Day 52 of the NBA lockout looks very similar to Day 1. The players and owners have met for a grand total of a couple of hours. Neither side -- to this point -- has shown any willingness to budge. And unlike NFL players, who immediately used the courts to move the needle, NBA players are attempting a new, different strategy: leaving the NBA for the duration of the lockout to play overseas.
While this issue has received a lot of attention, only one elite player -- Deron Williams of the Nets -- has committed to play overseas. There are whispers that others may be interested yet none have done more than explore options without commitment. Star players drive the league’s business; unless and until a couple sign to play elsewhere, the option won’t change the union’s bargaining leverage.
China, Europe: Both or neither?
Until last week, the European and Chinese markets seemed appealing to NBA players with the opportunity for high earnings and exposure to new markets. Yet, as the brawl between Georgetown’s men’s basketball team and their Chinese opponents made clear, NBA players would risk getting seriously hurt not just from in-game injuries, but from violent fans or even opponents too. And now the Chinese Basketball Association has ruled that it won’t accept any player from the NBA who is currently under contract, ending the speculation about stars playing there.
The European option is still viable, however, although players such as Ty Lawson and Jordan Farmar are committing, I would not expect many players to follow suit. European teams do not want to invest the large sums of money it would require to sign a legitimate NBA star only to have him leave immediately upon the NBA lockout ending. Even a shortened NBA season will require players to return immediately, leaving European teams in a lurch. I would expect European teams to pursue low-risk players that fit into the teams’ systems, rather than those who require new systems to be built around them.
Playing overseas: A tactic, not a plan
The truth is that as much as players claim they are looking to play abroad, it is largely a bargaining tactic. The NBPA saw that the decertification strategy did not ultimately succeed for the NFL players -- the court process took too long and ruled for the owners on the preliminary matters. American basketball players grew up dreaming about playing in the NBA, not playing in Lithuania. Furthermore, even if every NBA player signed for a European team, their earnings would be nowhere near the $2 billion they would be foregoing by not playing in the NBA this season.
Hopefully, as the calendar towards a scheduled new season moves closer, the two sides will come together at the bargaining table and make serious inroads towards a new deal. But we should not expect the owners to budge simply because a few players threaten to play abroad.
As we saw in the NFL, deadlines spur action. NBA training camps normally open in October. We are not near the deadline and there is no action. And unfortunately for the players, the overseas option will not otherwise spur action.
Andrew Brandt, a former NFL executive and agent, is a sports business analyst for ESPN.
Follow him on Twitter @adbrandt.