Could Euro leagues rival NBA?

March, 28, 2008

The latest headlines make me wonder if David Stern is intent on cementing the internationals' progress. Recently he floated the idea of increasing the league's age minimum to 20, effectively requiring players to wait two seasons after their high school class graduates before applying for the draft.

As far as unintended consequences go, this one could prove to be a doozy if implemented. In fact, combined with the dollar's diminishing value relative to the Euro it could have the unintended effect of making the European leagues a real rival to the NBA.

Let's start with the obvious. There is absolutely no reason for somebody like LeBron James, who was an NBA star at age 18, to spend two years twiddling his thumbs at UCLA or North Carolina just because the league likes the added branding it gets from having experienced college players in the draft. It's a waste of his time and talent.

Moreover, those players will tend to fall behind their counterparts overseas during those two seasons. Look, as much as we love March Madness, let's face facts: College basketball is an anachronism. There is absolutely no reason for players' basketball development to be done in affiliation with institutions of higher learning, particularly if that player is just killing time until he can play in the big leagues.

This is why European players tend to come to the NBA with far more developed skills -- they've been training with pro clubs since their early teens, while young American players have been "coached" by assorted AAU teams and then have their practice hours limited by arcane NCAA rules as collegians.

Not to mention, it's also hugely unfair to the players. The NBA would essentially require them to play for free for two years under this plan.

That is, unless they went someplace else. And that's the real threat of Stern's idea -- that the next LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony will decide that it would be much easier to spend the next two years making several million dollars in Barcelona or Athens.

Once over there, he'd have an incentive to stay because of another restraint -- the rookie salary scale. We're seeing the impact of this already thanks to the recent tanking of the American dollar; fewer European veterans are agreeing to come stateside when they can be paid in Euros that have far more purchasing power.

Normally the way a team would respond to this market pressure would be to increase the dollar amount of its contract offers, but the league's salary structure forbids this in most cases. A good example is Rudy Fernandez, the Spanish star whose rights are owned by the Blazers. If he comes to Portland next season, he'll have to accept a fraction of what he could make in Spain, and as a result he may opt to stay in Europe.

Because of situations like that, the league is down from 85 international players a year ago to 75 this season -- even though the quality of said players hasn't changed. But the wave of players arriving from Europe has slowed to a trickle -- Luis Scola was the only major international veteran to change continents this season.

That's the problem the league risks running into by building so many restraints on salaries and eligibility. In the current economic environment, there's a real chance that increasing the age limit would be one restraint too many, and that the Law of Unintended Consequences will rise up and bite Stern in the rear.

This all may sound a bit draconian -- the NBA is by far the best league in the world. But Stern needs to be cognizant of the threats to his league's dominance, and a plan that requires American players to spend two years in college strikes me as a golden opportunity carelessly placed on the Euroleague's doorstep.


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