NEW YORK -- Those 285 NBA players who earned less than $4 million last season and may be motivated to look for work overseas by the prospect of a long lockout that may cancel the 2011-12 season need to do their homework to land a job overseas, and need to move quickly.
They will be following Sonny Weems, who would have been a restricted free agent of the Toronto Raptors if NBA owners had not imposed the lockout. He will now play for Zalgiris Kaunas in the Lithuanian league, getting a pay raise in the process. According to the Toronto Star, Weems will make $1.45 million on an after-tax basis, with Kaunas throwing in an apartment and a car free of charge. This after-tax compensation easily beats his pre-tax $854,000 salary with the Raptors last season.
Former Oklahoma City Thunder and Boston Celtic center Nenad Krstic just signed a two-year, $9.8 million contract with CSKA Moscow in the Russia's VTB United League: "I don't think you will see a lot coming here," Krstic said recently. "Europe is not in a great situation financially. There are only four or five teams now that can offer much to NBA players, and those teams right now are almost full."
He cannot return to the NBA in midseason if the lockout ends -- thus the premium paid for his services.
The fact that the top European teams are wrapping up their rosters will mean fewer openings for locked-out hoopsters: "That's a problem for NBA players, I think," Krstic said. "It was a reason why I had to go right away. I got maybe the best contract in Europe because of that."
Krstic is correct in referring to the four or five teams in Europe that can offer NBA-sized contracts. Teams recently taken off that list are the two Greek League powerhouses, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos, who are either for sale (Panathinaikos) or allegedly turned over to the league (Olympiacos), according to Kathimerini, the Greek newspaper of record. It was Olympiacos that paid $32.5 million over three years for Josh Childress to play in the Greek League in 2008.
But Krstic is wrong in thinking he may be the best-paid player in Europe. That honor belongs (for the moment) to Deron Williams, who reportedly signed a one-year contract with Turkey's Besiktas Cola Turca for a reported $5 million, even with an escape clause that allows the Nets point guard to return to the NBA upon the end of the lockout.
For players making $4 million or less in the NBA, those who may feel the economic effects of the lockout before their superstar union brethren do, there will be jobs available if they are willing to play for a fraction of their prior salary and if they also overcome two additional hurdles.
NBA players will have to submit to a drug-testing regimen that is more stringent in execution and in sanctions than the one they know in the NBA. Additionally, they would have to pay for an insurance policy to protect them in case of catastrophic injury.
By the time a significant proportion of NBA players begin to miss their paychecks in mid-November, most high-paying jobs will be gone.
If there is no agreement in sight by early January, NBA owners may cancel the rest of the season. By then, most European teams may be looking to replace injured players with NBA rotation players.
Even before the lockout could end up canceling the season, expect a number of NBA players going to work overseas.
How many? Where could they go?
Spain's ACB: The best and deepest league outside of the NBA, by far. The 18-team league allows clubs three non-European Union imports and has no salary cap. Former Memphis Grizzlies shooting guard Juan Carlos Navarro was reportedly the best-paid player in Spain last season, starring for Barcelona and earning $4.1 million tax-free, with the team also picking up transportation and accommodations.
What makes the ACB such a strong league may work against NBA players: Spanish teams are built and coached carefully. First, most teams' rosters are already set, with only a few openings available. Second, the notion of having an NBA player, even an NBA star show up for training camp, and then leave immediately upon the lockout ending would be unacceptable to certain teams. They may pay top dollar, but they may require the player to stay until the end of the season. This refusal to accommodate the NBA's requirements is yet another signal of the quality and closing commercial gap between the NBA and the top leagues around the world.
Teams like Real Madrid, the New York Yankees of the ACB, have a history of higher roster instability and have demonstrated they value star power when building a team in the past. Real Madrid offered the Dallas Mavericks' Rudy Fernández $26 million over six years -- that's $4.35 million tax-free per season, with accommodation and transportion paid for by the club as well. Had Fernández signed that deal, he would have become the best-paid player in ACB history.
At best, there may be 10 job openings in the ACB for NBA players to start the season. There may be more openings in or around January, if the NBA cancels its season, and ACB teams need to replace injured players with talent that may impact the box office as well. Eight of the 18 teams have stadium capacity of 7,500 spectators or less, limiting any economic upside to the signing of NBA players.
Beyond the many pleasures of life in Spain with significant disposable income, NBA players can expect to be well-coached in fundamentals and will come back to the NBA eventually as better-rounded players, especially if their stay in the ACB extends to a full season.
Italy's Lega Serie A: Considered the second-strongest league in Europe, third-strongest overall behind the NBA and Spain's ACB. Italy's teams attract talent out of proportion to its ticket-selling capabilities: only two of the 16 teams have stadiums that hold 10,000 fans or more, and six teams compete with buildings with a capacity of 4,000 fans or less. New Basket Brindisi, in Italy's heel, competes with an arena that holds just 2,500 fans -- yet last season former NBAers Eric Williams and Yakhouba Diawara played for them. Even Benetton Treviso's PalaVerde arena has capacity for 5,134 fans.
Beyond the attractions of Italy as a destination, like Spain's ACB, the quality of the coaching in this league is superb. Instead of four games or more in a typical NBA week, players in the Lega Serie A may have two or at most three games. Practice time fills out the rest of the week, and NBA players hungry to learn will make good use of fine coaching; Brandon Jennings considerably improved his 3-point stroke here. Teams can sign a maximum of three non-European Union players per season. Siena, Milano, Roma, Pesaro, Bologna and Treviso may have job openings with decent salaries, if they have not filled their rosters yet.
The Lega Serie A will be less demanding than Spain's ACB when it comes to escape clauses when the lockout ends. Perhaps six to 10 openings for NBA players who would earn $500,000 tax-free or more per full season may be available, with three of those jobs penciled in for the Italian NBA players.
VTB United League (Eastern Europe): This 10-team league was founded in 2010 as a reaction to alleged mismanagement and corruption in the Russian Super League. The new league means business, as Dynamo Moscow has been expelled for alleged non-payment of debts to the league and to its own players. Very few teams, like CSKA and UNICS, have the resources to pay top dollar. The remaining teams may be able to fit a salary of up to $1 million, tax-free. Their 27-game regular season runs from October to May, with a one-month playoff to follow. Figure only half a dozen teams may attempt to accommodate an NBA player for a salary exceeding $500,000, tax-free.
Chinese Basketball Association: The 17-team league has been known to flash significant cash in order to attract NBA talent. When Steve Francis reportedly received $800,000 a year to play for the Beijing Ducks in 2010, team official Yuan Zhao said to the China Youth Daily: "The only thing I can say is that Francis' salary is not the highest of the CBA foreign players -- he is not even among the top few players."
The CBA limited compensation for foreign players to $60,000 per month, but abandoned it as enforcement of the rule proved impossible. With no salary cap and no revenue sharing, each team is free to sign whom it fancies. League revenues are soaring, according to CBA official Liu Xiaonong, with Nike, UPS and TLC Communications as significant corporate sponsors.
Imports need to know that only one of the two foreign players allowed on each roster can play at a time during the first three quarters of the game, after which both can share the court. Their 32-game regular season starts in October, and lasts for almost five months. Figure that 30-35 job openings will pay at least $250,000 tax-free, with up to 10 of those jobs paying more than a million dollars for a full season. Provincial governments may provide subsidies directly or through state-owned enterprises which sponsor teams.
Turkey's BEKO Basketball League: Besiktas, the club that offered Allen Iverson a two-year deal for $4 million in 2010 (later canceled because of his calf injury), plays in the BJK Akatlar Arena, which seats a whopping 3,200 spectators. There is no way Deron Williams' contract can be justified economically through increased gate revenue. Cola Turca, the soda sponsor of the team, will be able to profit from this, and was asked by Besiktas to pitch in for Williams' deal.
Lack of economics may not stop certain owners in overseas leagues from compensating NBA players far above their team's ability to profit from the investment -- behaving similarly to NBA owners who overpay for talent, then rue their economic losses.
There is no salary cap in the 16-team TBL, and clubs can sign one non-European foreigner per team. Zaza Pachulia, also reportedly signing with Besiktas, has a Turkish passport, thus counting as a Turkish national. NBA players tend to love Turkey, both a European and an Asian country, with its rich culture, tasty cuisine and cosmopolitan capital. Perhaps five to 10 job openings may arise at a salary upward of $500,000, tax-free.
Puerto Rico's Superior National Basketball League (BSN, its Spanish acronym): The 10-team league without a salary cap pays its top players a pre-tax salary of $200,000-250,000 for its season which runs from March to July. Not every one of those 10 franchises can afford to bring in NBA players -- some teams do not play in arenas with enough capacity to recoup the investment in an NBA player. Figure there may be a total of four openings at or above the top league salary for NBA players.
On an island 110 miles by 39 miles, all games are local. There's plenty of golf, beaches and culture and an outstanding culinary scene, all under the United States' flag, with English-speakers at arm's length.
So if an NBA player wants to stay in shape in the best remaining league under the U.S. flag and earn a modest amount, Puerto Rico would be the destination. The BSN will not demand a player remain for the entire season, but the longer he plays, the fatter the paycheck.
By the time the BSN starts its season in March, locked-out NBA players who have not played or earned a check in months may be much more motivated to play in a different league. Every other league will have its roster set, just when Puerto Rico's BSN opens for business.
Argentina's Liga Nacional de Basquetbol (LNB): Its season runs from September through June, with some 50 games in two phases that roughly coincide with the NBA season, with an important difference -- since they would play in the Southern Hemisphere, they would play through the Argentine spring, summer and fall, instead of fall, winter and spring. Safe to say they would not see too much snow. Right around the time of a possible cancellation of the NBA season is traditionally when Argentine teams switch their foreign players. There is a limit of three foreign players per team, with no salary cap.
Pepe Sánchez, former NBA point guard and now co-owner of Weber Bahía Estudiantes, is leading by example the rest of the 16-team LNB in how to run a first-class operation. He put Bahía Blanca's team back in the playoffs as player-owner, but the arena in which the team plays can only accommodate 4,500 fans. Only Atenas in Córdoba (14,300) and the two Mar del Plata teams (Peñarol and Quilmes, which share the same stadium with capacity of 6,500) have arenas that exceed a capacity of 4,500. Unión de Formosa may also be in the market for a top foreigner.
The top salary in Argentina is $250,000, tax-free, for a full season. Few LNB team owners will sign NBA players at salaries higher than that figure. There may be up to a half dozen job openings.
Basketball is surprisingly popular in a soccer-crazy country, and the quality of the coaching in Argentina stands out -- Argentina's recent success in international play is not just due to the talent of its great players. Some American players that had limited NBA exposure (10-day contracts) are not impact players in this league, just rotation players. Do not be surprised if a provincial political leader suddenly provides funds to a team to stretch and offer a significant salary to an NBA player. If politicians become involved, their priority would be to sign their nationals Andrés Nocioni and Carlos Delfino -- otherwise a name NBA player, though not an NBA star.
Brazil's Novo Basquete Brasil (NBB): The 15-team league concentrates nine of its teams in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in the country's southeast. Their season runs from November to April, with a two-month playoff. Brazil has traditionally attracted few American players, but this may begin to change.
There is no salary cap for NBB teams, nor a cap on compensation for a team's foreign-born players, which are limited to three per team. Once again, arena capacity determines compensation. Only three stadiums have capacity of 6,000 (including Franca's stadium) in Brazil, including Flamego's 15,000-seat HSBC Arena and Sao Paulo's Ginasio do Irapuera (11,000). The top pay in the NBB (given to Brazilian national team players in the league) nears $250,000, free of taxes. In-state Sao Paulo travel is by bus, while air travel is provided to more distant cities.
Brazil's golden age as a nation is just getting started. The country's growth and progress is palpable. The construction of major, world-class sports venues for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games are immediate examples in the sports world. The economy is booming, and the basketball league and its salaries will boom as well.
There may be team owners or sponsors that will stretch to land an NBA player on their squad, but all league sources said that perhaps three signings at $500,000 tax-free compensation level or more may open up in Brazil's NBB.
Islamic Republic of Iran's SuperLeague: If an NBA player wants a transformative basketball experience, his representative needs to contact John Spencer of 540 Sports and Entertainment, the lone U.S. citizen with a U.S. Treasury Department license to place American players to live and play in Iran.
The 12-team league has a few powerhouse teams, such as Mahram Tehran and Zob Ahan Isfahan, but for an NBA player, only the game of basketball will be entirely familiar. A few teams will pay late, or only part of the promised salary, but a savvy player with Spencer's help will avoid all the pitfalls. "It is another culture, so you need to be in tune with local habits and customs," he said. "I always tell players to have their team provide chauffeured transportation to avoid getting lost geographically and lost in translation."
Spencer highlights the best of the experience: "[Iranians] are fascinated with our culture, just as we should be fascinated with theirs," adding, "You will not find warmer and more hospitable people than the Iranians. Far from being booed, U.S. players are welcomed, even if they play for the visiting team."
Salaries are relatively low. League play usually begins in October, but this season it will start in September and run through April. Top foreigners can earn $400,000, tax-free. Teams are allowed three foreign players. Figure there may be two openings at $500,000, tax-free, in the league.
This guide is but a sample of existing leagues. Other leagues with the potential to pay NBA players salaries that on a pre-tax basis could amount to $1 million for a full season include South Korea's KBL, Greece's A1, France's ProA, Germany's BBL, Japan's BJ League, Israel's HaAl and Mexico's LNBP.
Many factors conspire against a significant number of NBA players going overseas: Paying for insurance policies, a more strict drug-testing regimen, the confusion for many overseas teams and leagues about whether they can actually pursue and sign NBA players, the wait-and-see attitude of players toward the lockout and its duration, and the fact that serious overseas teams that can afford to pay top dollar may not grant escape clauses in case the lockout ends will turn a potential flood into a trickle.
And, according to sources, the NBPA has not yet alerted leagues outside the United States that NBA players with remaining years on their locked-out NBA contracts are free to play at will or arranged for group insurance for its members to lower the cost of securing such policies. Without those provisions, the might miss a chance to have some of its lowest-earning members (precisely the majority of NBA players owners will try to court in an attempt to pressure the NBPA to settle, or vote for a management proposal that may be opposed by well-paid stars and/or union officials) secure employment, some income and a chance to further develop their skills.
Álvaro Martín is the lead basketball play-by-play announcer for ESPN's Spanish-language networks around the world. He also announces FIBA international tournaments in English. His English-language Twitter feed is @AlvaroNBAMartin.