Alexander Chernykh writes for the Russian sports site sports.ru. He has been traveling with Team USA and is now in Beijing.
He got in touch the other day, with an interesting note. Kobe Bryant, Chernykh points out, made a comment about his income from Nike, which might have been a little bit touchy to Team USA's big sponsor.
When Chernykh asked Bryant if he'd consider playing in Russia, there was a lot of laughing, and some jokes, and at some point Bryant responded: "You cut the check, and I'll bring my Nike checks."
Bryant wasn't talking to U.S. journalists at the time, and no one made much of a fuss about it. (Chernykh wrote about it in Russian.) But in the official transcript of that exchange, it reads "You cut the check, and I'll bring my Nikes." The video of this exchange, meanwhile, is one of the few media sessions of this trip that is currently not available online.
In any case, as I was in touch with Chernykh, I thought I might pick his brain about the state of Russian basketball, and the likelihood that a major American star could end up there any time soon.
He starts by pointing me to comments from the CEO of CSKA, Andrei Vatutin, in the Sport-Express, saying that LeBron James is not in the cards, at this point.
Of course, our club didn't make any offers to James. You know in Europe it's not common to plan player moves two years in advance. Also, in 2010 we will still have [Terence] Morris and [Trajan] Langdon under contract, so we wouldn't be able to apply James for participation in the Russian championship, because that would make him a third American on our roster. Unless James is granted a passport of Azerbaijan ...
There's a rule in Russian league that a team can only have two non-European players.
I'm not sure what to make of this denial, however. You're telling me a team would turn down LeBron James to keep Terence Morris?
So, let us consider that it is still in the realm of possibility that LeBron James could, when he's a free agent, get a big offer from CSKA or another team in Europe. My question for Chernykh is, whom might that be? I had heard that CSKA, Dynamo, and Khimki were the three Russian teams with big money. He was nice enough to explain the lay of the land a bit in an e-mail.
You're right, only CSKA, Dynamo and Khimki are the teams with huge money in Europe, along with Olympiakos and Panathinaikos from Greece. So if we are talking about LeBron or Kobe or any other superstar, it all comes down to these five teams. (BC Triumph -- formerly Dynamo Moscow Region surprised everybody by signing Krstic to a three million Euro per year deal, but it's their only big buy so far and nobody knows what will happen next.)
I think it is possible that one of these teams will find the money for an NBA superstar, yet 50 million is still outlandish. We're not talking about going, roughly, from $25 million team payroll to $32 million as was the case with Childress, but going from $25 million to $75 million.
It would make a little more sense if we were talking about what would be a $50 million a year NBA contract, which would equal about 17 million Euros per year. I'm sure that teams are preparing for talks and nobody is actually ready to just throw out $50 million now. Anyway, it's hard to predict anything because this will be an unprecedented move that will change the way we think now about sports contracts.
CSKA used to be the team paying crazy salaries compared to other teams in Europe. But for the last several seasons they have been coached by Ettore Messina, and instead of chasing big names they try to get players that will fit the system. This season, when everyone is signing superstars the biggest names CSKA got are Zoran Planinic and Erazem Lorbek. They are not the team that puts all their eggs in one basket. Messina is only signed until next summer, though, so we'll see what happens.
Also, CSKA has the most success in terms of public relations, is well-known everywhere in the world, and they may be ready to spend to make the next step in these terms.
If you're Nike, you'd want your player to be in Moscow, which is one of the world capitals, playing for a well-known team.
Khimki have been big spenders for several years, and this summer they went over the top. The reason for that is they are hoping to get a contract with Euroleague next summer, when it could become a closed league. It was announced that Euroleague will look at marketability of the teams, so Khimki signed not just quality players, but well-known players from NBA teams and successful national teams in Carlos Delfino and Jorge Garbajosa. They went for the biggest names they thought they could target. Each player received what would be a $9 million a year NBA contract.
The Euroleague contract talks will continue next summer, and if Khimki are desperate to sign the deal, they will have to spend crazy money. Actually, if I were the Euroleague, I would quietly put pressure on the team and say: you get LeBron and we'll sign you to a Euroleague contract.
On the other hand, this is a smaller city in Moscow region.
Dynamo has a reputation of an underarchieving team here in Russia. They spend CSKA-like money on their roster, yet the results are very different. This year they finally got a great coach in David Blatt and also signed Bostjan Nachbar to what would be again a $9 million NBA contract. They are rumored to be targeting Ben Gordon, now that it's known that players of this caliber are available for the right money. Once again, it's impossible to tell how far the team can go in terms of spending, because what's happening now is unprecedented. For years, Dynamo has been the richest team that is not in the Euroleague, and they are desperate to get in the league.
Still, it is not surprising that it was a Greek team which was the first to hand out a huge contract. Their owners have the most freedom to act, because they are just that, owners, one person for each team. Russian teams have to find sponsors for each deal, either from businesses or local governments, which takes time and pursuasion. If a Greek owner feels like spending, it will take him a second to give a go-ahead to team management. Eccentric billionaire fan-owners is not what Russia is about.