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Posted: Friday July 25, 2008 11:46AM; Updated: Friday July 25, 2008 11:46AM
Ian Thomsen Ian Thomsen >

Weekly Countdown (cont.)

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Kelenna Azubuike turned down a chance to make a lot more money in Greece.
Kelenna Azubuike turned down a chance to make a lot more money in Greece.
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Ian Thomsen will periodically answer questions from users in his mailbag.

4 Questions rescued from the spam

4. Will we see more NBA players moving overseas to play for teams in Europe? I'm looking forward to the day when LeBron James leaves the NBA to play in Europe. If he wants to be a global icon, that would be one way to do it.
-- E.S., Aalborg, Denmark

Another way would be for James to play for the Knicks ... but there will be plenty of time for that talk over the next two years.

I'll tell you what I've learned on this subject. Before signing Hawks sixth man Josh Childress to his unprecedented three-year, $20 million contract, the Greek club Olympiakos first targeted Warriors swingman Kelenna Azubuike. Agent Michael Higgins said Olympiakos approached his client last year, and then returned two weeks ago at the summer league in Las Vegas with an offer to Azubuike of $5 million annually for three years.

"But that was the starting point,'' Higgins said. "We could have got the deal [that Childress received]. ... If I'd said $10 million [annually] for three years, they would have said yes. They wanted him. They said, 'What's it going to take? Give us a number.' ''

But Higgins couldn't persuade his client to go for it. Azubuike is a 24-year-old who had been ignored in the 2005 draft and began his pro career with a couple of seasons in the D-League before earning 122 games the last two years with Golden State. He had worked too hard to reach the NBA, and he didn't want to abandon that goal now.

"You get to the level of money they're talking about,'' Higgins said of Olympiakos, "and it gets pretty tough to look the other way. They're saying, 'Whatever it's going to take.' ... I said to Kelenna, 'Just give me a number, I don't care if it's $10 million or $15 million [per year], just give me something I can take to them and then we'll see.'

"He just said, 'I can't, I can't go.' I tried to tell him about the money and the difference between what he could make here, and if he were to go over there they would give him an out after every year. But he's too young. If he was in the league for maybe three or four more years it might have been different, but he's too young and he's fought too hard to get to where he wanted to be.''

Instead, Azubuike signed a three-year offer sheet with the Clippers worth $9 million. On Thursday, the Warriors matched the offer in order to retain him.

This is why I don't view the Childress signing as the beginning of a trend, much the same as no larger trend was created when Danny Ferry and Brian Shaw temporarily quit the NBA to spend 1989-90 playing in Rome. Few American-based players in the prime of their NBA careers are going to take on the risk of playing abroad.

It's another thing entirely for Europeans playing in the NBA to return overseas for big money, as in the recent cases of Juan Carlos Navarro, Carlos Delfino and Jorge Garbajosa. Those players will feel like they're going home.

For the Americans, however, look at it this way: Remember a decade ago when a lot of people -- led by Charles Oakley -- complained that Americans wouldn't want to play for the Toronto Raptors because it was a foreign franchise? If it has been difficult to persuade Americans to play for an NBA franchise in Canada, it will be even harder for them to move to the Euroleague.

In addition, there are scant few clubs in Europe with the wherewithal to outbid the NBA for players like Azubuike or Childress. Those rich clubs are Olympiakos and Panathinaikos of Greece, CSKA Moscow and a few other teams from Russia, Spain, Italy and Turkey -- each reliant on a rich owner who pays the salary out of his own pocket, because no team in Europe has anything close to the revenues to account for a salary like Childress'.

The United States isn't necessarily the preferred nationality overseas, given the fact that European leagues restrict the number of American players on each team. The advantages of the Euro exchange rate won't overcome the fact that a lot of American players are one-dimensional and lacking the versatility of play mandated by Euroleague basketball.

For all of these reasons, Childress and his agents, Lon Babby and James Tanner, should be recognized for their vision. They walked away from a competitive NBA bid (the Hawks should not be criticized for offering $33 million over five years to a sixth man) while providing Childress with an opportunity to raise his value. Alongside Olympiakos point guard Theodoros Papaloukas, recently named among the 35 greatest players in the 50-year history of the Euroleague, Childress can demonstrate leadership and versatility that may never have been recognized in the NBA.

The harsh alternative is that the team won't win and he'll take the blame. But give him credit for taking on a level of risk that other Americans wouldn't dare assume. And give credit to his agents, who (via Tim Duncan) began the trends of players signing short-term contracts and (via Andre Miller) front-loading their offer sheets. I don't think Childress' move represents another trend, but it's a bold move by a player with the confidence to gamble on himself.

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