Posted by: mdegeorge | July 8, 2011

The foreign object in the NBA labor talks

When the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick, number 20 overall, Donatas Motiejunas, announced mere hours after the NBA lockout was made official that he was returning to honor his existing contract in Europe, there weren’t more than a few shrugs.

The seven-foot Lithuanian who is regarded as a project with great talent came off noble about the contract situation with Italian club Benetton Treviso.

Could Kobe Bryant be leading a mass exodus of locked-out NBA players overseas? (Courtesy of Creative Commons.)

“I still have a contract with Benetton,” Motiejunas told the Houston Chronicle. “They told me if I want to leave in the middle of the season when the team that took me, Houston, wants me, they would let me go. That will be no problem.

“That’s why I’m happy, and a little bit sad. The situation is very tough right now. I don’t really want to go away from the team. I’m not happy about that. That was one of the greatest things that happened in my life, that this team picked me.”

The interview contained all the things the NBA lockout lacks: Civility, patience and hope that basketball will be played this season in some capacity.

Motiejunas’ move – we can’t really call it a defection, since he is under contract and likely would have stayed in Italy lockout or not – isn’t the kind that spurs breaking news alerts.

But when names like Deron Williams get involved with reported deals to play in Turkey, the focus of the public is turned up.

In the Kingdom of the Two Lockouts, comparisons of the labor disarray in the NFL and NBA are inherent and unavoidable. But they really are apples and oranges. After all, the NFL owners have been locking out players in an effort to transform millions of dollars in revenues into billions. The crux of the debate in the NBA is profound structural changes in players’ salaries and a revenue outlook that can salvage the reported 22 of 30 teams failing to turn a profit last season.

For the players, the differences are also stark. One suspects that the détente and what looks increasingly like an impending resolution in the NFL stalemate is being spurred by players tired of going without paychecks. The owners have the advantageous position of being the only game in town; despite the best efforts of the no-longer bankrupt Arena League and the five-team UFL, there’s nothing resembling the prestige and financial stability afforded by the big bad NFL.

The NBA lockout, though, resembles the NHL blackout which cost the league the 2004-05 season, and not just in the gaping chasm that divides the two sides at the bargaining table. It’s an international sport, and while the U.S. boasts the pinnacle of each sport’s talent, the international scene is hardly comprised of backwater gyms and fly-by-night operations.

A tremendous number of hockey players, seeing their jobs effectively put on hiatus for a year on this side of the pond, jumped ship for greener European pastures in 2004. Not only was it a chance at a decent paycheck and a way to stay in shape for whenever the NHL settled its squabble, it was also a rejuvenation for many. It wasn’t just European players running home to rekindle the magic of their youth. Players from the United States and Canada suddenly turned to European leagues for a respite. Ask Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as Stanley Cup Playoffs MVP, what his time in Finland did for his career.

The post-lockout effect on the NHL has been threefold. Though they have yet to muster a financial challenge to poach some of the NHL’s biggest stars in their primes (Jiri Hudler excluded), leagues like Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and Sweden’s Eliteserin provide a challenge that keep sNHL teams honest in dealing with veterans. In numbers much greater than pre-lockout days, players on the downside of 30 haven’t been afraid to tell low-balling clubs to take a hike in favor of leagues closer to their homeland. Jaromir Jagr and Peter Forsberg did so before their NHL re-engagements, while just this offseason, free agent Swede Niclas Wallin and Latvian Karlis Skrastins headed to Europe.

Second, the proportion of North Americans electing to ply their trade in Europe is greater than it was pre-lockout. In the KHL, for example, 25 Canadians and seven Americans were on roster in 2010-11, while nine North Americans played in Sweden’s top league. The lockout broke down a barrier for players no longer willing to toil between the AHL and ECHL and created a more extensive support system for those willing to make that trek.

Finally, many Europeans who went back home for the lockout simply stayed there. The posterchild is Aleksey Morozov. A 20-goal scorer for some atrocious Pittsburgh Penguins teams early in the last decade, Morozov is now 34 years old and the captain of Ak Bars Kazan, the team with which he’s lit up the KHL the last seven seasons. In the process, he’s earned his way back into the Russian national team after a six-year hiatus, winning goal at the World Championships twice, bronze once and qualifying for the 2010 Olympic team. Could he still play in the NHL? Certainly, perhaps even as a top-6 forward in the right system. Instead, his success in Russia is indicative of a slight talent drain that is good for North American youth hockey, but perhaps not for the league.

Back to the NBA, which also fancies itself an international game and counts as many as 70 international players among their rosters. (It depends on your definition, I choose any player born in a foreign country who went through American youth systems not an international player, so not Kyrie Irving.) It’s entirely possible that they can face a similar defection in the short and long term. But the NBA’s situation is different in two distinct ways, one advantageous for owners trying to retain locked out stars and one detrimental.

First the good news for owners: The European game can’t match the salaries of the big stars. This wasn’t as much of a barrier for NHL players, who had much more modest salaries and could factor in the gig’s temporary nature and hometown discounts to make things work. The number Besiktas has thrown around for Williams is one year at $5 million. Since Williams is guaranteed $16 million from the Nets according to HoopsHype, it’s unlikely Turkey is going to be a long-term destination.

The second difference won’t tickle the owners’ fancy as much: When it comes time to defecting American talent, they have the advantage of an established network of friends and former teammates from college and AAU already playing in Europe. Take a gander at the rosters of the European ranks; you’ll feel like you’re filling out your 2004 NCAA bracket. The adjustment to the style of play and assimilation to the culture in many Western European nations would be relatively minor.

For now, the names are relatively minor. Frenchman Nicolas Batum of Portland has been rumored to be in talks with a club in his homeland. Toronto’s Sonny Weems has signed on with Zalgiris Kaunas in Lithuania. Georgian Zaza Pachulia (the Caucasus’, not the dirty South’s) will also be making the trip to Besiktas. Former Detroit Piston DaJuan Summers has a two-year deal in place with Italy’s Montepaschi Siena, Hilton Armstrong is trading Atlanta for ASVEL in France, and Serbian Nenad Krstic made the move to CSKA Moscow before the lockout was even official. Also weighing options are Serge Ibaka, Adam Morrison and Michael Beasley, while undrafted free agents like Ben Hansbrough (Germany’s Bayern Munich) and Ted Lighty (Italy’s Cantu) are eschewing the more conventional summer and D-League route for more money in Europe. And I think I recall Kobe Bryant mentioning Europe in February…

Those names sound trifling to the average fan. Certainly, if the NBA survived the ABA threat, they’ll manage to cope without Pachulia getting backhanded by Jason Richardson. They may turn out to help free up jobs post-lockout for homegrown D-Leaguers.

Fears of a mass exodus of players never to return are certainly exaggerated. At least one agent told Yahoo Sports that such a mass departure isn’t imminent, and even Krstic believes the movement of players across the pond will be limited for logistical and financial reasons. It is encouraging for owners that Spaniard Rudy Fernandez was willing to turn down becoming the highest-paid player in his home country to hopefully come off the bench for Dallas if there’s a season.

Ideas like a barnstorming tour of China by Bryant and his all-star bunch probably aren’t helping Lakers’ general manager Mitch Kupchak sleep at night. Loss of talent – and the associated PR hit to the league – is something the league should be mulling over at the bargaining table, one of myriad reasons to hasten resolution.

Because if the owners aren’t careful, basketball could become a more international game than they ever imagined.

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