NBA Lockout: The European and Asian Invasion Is a Phantom Menace
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Playing in foreign leagues does not give NBA stars much leverage in the NBA lockout.
Every week of the lockout, NBA reporters, bloggers and analysts discuss the latest rumors of a player going overseas and the impact it will have on the NBA lockout.
Last week, the rumor was a Chinese team offered Dwyane Wade $2 million a month. The rumor turned out to be false and Wade said the time to consider playing in China "has not come."
Last month, Matthew Yglesias argued the time has come for NBA players to use the leverage of playing overseas, like Deron Williams, and strengthen their bargaining position.
There are three problems with the idea that NBA stars gain leverage in the NBA lockout by playing in foreign leagues: 1) FIBA enforcement of NBA contracts, 2) too many stars with NBA contracts and 3) limited jobs and money in foreign leagues.
FIBA Enforcement of NBA Contracts
On July 31st, FIBA announced it will approve players with NBA contracts signing with teams in their member leagues as long as the players agree to honor those NBA contracts after the lockout. That limits the options of NBA players after the lockout to either playing in the NBA or a non-FIBA league.
FIBA enforcement of NBA contracts is the biggest reason NBA stars gain no leverage by playing in foreign leagues. The owners know the players will be legally compelled to honor their contracts or risk not playing competitive basketball at a high level anywhere in the world.
You think the NBA has a monopoly on basketball in the United States? It’s got nothing on FIBA. Players with NBA contracts could conceivably be prevented from playing for the Harlem Globetrotters. The Globetrotters are a FIBA affiliate along with every college conference and athletic association, the National Basketball Development League, Continental Basketball Association and United States Basketball League.
If the FIBA affiliates comply with FIBA enforcement of NBA contracts, then the only leagues available to NBA players would be the streetball and pro-am leagues they’re playing in this summer.
Unfortunately for NBA players, FIBA’s reach extends far beyond America. FIBA affiliates dot the globe, all the way from the Kabul Club in the National Basketball Association of Afghanistan to the University of Zambia Pacers in the Zambia Basketball Association.
What about the Basketball Union of Zimbabwe, you ask? No dice. They’re a FIBA affiliate, too. For the full list of FIBA affiliates, download the FIBA Media Guide.
In order for the players to gain leverage in the NBA lockout by playing for foreign teams, they would have to upset the entire global power structure of professional basketball. The NBPA already has its hands full with the domestic power structure. It doesn’t need to take on an even bigger fight.
Too Many Stars with NBA Contracts
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If the NBA stars under contract don’t have any leverage, then do the free agent stars have any leverage against the owners by taking their talents overseas?
The answer is “No” because there simply aren’t that many star free agents. Only four of the 133 players that are free agents in 2011 finished in the top 50 for all-star votes or received votes for the All-NBA team.
All-Star Votes for 2011 Free Agents
- Nene Hilario: 599,048 votes (5th among centers)
- Marc Gasol: 524,932 votes (6th among centers)
- Jamal Crawford: 246,130 votes (19th among guards)
All-NBA Votes for 2011 Free Agents
- Nene Hilario: 11 points (5th among centers)
- Tyson Chandler: 7 points (7th among centers)
- Marc Gasol: 3 points (9th among centers)
Nene, Pau’s little brother, Crawford and Chandler probably won’t be terribly missed by the owners if they decide to take their talents to Europe or Asia.
The 133 players that are currently free agents produced 206 of the 1230 wins in the NBA last season (17 percent). The top 50 players in All-Star votes produced 507 wins (41 percent). The most productive free agent is Kris Humphries, who produced 15 wins last season. See this post and this FAQ for more information on Wins Produced.
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The owners probably think the NBA will survive if Kim Kardashian’s fiance played overseas. In fact, if all 133 free agents went to play overseas, there are over 150 players in the D-League waiting to replace them.
Hmm... A lockout during an off-season with no big name free agents? It’s almost like the NBA planned this, isn’t it?
Things change for the players, however, if the entire 2012 season is lost. After 2012, the free agent pool gets sprinkled with stars. Fifteen of the 119 players that will be free agents in 2012 finished in the top 50 for all-star votes or received votes for the All-NBA team.
All-Star Votes for 2012 Free Agents
- Dwight Howard: 2,099,204 votes (1st among centers)
- Derrick Rose: 1,914,996 votes (3rd among guards)
- Kevin Garnett: 1,407,601 votes (4th among forwards)
- Chris Paul: 1,281,591 votes (5th among guards)
- Ray Allen: 890,951 votes (6th among guards)
- Tim Duncan: 839,599 votes (8th among forwards)
- Steve Nash: 718,934 votes (8th among guards)
- Russell Westbrook: 660,244 votes (9th among guards)
- Deron Williams: 657,806 votes (10th among guards)
- Kevin Love: 492,173 votes (14th among forwards)
- Raymond Felton: 397,301 votes (12th among guards)
- Jason Kidd: 394,793 votes (13th among guards)
- Danilo Gallinari: 390,658 votes (16th among forwards)
- Vince Carter: 353,143 votes (15th among guards)
All-NBA Votes for 2012 Free Agents
- Dwight Howard: 593 points (1st among centers)
- Derrick Rose: 593 points (1st among guards)
- Russell Westbrook: 184 points (4th among guards)
- Chris Paul: 157 points (5th among guards)
- Kevin Love: 48 points (9th among forwards)
- Tim Duncan: 43 points (10th among forwards)
- Kevin Garnett: 22 points (12th among forwards)
- Deron Williams: 19 points (9th among guards)
- Steve Nash: 17 points (10th among guards)
- Jason Kidd: 1 point (13th among guards)
- Eric Gordon: 1 point (13th among guards)
- Ray Allen: 1 point (13th among guards)
- Gerald Wallace: 1 point (14th among forwards)
If the NBA’s best center, point guard, reigning MVP and leading rebounder go overseas, then I think the owners will miss them. The 119 players that will be free agents after 2012 produced 376 of the 1230 wins in the NBA last season (31 percent). If the 2012 free agents join the 2011 free agents and leave the NBA, then nearly half of the wins produced by players would be walking out the door, leaving a void that would likely be too big for the D-League and NCAA to fill with comparable talent.
If half the production in the NBA could be lost, then the NBPA could have leverage, but it could come with the cost of losing an entire season’s worth of salary. Some players, like Zach Randolph, had agents stretch their 2011 salary across 18-24 months into 2012, and others, like Love, saved as much of their money as possible and followed the guidelines in the NBPA Lockout Handbook.
If the entire season is lost, then the owners face the risk of losing some of the NBA’s biggest stars and half the players with no recourse, and the players risk losing $2 billion dollars in salary (based on the owners' latest proposal). The whole scenario would be reminiscent of a scene between The Architect and Neo from The Matrix Reloaded.
Limited Jobs and Money Overseas
If the players really wanted to use playing overseas as leverage without waiting until the contracts expire for the 2012 free agents, then they could decertify the NBPA. If the NBA gets its way in federal district court, then all player contracts would be voided. NBA stars could play wherever they wanted, without restrictions, since there would be no NBA contracts for FIBA to enforce after the lockout.
Based on an article published by Alvaro Martin from ESPNDeportes.com, Larry Coon (author of the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement FAQ) estimated there were roughly 75 jobs available for NBA players in foreign leagues for a total of roughly $75 million in salary. As Coon stated on Twitter, that’s just a drop in the billion dollar bucket for free agents in 2011 and 2012.
The final problem with the idea that players would gain leverage from going overseas is scale. NBA commissioner David Stern dismissed going overseas as a bargaining tactic because there simply isn’t enough money overseas to seriously threaten the NBA. Stern was more generous than Coon’s estimate and said foreign leagues couldn’t compete with the NBA for players’ services even if they offered them “a couple of hundred million dollars.”
Do you think NBA stars going overseas is a real bargaining tactic for the players association?
Stern went beyond dismissing the viability of NBA players making a large exodus to foreign leagues. He also stated that NBA stars going overseas threatens to split the union because it would put a few extra dollars in their pocket while lesser paid players went without compensation during the lockout.
Stern could be wrong about that, but it may be better for the NBPA if the more financially-secure players let the less financially-secure players negotiate for the spots in foreign leagues. While the money from foreign leagues may not be a lot, 75 roster spots overseas equals 17 percent of the NBPA vote. That could be the difference between accepting or rejecting a bad deal from the owners that could cost all players hundreds of millions — maybe billions — of dollars in the future.
Keeping the less financially-secure players happy is the leverage the NBPA really needs to outlast the owners’ lockout. In the end, NBA players going overseas probably doesn’t shorten the lockout, but it does increase the players association’s ability to survive a long one.
Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer, nor am I versed in sports law. I'm just a blogger with an opinion, a browser and access to Google.
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