Tuesday, July 12, 2011
NBA players going overseas? If...
By Dave McMenamin
LOS ANGELES -- Deron Williams sent shockwaves through the NBA back in February when he was unexpectedly traded to the New Jersey Nets after five-and-a-half successful seasons as the face of the Utah Jazz.
As headline-grabbing as the trade was, especially with it coming on the heels of Jerry Sloan's retirement, its impact pales in comparison to the reverberations felt across all levels of professional basketball internationally last week when Williams confirmed his intentions to play in Turkey during the lockout.
It is not unprecedented for players to head overseas to find work when their services are no longer sought after in the NBA. Stephon Marbury is doing it in China. Dominique Wilkins went to Greece. A laundry list of other All-Stars made the trip in the twilight of their careers.
But it is a new concept altogether to consider that the league with the best talent culled from all corners of the world -- German Dirk Nowitzki was just named Finals MVP -- have that talent redispersed in leagues throughout Europe and Asia while the NBA labor dispute is being resolved.
Or, not being resolved.
"There's no question players are serious in terms of looking at what alternatives might be out there for them," said agent Mark Bartelstein, who represents players such as Indiana's Danny Granger, Golden State's David Lee and Mo Williams of the Los Angeles Clippers.
"They have to be. They have no choice. The NBA talks about how it wants to make a deal and all this stuff, but actions speak a lot louder than words. If you looked at their actions in the weeks leading up to July 1, they clearly had no interest in making a deal unless the players wanted to give them everything they could ever hope for in a deal."
Will Williams' bold declaration so early into the lockout serve as a tipping point that causes a flood of players to trade in the famous names across their chests for the jerseys of foreign leagues undoubtedly collaged with sponsors' logos?
Will the growing sentiment amongst players that the lockout really could wipe out the entire 2011-12 NBA season cause them to secure deals overseas before all the roster spots for Americans are filled up by the regular group of former NCAA stars and fringe NBA players who occupy them?
Those bigger questions can't be answered until a number of more specific ones are resolved.
The NBA talks about how it wants to make a deal and all this stuff, but actions speak a lot louder than words. If you looked at their actions in the weeks leading up to July 1, they clearly had no interest in making a deal unless the players wanted to give them everything they could ever hope for in a deal.
-- Agent Mark Bartelstein on why NBA players are exploring the possibility of playing overseas
How many jobs are actually out there overseas?
"For rotational NBA players, there are not a lot of jobs that can support the kind of money that they make at this time," said Bartelstein.
Williams, who is set to make $16.4 million from the Nets when and if there is an NBA season next year, reportedly agreed to receive $5 million to play for Besiktas in Turkey. That disparity wouldn't fully come to bear unless Williams played the whole season there.
One player told me that his focus is more on what teams can offer month-to-month, rather than as a season salary, because he still believes there will be an NBA season to return to at some point, albeit a truncated one.
Even still, there just won't be enough lavishly compensated jobs out there to accommodate the NBA's 400-or-so players.
"Do I think there are 200 jobs? No," said agent Happy Walters, whose client list includes Amare Stoudemire and others. "Do I think worldwide there are 75 high-paying jobs between all the leagues? Yes."
Walters said that figure of 75 could grow if NBA players are willing to think outside the box in terms of compensation.
"I heard some teams are willing to do a deal offering players equity in their teams," Walters said. "[Or offer] part of the gate
there are a lot of creative ways over there that they don't do here."
Will any stars follow Williams' lead?
The two potential destinations that Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, perhaps the league's brightest star, has been linked to are Turkey and China.
Yahoo! Sports reported that Bryant would be open to hearing Besiktas' pitch to him and the L.A. Times reported that Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, is interested in rounding up a group of his clients -- Bryant included -- for a barnstorming tour of China.
Neither of these possibilities would serve to help Bryant accomplish his goal of winning another NBA championship, especially when he is coming off a knee procedure that he underwent in May, but both could be lucrative business opportunities.
Bryant is a spokesman for Turkish Airlines. He is also an endorser for Nike, a company that spends up to 70 percent of its marketing budget in China, according to a source.
Bryant's teammate, Ron Artest, has expressed interest in playing in the British Basketball League, solely because he potentially could be filming a movie in England this fall.
More stars could try to align other interests with basketball opportunities overseas as well.
Will players with existing NBA contracts be able to find insurance to cover that money they're putting at risk?
"He better have good insurance," was the first thing one former All-Star told me in a conversation about Williams' decision.
There are mixed feelings out there about how easily that "good insurance" can be obtained.
Williams told ESPN the Magazine's Chris Broussard that, "I also did my due diligence, researched insurance. I'll be covered."
Others have found it to be a bigger issue.
"My client, Andrew Bogut, was just told by the Australian Basketball Federation that he can't play for their team because they couldn't get insurance on his $39 million contract to play in the Euros," said agent David Bauman. "So, at the end of the day, it's not worth it to these guys."
Bauman, who also represents Artest, doubted he could find coverage for Artest for the three years, $22 million remaining on his Lakers deal. (Although he is still plugging away, looking at teams in Israel, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Italy, France, Japan and China for Artest.)
Walters said the insurance will be expensive, but it is attainable. He mentioned Lloyd's of London as a place that offers such policies.
Bartelstein said that the cost of finding insurance that covers career-ending injuries is more reasonable because it is a rare occurrence. However, he believes "value-diminishing" insurance is more expensive and harder to secure.
Will teams overseas offer opt-out clauses to players so they can leave whenever the NBA labor dispute is resolved?
"The question is going to be whether a team will say, 'Play for a month and when the lockout is over, we'll send you back,'" Bauman said. "I don't know that that will happen. That's the problem."
For a player like Williams, who brings instant buzz and credibility to an overseas franchise, offering up a roster spot knowing that he could leave at anytime might be worth the risk.
A free agent I spoke to who has been a bench player for most of his NBA career said he believed that "big-name" players will be given that concession. But he wasn't as sure about mid-tier guys.
Other than Williams, Toronto's Sonny Weems (Lithuania) and Philadelphia's Darius Songaila (Turkey) have signed deals to play in Europe next season that do not include opt-out clauses.
Walters said he found a deal for his client Lavoy Allen, a second-round pick of the Philadelphia 76ers, to play in France with a mid-January opt-out deadline, which would coincide with the drop-dead date for the hopes for a shortened NBA season should the league still be locked out.
If a player like Allen can negotiate an opt-out clause, than it might not be such a hurdle to clear for other NBA journeymen.
What is the timing for all of this?
"Your best bet for getting deals overseas is now while teams are putting their rosters together for next year," said Bartelstein. "Once they get into the season, a lot of their budgets are eaten up and it comes down to injuries and things like that."
One NBA veteran told me that some players would leave in the fall to head overseas, as Williams is expected to report to Turkey in September, but, "If we get to January [without a lockout resolution], it's going to be a lot."
As Bartelstein said, there might not be roster spots available by then, however.
Walters said that leagues in China don't start their seasons until December, so that would give some players more time to wait, but even still, with 12-15 teams in China and 2-3 Americans allowed per team, there are only about 40 more spots that could become available if players pass on the European teams that open up camp in the fall while waiting out the lockout.
Is this just an empty threat, or posturing for negotiation purposes, by the NBA players?
"I don't think it's posturing at all," said Bartelstein. "It's just reality. You got to make a living.
Anyone that thinks this is for negotiating purposes, they're wrong about that. The NBA created this. The players got to react."
Williams said he acted on his own, deciding on his future plans in Turkey before going to union chief Billy Hunter for the NBPA's blessing.
"Deron Williams, it was his idea, or it was his group's idea," Walters said. "It wasn't the players' association's idea. Otherwise, they would have started this a long time ago telling players, 'Hey, put those teams in place overseas so we can use them [in negotiations].' I think it happened somewhat organically and a lot of players look at it as an option now that is somewhat viable because of the way things are looking."
It's not even mid July yet, less than two weeks into the lockout and still more than two-and-a-half months before training camps would normally open up, but the narrative on how things will play out is changing almost daily.
Walters initially shot down even the remote possibility of Stoudemire heading overseas to play last week, telling the New York Post, "I don't think anyone is thinking about playing overseas at this point -- certainly not Amare."
After Walters started receiving interest in Stoudemire from abroad, his stance softened slightly.
"Teams have called about him, but he's also a very loyal guy and has to see what will happen first before he considers any place," he said.
Anyplace. Anywhere. The next NBA player could announce his plans to head overseas at anytime.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.