For some in the NBA, the decision is not a decision at all. The biggest dilemma Zaza Pachulia wrestled with before signing to play in Turkey during the lockout was whether to pack one suitcase or two.
“Other than that, what’s the difference?” asks Pachulia, who, in un-locked out times, plays center for the Atlanta Hawks. “Every summer, I go play with my national team. Basically, I’m going to do the same thing I do every summer, only in Turkey.”
Pachulia will team up in Turkey with All-Star point guard Deron Williams, who, over the weekend, surprised many by inking with the same Istanbul club, Besiktas. That Pachulia, born in the Republic of Georgia and seasoned professionally in an altogether different Georgia, will play alongside Williams in Turkey testifies to the global development of the NBA and reflects the increasing opportunities afforded to its players.
By now, your favorite NBA player is flirting with the notion of playing overseas during the lockout — Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, and Dwyane Wade may wind up being high-priced international rentals. “If we’re not playing games in October, I wouldn’t be shocked to see an exodus,” says the free-agent Shane Battier. If such a movement occurs, however, it will require an extensive sorting process to figure out who goes where when and for how much. The reality is that there are not enough opportunities in Europe to occupy every locked-out NBA player accustomed to an NBA contract. Nor do international arenas and fan bases afford players with the level of comfort they have grown to expect in the United States.
Additionally, many of the current NBA players do not possess Pachulia’s global perspective and will therefore be forced to choose between dipping their dribbles in international lands or facing the possibility of an entire season with no basketball income if the lockout stretches as long as many believe. “Every day, there are less jobs on the market,” says Mark Bartelstein, a Chicago-based agent who represents nearly 40 NBA players. “That’s the nature of supply and demand. It’s somewhat like a game of musical chairs. There are only so many chairs left at the end of the day.”
“I’m telling everyone this could be a very long lockout,” Bartelstein continues. “To me, actions speak louder than words. The NBA has talked a lot about making a deal, but we haven’t seen much movement, if any, at all.”
Even if playing overseas is not sustainable economically or comparable historically to past incomes, players hope it will deliver a symbolic message to league owners that they can and will play and profit elsewhere.
“I know that many of these players, while they haven’t expressed it publicly, are being courted by European teams,” says Billy Hunter, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. “I know that Kobe’s been approached. I know that Pau Gasol has been approached — he and his brother, obviously they’re in Spain. … I know that Dirk Nowitzki has been approached, D-Wade and LeBron. A lot of them have been. We know that Amar’e Stoudemire has been, but Amar’e’s obviously got concerns about his physical stature, and so, consequently, he doesn’t want to jeopardize that by going over to Europe.
“But these other guys, I think depending on what the offers are, they will go. So if I’m the owner of a franchise and if I’ve got a star, I’ve got D-Wade or LeBron or Kobe or any of these guys on my team, the last thing I want to do is see them go off and play in Europe. They may go and never come back depending on what kind of offer is made to them. We’re not talking about the entire league because we’re not foolish enough to believe there are opportunities for everybody, every NBA player, and we’ve told our players there are limited opportunities and they are generally going to be for the star players.”1
This is the NBA’s Catch 22. Playing overseas is no longer just an option for players to spend the fading twilight of their careers. Commissioner David Stern helped drive the game globally through overseas exhibitions and regular-season games, promoting the worldwide marketability of players. As such, NBA players are seriously weighing international offers, a consideration not readily available to players in the 1998-99 lockout because the foreign game lagged so far behind the NBA’s.
“Most of the NBA teams already have international players — from Europe, from South America, from Asia,” Pachulia says. “A lot of guys travel a lot for Basketball Without Borders. The doors are not only open for international players to come to the NBA, but vice versa. American players have more knowledge about the international countries, what lifestyle they have. Sometimes they hear from teammates and sometimes they have their own experiences. Not everybody, but a lot of guys in the league. I think it’s easier today than it was five years ago to make the switch.”
The NBA, for its part, is not standing in the way of players. When Josh Childress2 departed the NBA for Greece’s Olympiakos three summers ago, Stern all but laughed at the many who forecast that others would follow Childress across the Atlantic. “It’s true that there will be individuals who could decide to do economic things,” he said, “and they may even do it once or twice, but it’s important as we study the global world of basketball where we are very popular, the economic model does not exist that would support such contracts.”
He was right then, and the point may be even more accurate now. The worldwide recession is still affecting European teams and markets, especially in Greece. Besiktas, the team that signed Williams3 and Pachulia this summer, and Allen Iverson last year, already possesses a shaky financial history (Turkish authorities recently froze their finances in for the fallout of a soccer-fixing scandal). “A guaranteed contract overseas is certainly not the same as a guaranteed contract in the NBA,” says Jim Tanner, the agent who negotiated Childress’ deal with Olympiakos and also represents Pachulia.
If players profit from increased marketability from playing overseas during the lockout, once it ends that international exposure should transfer back to the NBA. The league is also betting that for many players, reality will settle in and they will realize the wealth of the NBA, especially when compared to Europe’s regimen of two-a-day practices, the possibility of sharing rooms with a teammate, or ducking projectiles tossed from tiny but rowdy crowds.
Beyond those cautionary flares, there are few international teams that can afford NBA players. China is a marketing goldmine and starts its season later than the Euroleague, which may be attractive to players who want more time to filter through their options. According to Jonathan Givony, the president of DraftExpress.com, James Singleton, a former member of the Clippers, Mavericks, and Wizards, earned the highest salary of any player there last season at $1.6 million. The average salary of NBA players going into last season was a robust $5.765 million.
Beyond that, the better European teams want to win and are hesitant to agree to the opt-out clauses that would allow players to return to the NBA once the lockout ends. A spokesperson for FIBA, the governing body of international basketball, said it is working on a statement to “clarify the legal situation.”
“We’re all taking educated guesses,” says Marc Cornstein, an agent who represents several international players in the NBA. “But I don’t think anyone can say for certain whether games will be missed or how much of them will be, if they are. And many of the Euroleague teams, they’re looking to win. They’re not interested in when the lockout ends.”
Givony says opportunities would be available for NBA players to play in Euroleague qualifying tournaments in September, if they are willing to accept less money. “With that comes a lot of money for teams; television rights from your country; and sponsors, where the amount of money they get is predicated on whether they play for the Euroleague or the Eurocup.”
Prominent agent Bill Duffy suggested a barnstorming tour across the world might also be an option for locked-out players. There is already an exhibition forming in the Philippines with an All-Star-caliber roster that includes Bryant, Chris Paul, and Kevin Durant.
“It’s like a concert tour,” Duffy said. “You can control it. You can set up the dates. You can control the talent. We’re looking at that. There will obviously have to be venue insurances and player insurance. Those are things we would have to address. Right now, we would protect the basketball players as you would a major recording artist.”
While considering offers, the players are divided into different categories:
The Superstar: The elite few who could command the Deron Williams package — a multimillion-dollar contract, bodyguard, drivers, etc. Among those players is Durant, who said the option piqued his interest while in China for a promotional tour.
“If the lockout is prolonged, playing overseas would definitely be an option for Kevin Durant, under the right circumstances,” says Eric Goodwin, an agent for Durant. “It would take an amazing offer from a team, but there are countries he would consider. It would be a great way for Kevin to stay competitive, and it would give fans worldwide an opportunity to see him play. It would also give him the opportunity to continue to help grow the Oklahoma City Thunder fan base globally.”
Any decision would have to be carefully considered. Could the players fully insure their NBA contracts against injury? Would a player like Bryant, who recently had a procedure on his right knee, risk taking games off his NBA lifespan by adding overseas mileage?
Williams’ NBA season ended prematurely because of a wrist injury. He signed with Besiktas for a reported $5 million, considerably less than the $16.4 million he would make in the 2011-12 NBA season, and the nearly $18 million owed to him if he does not opt out of his final season with the Nets. Even if the outcome of the lockout immediately reduces NBA salaries across the board, Williams’ salary with the Nets will still dwarf the money he could earn in Turkey.
“Deron has the full support of the union,” Hunter says. “My contention is that a player, in the face of a lockout, still has obligations and responsibilities that he has to take care of. If he has an opportunity to go somewhere else and play, then neither me nor anybody else should stand in his way. He’s not crossing a picket line, so he’s obviously not destroying anything or damaging anything that we’re trying to do. If anything, what it is, I think, it becomes a wakeup call for the NBA because, yes, the marquee, superstar players are the most visible people in NBA basketball. They have global popularity.”
The International Player who Returns Overseas: A number of these players were the first to scoop up international contracts: Pachulia, Nenad Krstic, Sasha Vujacic, and Darius Songaila, among them.
“Maybe it’s not official, but I’m sure a lot of guys have offers on the table,” Pachulia said. “It’s not public and they’re not rushing to make a decision, but I’m sure they are deciding.
“Actually, it’s even better for me. Every summer, I play with my national team and my confidence level is high, I’m in the best shape. When I go there, I have a different role, and I’m the go-to guy and I’m the leader of the team. It definitely has its pluses. It’s not 100 percent good, but it has a lot of pluses.”
Krstic, unlike Pachulia, did not negotiate an out clause to return to the NBA when the lockout ends, instead signing a two-year deal with CSKA Moscow. Cornstein said Krstic was the first to leave the NBA behind in light of the lockout.
“He really wanted to stay here and he felt very comfortable the way his season ended in Boston,” said Cornstein, who also acts as Krstic’s agent. “He was a free agent, but with Shaquille O’Neal retiring and Jermaine O’Neal injured a lot last season, he felt he was in a good position. He didn’t want to miss half the season or a season when he knew he had this opportunity. If there wasn’t a lockout he would have tested free agency and the NBA for sure, even if he got this offer.”
The Veterans: This is a group for which offers might be limited. The bulk of NBA veterans will not command anywhere near their NBA salaries.
Still, most will listen to the pitches if they do arrive. “It’s an opportunity to make money and continue to play and do what I’m passionate about,” says Indiana’s Dahntay Jones. “You still have a chance to entertain, but you just don’t want to take anything. That’s what our agents are for, to see what’s beneficial for us.”
Battier4 says he would contemplate an offer from China, a country he is familiar with from visiting in exhibition games when he teamed with Yao Ming on the Rockets.
“I would go, depending on the lockout and how long it is.” Battier said. “I’m a free agent and I don’t have to answer to a team if I go overseas. China has always been an intriguing place to me, and I’ve enjoyed my time there.”
For many other veterans, though, the potential benefits of playing overseas do not quite stack up because of a combination of factors. Those players are financially secure, and do not want to uproot their families, risk injury or adjust to a new league.
“It didn’t make sense for me financially,” Philadelphia’s Elton Brand wrote in an e-mail.
“My family and I wouldn’t make that decision for money. When I heard guys were doing it to compete and play that made a lot more sense. I’d hate to lose a year of competing in organized games and not be in peak competitive shape once the season did start. I lost enough time because of injury. I think it’s something all players will be thinking about as the lock out lingers.”
The Rookies and Hopefuls: This is the group most devastated by the lockout. The league’s rookies will likely lose valuable time in preparing for the acclimation to the NBA. Some will wonder if they, like several high-profile collegiate players such as Jared Sullinger, Harrison Barnes and Perry Jones, should have preserved their college eligibility.
With summer league among the lockout’s first casualties, the undrafted and second-round selections (who do not possess the guaranteed-contract safety nets provided to first-rounders) did not make the trek to Las Vegas to audition for a spot on an NBA roster. Last year, Harvard’s Jeremy Lin went undrafted. When summer league ended, the Warriors signed him to a guaranteed contract. This year, many who would have tried to transform summer league opportunities into an NBA job are already overseas. “We have a number of guys on the border,” Bartelstein says. “The timing may have been right to make a run at the NBA. Ultimately, it’s just going to come down to the economics and if it makes sense.”
Back in 1998, as games lost to the lockout started piling up and that lockout crossed over into the new year, three players — Nick Van Exel, Marcus Camby, and Reggie Slater — argued for an injunction to void their NBA contracts so they could play in Europe. A Houston federal judge denied the players’ request. “I was bewildered as to why I was prohibited from earning income in other ways when I couldn’t as an NBA player,” says Slater, who played for several NBA teams and now runs a sports complex in Houston.
The goal of Slater, Van Exel, and Camby in 1999 was different than what today’s players seek. So far, no one has argued that the lockout should absolve players from their NBA contracts.
“I would encourage them to do what’s best for them and their families, the same perspective that I had,” Slater says. “You can stand up for something or fall for anything. Negotiations are give-and-take. You’re going to have to give a little. In the end, players want to entertain fans. At the same time, you have to look at it as a business. And you have to use this time when you can make money while you’re playing a sport wisely. The window isn’t open for that long.”
Slater is correct. Many of the issues involved in the previous lockout are at the forefront of this one — reeling in salaries and increasing profitability. In debating the issues over playing internationally, both players and owners, Hunter and Stern, are posturing without negotiating. It is unlikely either side will gain any true leverage or benefit if, as Battier predicted, there is an exodus overseas. “What’s gotten lost in this is, we’re focusing so much time on it, let’s just try to find the solution of getting the NBA back on course,” Cornstein says. “Hopefully, it lights a fire. We need to figure out a solution to get the NBA season started on time.”
Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter at @jpdabrams.