With NBA salaries capped, superstars like Kobe eye European riches

To those who think it's preposterous for Kobe Bryant or LeBron James to leave the NBA for the lure of a big paycheck in Europe, let me ask you this: Is it any more outrageous than Michael Jordan walking away from a championship team at the peak of his career and spending a year playing minor league baseball?

If anything, this would make more sense than Jordan's foray into Double-A ball. They'd still be playing basketball and they'd be making ridiculous amounts of money, too.

No one questions the finances. It's the notion that the best players would leave the best league that gives us pause. We think -- or maybe we simply want to believe -- that the competitive nature would win out. That's about as naïve as hoping for an insightful, uplifting and educational reality show.

Bryant, speaking to reporters Friday in Beijing, put it in undisputable terms: "Do you know any reasonable person that would turn down 50 [million dollars]?"

David Stern's desire to spread the game around the globe has worked so well, it's jumping up to bite him.

Twenty-eight years ago, when Magic Johnson and Dr. J played in the NBA Finals, the sport couldn't even get onto prime time in the United States. Now, the NBA's stars have become icons. Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki and Andrei Kirilenko were chosen to carry the flags for their respective nations in the Opening Ceremonies, and when Yao, Bryant and Manu Ginobili were shown on the stadium's video screen, they drew the biggest cheers of all the athletes.

The world's top draw, but it might have gone too far.

What started off as intent to raise interest in basketball and develop a deeper pool of players to enter the league has turned into a threat. The cute mogwai became a menacing gremlin. Now there are reports of European teams preparing to throw impossible-to-turn-down money at NBA stars, leaving Stern with two realistic choices:

He can get rid of the salary cap and allow NBA teams to try to beat 'em. Or make good on the long-discussed thoughts of expanding to Europe and join 'em.

One NBA source said on Friday the possibility of a European division is "becoming increasingly realistic," given the opening of NBA-caliber arenas in London and Berlin, with buildings in Rome and Madrid still to come. But that wouldn't account for the richest teams, which are based in Greece and Moscow.

They'd still be competing for NBA players, and wouldn't be restricted by the cap.

So what about eliminating the cap? The source said there was "no chance."

"We're paying out 57 percent of gross revenue right now, over $2 billion [per] year in salaries and a majority of our teams are losing money," the source said. "There will always be a star player or two who can get picked off, but no other league in the world can even pay a fraction of the amount in total salaries."

Can the star-driven NBA afford to lose a star or two? If Japanese baseball is any indication, the answer is yes. A steady influx of Japanese stars have crossed the Pacific Ocean to give Major League Baseball a try, yet even after the departures of Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka and others, attendance in Japan has increased over the past three years.

But you wonder what the long-term effects would be for the NBA, where one or two players can have such a big impact. Magic and Larry Bird made it the hot league in the 1980s. Jordan took it to new heights in the 1990s and the ratings haven't been the same since he left.

Since he's been gone, the league has helped fill the void with international players. Tony Parker and Ginobili have turned the Spurs into a power. The Lakers made the Finals with help from Pau Gasol, Vladimir Radmanovic and Sasha Vujacic. Even the Bulls' second three-peat group featured Toni Kukoc and Luc Longley among their top six. If enough top players left the league, would it no longer be as desirable for foreign players to come here, leading to a spiral that would hasten the NBA's decline?

The untold message that would be sent if James or Bryant departed would be that an NBA championship or an MVP didn't mean as much anymore. It wouldn't be worth more than the money you could earn elsewhere, and for those who stuck around, their accomplishments would be devalued because they didn't come against the very best competition.

Don't you give a little less credit to the Rockets in 1994 and '95 because they didn't beat Jordan?

You don't think the champagne didn't taste a little sweeter for the Celtics and their fans this past season because it came against Kobe and the Lakers?

Players have put money before winning for years. Stephon Marbury stepped away from Kevin Garnett. Carlos Boozer left a young LeBron James.

The difference this time is the players are being more honest about it.

That means it's time for Stern to make an honest assessment, and realize that the rules are changing, so he needs to change his own. He wouldn't have to abolish the salary cap; he'd merely have to get rid of the individual player maximums that came in with the 1999 collective bargaining agreement. Before then, teams could re-sign their own free agents to any amount under the "Larry Bird" exception. Afterward they were limited to a percentage of the salary cap.

Legend has it that Bryant was the only player who voted against ratifying that agreement. The salary limit didn't affect him then, but he knew one day it would. That time has come, and will be in play again when he can opt out of his contract next year. It's hard to think of a man who will make $21 million in the upcoming season as limited, but Bryant knows he could be pulling in the $30 million-plus salaries Jordan racked up in his final two seasons with the Bulls. Or he could get paid in euros, which are even more valuable at today's exchange rates, and get his housing costs paid for, too.

Bryant, like every NBA star who has emerged over the past decade, has always been viewed through the filter of What Would Jordan Do? Given a chance to cash in on the worldwide demand for basketball that Jordan helped create, I think we know the answer.

He'd take the money.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.