July 21, 2008
We're too early in the game to even guess at whether or not a
trend of American-born players eschewing solid stateside contracts in favor of
more lucrative deals with international teams will develop, but it is worth
bringing up. Understand, though, that any column or cable TV back-and-forth you
might take in over the next few days that grasps toward too strong a stance
about an idea on either side (it'll happen/it won't happen) just shouldn't be
bothered with. It's too early to have any sort of concrete idea.
With that said, the report from Adrian Wojnarowski regarding Josh Childress' interest in signing a three-year 20 million dollar deal with Olympiakos is a little startling. The idea of any American-born NBA talent passing on a deal with a team in his home country for an international deal isn't surprising, it was only a matter of time until it happened, but it is startling. There is a difference. Say you opened up the paper tomorrow to the news that a certain bee-hived and quite pasty female English singer had passed on for whatever reason. It would be startling, but not exactly surprising.
(That said, worry not, I'm told that Cilla Black is in fine health.)
So, finally putting a name and a face to the first NBA free agent of some regard in some time to actually consider the idea of jumping is a bit of a semi-shock. Childress, a restricted free agent who is left looking for money that suits his contributions (in a perfect world, a little less than eight figures a year, but better than the average salary) but without an NBA suitor to match, is said to be seriously considering hiding his receiver, ignoring the Hawks, and heading to Greece. The main reason? Let's let Woj tell it:
"Childress' agent, Lon Babby, has instead looked to Europe to create leverage for his client, a unique approach that would have seemed unlikely as recently as three years ago. The U.S. dollar's declining value compared to the Euro, coupled with the influx of money from Russian owners into the Euroleague, has now made Europe a much more attractive option for players."
And why wouldn't it be? The seasons are shorter, the Euro is stronger, and the three-point line barely seems to make it to the top of the key. Though he'd be the most recent to make the jump, Josh isn't the first American-bred hoops talent to make his way overseas, and he's certainly not the first rotation (or starter, or better) American-born NBA talent to ply his trade in the international game.
Joe "Jellybean" Bryant (Kobe's father) spent a good chunk of his career overseas. Bob McAdoo finished his professional run over in Italy, playing for seven years with three different teams, and first overall Draft lummoxes like Joe Barry Carroll and Michael Olowokandi have spent time overseas while still in their 20s.
And there have been plenty of Yank expatriates over the last few years who could have easily make an NBA rotation under the guidance of a coach with his head on straight, as Anthony Parker (who should have come back to the NBA years ago), Maceo Baston (ditto) and Marcus Fizer (don't laugh, he could contribute, right now) spring to mind.
That last batch, though, had a hard time glomming on to an NBA gig in the years before they took their act elsewhere. Childress is an underrated talent, quite the player, and a coveted asset.
So why would he jump? You might have to blame Rex Chapman, and the contract he signed with the Phoenix Suns back in 1996.
It was a minimum salary deal, for about a quarter of a million quid. Chapman was hardly a minimum salary talent, but no teams had salary cap space to sign him, the one team that did was owned by Donald Sterling, and the team that owned his Bird Rights (Miami) didn't want him. So he was forced to sign for a minimum salary to try and make do until the Suns could earn Chapman's Bird rights. And his plight was pretty typical over that summer, and the next one.
What the last two (in 1999, and 2005) NBA Collective Bargaining Agreements have done since then is ensure that the NBA's middle class has returned, basically in the form of the Mid-Level Exception, a contract teams that are over the cap can offer to players for the exact average salary. Splendid. If Rex were playing today, he'd be signing an MLE sometime this week. As Billy Hunter as his witness, guys like Chapman would never go without a second garage again.
So, the middle class has returned by strict definition, but what of those players that are certainly better than average -- well over average in fact -- but aren't in Baron Davis' category? Unless a flukish thing happens (like Davis opting out of his deal with Golden State, which allows the Warriors unanticipated cap space to sign someone like Corey Maggette for above the MLE), it really is mid-level exception money or bust for these guys. The average salary. The middle class.
And Josh Childress? He's upper middle class. His parents own two German cars, but you don't need to drive past a gate to get into his neighborhood. And yet all he can grab, at this point in the free agent game, is the MLE, or hope that a team like Atlanta (smartly allowing both Childress and Josh Smith to create their own market) can finagle a sign-and-trade that would make the Hawks happy while still securing Josh seven or eight million a year.
Not bloody likely. He's an odd package who is likely undervalued by most team mainly because he doesn't stand out, or possess any single skill that is on par with an All-Star skill set. He just does everything, and quite well, but nothing overwhelms you. And that's hard thing to sell to your owner, your cap guys, and your fan base: "Josh didn't start a game for a team that won 37 games last year, but he's also not below-par in any area I can think of! Dial 1-800-4NBA-TIX!"
That's enough of the stateside approach. We're here if not to determine, then to at least start to wonder aloud if this will become a trend, or even a viable negotiating ploy.
It's all up to the players, really. And though the overwhelming chunk of NBA'ers have managed to turn every NBA city into one big ubiquitous mass - what with the chain hotels, the video game consoles in tow, the Cheesecake Factories in every town, and summers spent away from the city they pay taxes in - it still takes a big step to man up and leave the continental 48.
And though the internet and real time texting and a plethora of US-based fast food options tend to keep things seemingly local even on the other side of the globe, the world's lots larger than it looks today. And though a bout of bad salary cap luck may end up blowing a few NBA vets across the seas, the shock to their sense of structure and jock'ish unease with anything new and scary might be dissuade even the heartiest hearties to stay stateside.
In a way, though, I hope that semi-guess is completely wrong. Though I'd miss watching Childress and whoever also (Ben Gordon, three times the player Trajan Langdon is, seems like a good example) felt like dumping the NBA in favor of the Euroleague for a few years, nothing but good can come of it.
On a purely selfish, fandom level, losing a few good talents might persuade NBA teams not to stock their roster entirely with guys either on minimum/rookie contracts, MLE deals, or maximum offerings. Things might get a bit balanced, and though I might sound like a crusty old Bolshevik, it wouldn't hurt. And it would certainly discourage the sort of contract misery that seems to plague 89 percent of the NBA's 30 teams.
So let's pay attention to what Childress, and the Hawks, but mainly Childress, and the Hawks to a lesser but no less lessened extent, decide to do.
And let's try not to pay attention to the end-of-the-world bleatings (or, much scarier, chest-beating displays should he stay) that could arise should Josh head to Greece. It's an evolving game, a changing world, and a system that continues to shape itself within the confines of the sporting landscape, and outside of it.
No hard and fast answers will follow should Childress either head overseas or stay in the States, but that doesn't mean that his choice in either direction won't be a significant turning point for pro basketball as we know it.