NBA stars looking abroad in earnest
Some NBA players are seeking playing opportunities abroad during the lockout
Kobe Bryant was paid $400,000 to play in exhibition games in the Philippines
Players with experience playing overseas say it's different than playing in the NBA
The NBA bargaining table is still empty, with the league's owners too busy digging their heels in to pull up a chair and the players having far too much fun exploring the overseas opportunities to sit in some meaningless meeting right now.
Postcard from Manila: Hey Commish & friends, Having a great time over here in the Philippines! This exhibition game is great stuff -- huge cash for us, fun times for the fans, and it's just the tip of the iceberg if you keep those doors bolted much longer. So nice to feel appreciated. Signed, Your Not-So-Forlorn Stars.
Only time will tell how lucrative and long-lasting the international market will be for NBA players, but their continued pursuit of an alternative hoops existence is the closest thing we have to negotiations at the moment. It's the unofficial kind, of course, but sources on the players' side confirmed the obvious in recent discussions: This isn't merely about making money, but enjoying a slice of autonomy and sending a message to the owners that their league could be forever changed if they don't start moving off their draconian collective bargaining mark.
According to one agent of a bona fide NBA star who said he is learning more about this new landscape every day, this is just the beginning. While so much of the public focus is on the individual players and where they might sign, there are private discussions about adding components that could make it even more appealing for the game's stars to follow in Deron Williams' path.
There are marketing opportunities to discuss and negotiations to be had over possible jersey sales that would almost certainly result in players getting a significant slice of the financial pie that they don't in their agreement with the NBA (although some expect the NBA would challenge the players' ability to sign such deals). There is a fact that seems to always be forgotten, too: playing overseas means not paying taxes. While there are taxes to be paid, several agents with experience doing international deals said they typically negotiate for the team to cover those payments as part of the contract.
So considering Williams' salary with the Turkish team, Besiktas, has been reported as a one-year, $5 million deal, that's the approximate equivalent to a $10 million NBA deal for the player who stands to lose $16.3 million if the entire season is lost because of the lockout. There won't be enough jobs for the masses, but the players, their agents, and union representatives clearly hope the threat of losing elite players strikes some fear in the owners' hearts.
Star-studded exhibition games like the two taking place in the Philippines this weekend are proving to be quite profitable as well, with one source with knowledge of the deals saying the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant and Chicago's Derrick Rose are being paid more than $400,000 apiece for their weekend of work (reminder: tax-free). Worthwhile ventures like these are a less-explosive strategy on the labor front, though there is -- as reported by Yahoo! Sports on Saturday -- an impatient contingent of agents who is pushing for a more aggressive approach that involves the decertification of the union and subsequent antitrust lawsuits.
Yet despite the worst-case scenario fears of some agents that the league's owners could be willing to lose two seasons to get the hard salary cap and monumental rollbacks they're seeking, NBPA officials still appear to be more inclined to let the clock keep ticking and the pressure keep building. There is an internal belief from executive director Billy Hunter on down that the longtime owners in large markets aren't nearly as dedicated to an extended lockout as some of their more desperate colleagues in small markets, with the hope that those owners who make plenty of money will grow more vocal and influential once the losses begin to accrue during the work stoppage.
Decertification would shortcut that possibility, however slim it may be, not to mention the overlooked reality that the two sides would still need to reach an agreement even if the courts ruled that the lockout was illegal. As it stands, though, we have the most worthless of waiting games and so much space between the two sides that they might go nearly two months without a formal bargaining session.
More than two weeks after NBPA vice president Maurice Evans told SI.com he fully expected the two sides to meet in the next "couple of weeks," a source close to the process said it now appears likely that the first formal meeting won't take place until "mid to late August." The last such meeting took place as the lockout loomed on June 30.
There have been informal talks between the two sides, and -- as reported by CBSSports.com on Tuesday -- deputy commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA associate general counsel Ron Klempner have been involved in recent meetings that didn't include NBA commissioner David Stern or Hunter. The optimists on hand hope those sessions lead to incremental progress and a possible expediting of this painfully slow process, but that remains to be seen.
If not, expect the postcards and the posturing to continue.
When staring into the dark of this lockout night, be sure to keep your eyes on fixed on the stars.
They are the ones who matter when it comes to the international element, as owners simply don't stay awake at night wondering what they'll do without Zaza Pachulia. The Atlanta center's decision to sign with Besiktas was the mostly forgotten subplot to the Williams story, but the New Jersey point guard will have to be followed by another star if this path is going to lead to more pressure being applied.
Despite Besiktas coach Ergin Ataman telling the Los Angeles Times that he expects Bryant to sign with his team in early August, the two sides are reportedly far apart in negotiations. Bryant isn't the only one struggling to get a deal done, as the unique nature of the situation has made this a complicated process for all involved.
Williams secured the out clause that allows him to get out of his contract if the lockout is lifted, and that stipulation will be standard fare for any star. But one source who's in the midst of such talks said insurance is proving to be a problem as well. While the insurance companies want to cover players on a yearly basis, the teams want the sort of month-to-month plan that would serve, in essence, as their out clause.
As for the non-stars who have remaining years on their NBA contracts, that's where this trend is likely to fizzle like LeBron James in the Finals (for the record, James has said he's not interested in playing overseas). Without promises of red carpet treatment, the rank-and-file players who sign overseas could be headed for the sort of disastrous experience so many of their colleagues have warned them about.
Phoenix shooting guard Josh Childress told his cautionary tale to ESPN.com's Ric Bucher for a story on July 12, although it's not hard to find a different version of the same story. While at the Drew League in Los Angeles recently, I asked 26-year-old point guard Bobby Brown about his overseas experience. When he wasn't playing a reserve role for Sacramento, Minnesota, New Orleans and the Clippers from 2008 to 2010, Brown has played for Alba Berlin (Germany), Asseco Prokom Gdynia (Poland), and Aris Thessaloniki (Greece).
"These [NBA players] are about to try to go over there, [will] think they're about to get a certain amount of money and that it's going to be easy, but Europe is not easy at all," Brown said. "Playing [style] wise, ain't nobody about to go over there and get 30 [points per game] or 20 and 10 [rebounds]. The lane, everybody is clogging it up, zoning it up. It's tough...I advise people to go over there not having high expectations, thinking they're about to do whatever or think it's easy because it's not."
Brown's first overseas experience was a dream. His Alba Berlin team won the championship for the 2007-08 season, with Brown averaging 16 points and 4.2 assists per game en route to a two-year guaranteed deal with Sacramento. But his return last year was more of a nightmare.
"It was real different [in Greece]," he said. "The fans are getting the best of players, throwing stuff [on the court] while you're playing, messing the game up, delaying games, [league officials aren't] doing nothing about, the games aren't scheduled on time.
"Before the playoffs, we had a two-week delay in the playoffs. And then the second round didn't start for another two weeks, so we're practicing every day trying to start the next round. ... You might go to a team that isn't paying at all or isn't paying on time and you're going to be thinking about your money while you're playing and practicing, thinking about your family at home. It's rough.
"People are going to have to get over it when they get over there. You just have to block everything out. People can't call you every day asking you for money, so that's a good thing."
From the way Malcolm Thomas sounds about his overseas opportunity, he might be willing to pay for a good conversation while he's in South Korea just to stave off the loneliness. The forward out of San Diego State went undrafted in June, but signed a deal reportedly worth $350,000 with Mobis Phoebus. That's phenomenal money for a first-year pro, but Thomas admitted he was conflicted by his plight because of the human element we all seem to forget when it comes to professional athletes.
"I'm happy I found a deal," he said. "I'm happy I'm going to get paid to play basketball, but going that far and not being in the NBA is kind of upsetting. But as long as I'm still playing basketball, that's all that matters to me.
"I think it'd be tough for anybody to go over the water and play basketball. There are so many things going on over there that we don't know about. You're going into a new world. In the end, it's still basketball, but it's still scary at the same time."
Thomas shouldn't look to David Patten for sympathy. The forward who has been played internationally since graduating from Weber State in 2007 is one of many whose basketball lives are being inconvenienced by the ripple effect of the lockout.
"[The lockout] is really slowing things down as far as getting big jobs overseas because [the international teams] are waiting to see what these [NBA] guys will do -- either guys who didn't get drafted who would usually go to NBA camps or ... even big-money [NBA] guys who are looking at going overseas," said Patten, who has played in Spain, Poland, Holland, Mexico, Argentina, and Canada. "It's slowing everything down from the top down, really. You always try to step up every year money-wise, and league-wise you always want to play in better leagues every year, but everything is waiting on guys who normally wouldn't even be interested in those [teams]."