus far was Deron Williams’ surprising decision to sign a contract with Besiktas of the Turkish basketball league, the same team that signed former NBA great Allen Iverson.  Suddenly, Europe is looking like a destination that may be home to even more NBA players.  The contract is a win-win situation for Williams.  He gets paid to play basketball while the NBA is locked out and can return to the Association whenever said lockout is finally resolved.  With European basketball offering a viable alternative to NBA players as a way to make money during the lockout, we asked our writers whether or not the Euro leagues will give the players any added leverage as we prepare for the trench warfare of lockout negotiations.

Question – Assuming we miss games due to the lockout, will we see more star players play professionally in Europe and will that factor into strengthening the players’ resolve in the lockout?

Matt Yoder:  The EuroLeague and the specter of playing professional basketball overseas is an element that didn’t face the league during the last lockout.  The ability for NBA players, like Deron Williams, to go to Turkey and earn good money is the X factor of the 2011 version.  The NBA players simply didn’t have this kind of option before them when they crumbled over a decade ago, or at least it wasn’t as viable.  NBA players don’t exactly have the best reputation for being fiscally responsible, so a chance to earn a pretty good payday overseas has to give them some leverage that they didn’t have in 1998.  How much leverage depends on who and how many players choose to play in Europe or Asia.  Deron Williams is a start, but if the lockout looks particularly bleak for a season this year and someone like Kobe Bryant goes to Europe to play pro ball, it could be a gamechanger.  The popular opinion is that the players will eventually cave into the owners after perhaps an entire season is lost, but NBA stars saying “we don’t need the NBA to make a living” would bring a totally different angle to the lockout.  I’d love to see David Stern’s reaction to Besiktas and Barcelona leading off SportsCenter next year with his stars on the court.

John Karalis:  European teams are being smart because they’re not being greedy.  The thing about Deron Williams’ contract that makes it more likely for stars to go overseas is that Besiktas is willing to let him go once the lockout is over.  That essentially turns the stint into a working, paid vacation.  For $200,000 a month plus various amenities, D-Will gets to play some ball, chill in an exotic European city, and bolt when the labor situation is resolved in the US.  Sure, 200 grand is chump change, but it’s money they don’t have to lay out.  It’s nothing out of their own pockets to go ball it up, stay in shape, and stick it to the owners.  And now that Kobe Bryant is open to it, watch out.  All it takes is a few stars to make the leap.  D-Will is one.  If Kobe does (and he does endorse Turkish Airlines) that’s two.  We just need a couple more for owners to start getting nervous. And considering Kobe just got a knee procedure done… considering that father time is tapping him on the shoulder… how long will Jerry Buss be willing to watch that bone-on-bone run up and down some court in Istanbul?

This may not do much to strengthen the players’ resolve, but it can send very strong shock-waves towards the owners.  This may even become a player strategy (at least it would if I was Billy Hunter): find out which owners are most likely to break, get the star players from those teams to sign overseas, and watch the weak links crack under the pressure of their multi-million dollar investments risking injury seven time zones away.  David Stern built Europe up in hopes of expanding there, but for now, he created an atmosphere that is erasing the effectiveness of a lockout.

Jeff Garcia:  This move overseas for players could prove to be a way for the players to stick it to the owners.  Lock us out? OK we will go overseas? Stop our pay? No worries, a foreign team will pay us a sizable amount and add those wonderful perks foreign teams provide. Ask Josh Childress.  So yeah, some other NBA players, even upper-echelon players might go play overseas. And with foreign teams willing to make short-term contracts to allow the players to return to the NBA once this lockout ends, players may think, “Why not? I got nothing to lose.”  The owners will view this and perhaps frown upon it. You can’t tell me Mark Cuban would be happy to see Dirk Nowitzki get some run, and risk injury. Sure he will publically say Dirk can do what he wants but in the back of his mind, you know he will be on pins-and-needles, scared to hear any news Dirk went down with an ankle injury. Perhaps this issue will force the hand of the owners and come to some agreement with the players union.  The move will unify the players, give them a chance to expand their brand, play together, make money, keep fresh, oh and did I say make money?

Surya Fernandez:  Before the news hit about Deron Williams, there was only speculation that big time players might consider playing in Europe. Now it’s a reality that the league and the owners, specifically New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, must deal with. We always knew fringe players that may or may not stick with an NBA team next season could flock overseas for a guaranteed paycheck. But star players like Deron don’t come around too often and Prokhorov can’t be happy about this.  Regardless, most star players with heavy endorsements and income from other ventures can get by, certainly for several months to a year. Time will tell when the owners will start making some concessions on their part to get this lockout ended and save next season. We already know how sponsors and the TV execs would feel about losing a season. So this means pressure to come up with a suitable compromise is coming from all different angles and this potential Euro exodus will feed into that.

The threat of players choosing to play overseas isn’t exactly a new idea. For example, Danny Ferry went to Italy rather than play for the Los Angeles Clippers who had just drafted him second overall in the 1989 NBA Draft (and who can blame him?). Finally, he was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers a year later and signed to a 10-year (!) contract. But there’s no question that now there is a huge international market with plenty of big-time teams and sponsors willing to nab NBA players while they can. Plenty of these clubs are used to dealing with big time transfers for the biggest superstars in soccer. Europe is a great destination but so is Asia and others as well. With the Internet, Twitter and YouTube it’s now easier than ever to connect with fans everywhere.  Who knows, some of the players just might stay and not come back.

Michael De Leon:  After seeing Josh Childress bolt for Greece in 2008, taking a lucrative offer from Olympiacos over a three-year deal to stay with Atlanta, I had a feeling more players would soon follow.  The euroleague put out the welcome mat for notorious NBA malcontents Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury last season and with the players and owners still miles away from an agreement, I don’t see an end to the lockout coming any time soon.  WNBA and D-League players have been flocking overseas for years, and with no end in sight, I would not be surprised to see NBA players follow suit, especially those that came from overseas. As I’ve said before, if a player the caliber of Childress can get that kind of money along with several other benefits, including paying for agent’s fees, a house and a car, imagine what an all-star could be offered.  At a time when players are locked out, have no access to training facilities and do not have insurance, the offers coming from Europe may be too hard to pass up. As a friend who used to have dreams of playing in the NBA (and is now playing overseas) told me recently, why would I pass up an opportunity to get paid well, get my home paid for and travel the world for free when the NBA may never come calling.  While that may not be the same exact situation for NBA superstars, it has to be tempting and it’s certainly a chip that could be used in labor negotiations.