(AP Photo/Jeff Lewis, File)
AP Sports Writer
It's the summer of 2010 and LeBron James is trying to decide whether to stay in Cleveland, leave for New York -- or accept a deal for $50 million a year to play in Italy.
Far-fetched? Impossible? Perhaps, but the steady stream this summer of American players heading to Europe, where the euro dwarfs the dollar, the salary cap doesn't apply and the game is rapidly improving, has changed the dynamic of player movement in the NBA.
"The European market has been growing year by year and it's certainly been a hope of ours that it would become a viable alternative for players," agent Mark Bartelstein said Wednesday. "The luxury tax in the NBA has put a crimp on what teams can spend, so players are looking for alternatives."
Josh Childress started the trend last month, when the restricted free agent grew tired of Atlanta's bargaining and signed a three-year deal with Greek club Olympiakos worth about $20 million after taxes. Because the NBA's collective bargaining agreement only applies to the league's teams, the Hawks couldn't match the offer. Atlanta lost its sixth man from last season and got nothing in return.
Since then Earl Boykins, Carlos Arroyo, Nenad Krstic, Carlos Delfino and Jorge Garbajosa have left the NBA for European teams. The 5-foot-5 Boykins, who played for the NBA minimum last season in Charlotte, signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with Virtus Bologna of the Italian league Tuesday.
"We're not terribly concerned," said Joel Litvin, the NBA's president of league and basketball operations. "In fact, we see this as a positive indication of how popular the sport of basketball is on a global basis."
But the league would sure be alarmed if Kobe Bryant wasn't joking when he told reporters after a pre-Olympic exhibition game: "Italy, Greece, Russia, $40 million a year? Yeah, I'm there, as simple as that."
ESPN.com reported this week that an unidentified person close to James said the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar would consider playing in Europe for $50 million a year when he's eligible to opt out of his contract after the 2009-10 season.
"If it happens, it happens. I'd be surprised if it did with players of that caliber," Litvin said. "But certainly we would deal with it if it happened and I continue to think that the NBA will be the gold standard for the top players in the world for a long time to come."
Under the collective bargaining agreement, James couldn't make more than $20 million a year in the NBA. Plus, league teams face a dollar-for-dollar tax once they reach $71.15 million in total payroll.
European leagues face no salary cap and many are awash in cash because of the sinking dollar, which earlier this year reached a historic low against the euro. A euro was worth $1.54 Wednesday.
Throw in some creative tax loopholes and maybe James wearing a CSKA Moscow uniform isn't an outrageous prospect.
"It just shows you what a global game basketball is that there are good leagues and leagues that are willing to pay for high caliber talent," Charlotte Bobcats general manager Rod Higgins said. "But the NBA is the best."
While the quality of play in European leagues continues to improve, the NBA remains superior. The influx of European players to the NBA, started many years ago, leaves the league with a stockpile of talent.
So NBA players will want to stay stateside for the competition, right?
"Ultimately, it's about money," Hawks GM Rick Sund said after losing Childress. "The more money they get the better they feel about the commitment."
Bartelstein, who represents players in the NBA and overseas, believes European leagues could eventually be an option for the likes of James, Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh once the issue of guaranteed contracts is cleared up. Bartelstein said he's had to go to court in the past to get teams to pay the full amount of deals to his clients.
"Without there being a players association and a collective bargaining agreement in Europe, there's nothing behind the contract to enforce them other than to go to court," Bartelstein said. "For Europe to truly get to the point where they can compete with the NBA for all kinds of players, they're going to have to implement a system where there's a lot more comfort that the contracts are truly guaranteed. Once that happens then I think you'll truly see great competition for players."
Higgins believes the European option will put extra pressure on NBA teams to lock up players before their four-year rookie contracts expire. The Bobcats had to wait before finally re-signing restricted free-agent Emeka Okafor to a six-year, $72 million last week, a year after he turned down a similar deal.
"We could have came to an agreement last year, so I think that's the window of opportunity for a lot of teams," Higgins said.
While Okafor said playing in Europe "never crossed my mind," Bryant has at least thought about what trading in Los Angeles for a $40 million payday overseas would feel like.
"You cut the check," Bryant said, "and I will bring my Nike checks."