Much of the recent talk surrounding the NBA lockout has centered on Deron Williams heading to Turkey and the crowd of mega-stars pondering a similar move. Dwight Howard is open to it, Kevin Durant's agent says he is as well, and recent rumors suggest that Kobe Bryant may also be considering such a move. But aside from the small crop of true stars who are making the most of the situation, the rest of the league is still trying to figure out what to do. Simply put, other players don’t have the luxury of signing a multimillion dollar contract as a brief reprieve if and when the start of the 2011-12 season is delayed.
While the rookies and non-drafted free agents are certainly affected (they can't sign deals with NBA teams), it's the veterans who are really being squeezed. The mid-level guys face a dilemma, but even more so do the league minimum players who rely on the year-to-year $1 million deal.
For D-Will and other stars, going overseas is a sensible move. It presents an opportunity to stay in shape, remain competitive and, of course, continue earning. Williams' deal is rumored to be worth as much as $5 million. And unlike the NBA, the Euroleague doesn't feature a salary cap. In theory, LeBron James could go over there and make $50 million per season. If the NBA loses an entire season, such a prospect becomes far more tantalizing. But this only applies to the superstars.
The key issue -- seemingly lost in the shuffle -- is that the top European clubs only want stars. There simply isn’t enough room for the average NBA player, specifically the average North American-born NBA player. Many of the top leagues (e.g. ACB in Spain) do not allow more than two American-born players per team. If the American player is intent on going abroad, he may in fact find a team but is unlikely to make a hefty salary. The average NBA salary for players last season was $5.765 million -- far more than the type of dough offered to the average European player.
The influx of European players stateside also means stiffer competition overseas. Players like Nenad Kristic, Zaza Pachulia and Sasha Vujacic already spend much of their off-seasons back home. Kristic, for example, was coming off a productive season in Boston and, with Shaq retiring and Jermaine O'Neal a massive health concern, looked primed to be the Celtics' starting center come opening night. But under the circumstances, reluctant to risk waiting out the league, he signed instead with CSKA Moscow, a premier team in Russia, making one less spot available for someone stateside.
Pachulia, similar to Kristic, is a serviceable backup center who recently signed overseas. He has spent his summers playing for the national team in the Republic of Georgia, so he should find the transition to playing in Turkey (alongside Williams) much easier than the average American veteran would.
The bottom line is that, aside from first-year players, nobody is more negatively affected by the potential work stoppage than American veterans.
Take a free agent like Earl Watson. Watson has been in the league for a decade now and is a highly reliable backup and spot-starting point guard. He has played on five teams during his career and over the past few years has made a living off of shorter deals.
In some respects, signing with a European club makes sense for a player like Watson. However, without any allegiance to an NBA team and no guaranteed money, such a move poses a high risk. At 32 years old, a major injury could shorten considerably what little time Watson has left in the NBA. Even if he were to sign with a European team, the money would be significantly less while still posing a risk of injury. So he's forced to play the waiting game.
"The top guys are getting league clauses," Watson explained to The Huffington Post. A league clause means that players can return to the NBA whenever the season begins. "So I'm just paying attention to the patterns and the trends.
"During October ... my main concern is to represent the country of Mexico in the Pan Am games (Watson's maternal grandparents are from Mexico). [Before that,] I'm going to go live in New York, work out at St. John's University with my college coach, Steve Lavin, and kind of learn the jacks and trades of being a coach, because eventually I want to be a coach in the NBA.
"I think the best advantage is to do the best you can to be prepared to play, and some guys need that discipline of going overseas. I think it affects people differently. Take a veteran guy like myself: I think if the lockout extends a certain amount of months or even a year, that gives me an extra year to play and save my legs."
Watson is clearly trying to turn the possibility of a lockout into a positive, but unless players are careful, it could become a tremendous drain on funds. A four-year collegian at UCLA, Watson may have to call upon that education more than ever.
"And then, financially, this is a time where going to college and having a creative mindset financially -- how do you create money out of the money that you already have? For me, I'm leasing out all my property for increased income; it's a great time to do it, and going to New York is paying for itself, and I'm having a chance to experience new things."
Watson also brings up his more fundamental love for basketball, the game in its simplest form.
"I've kept in touch with a lot of guys, and a lot of them have mixed feelings. I think we should follow the pattern of football because they’ve been in it longer. It would save us a lot of time. The oddest thing ever is that it's really ironic that the UCLA gym is overflowing more than ever with NBA players. It's really interesting when something is taken away that people love, they tend to attract to it even more. Usually it's never really as full as it should be, but [now] it came back to the basics. And we are actually playing the game because we love it, for free."
For most players -- for now and into the forseeable future -- playing "for free" is the only way to play.
Plus, check out my brand new HuffPost sports blog, The Schultz Report, for a fresh and daily outlook on all things sports.
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