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The Running of the Free Agents Begins?

It’s David Stern’s Problem

David Stern Photo Credit: Icon SMI

The United States’ National Basketball Association has long been the world’s preeminent basketball league. This is the country that invented the sport, and its highest league is supposed to be where every basketball player the world over aspires to play.

United States basketball has lost some of its luster in recent years though. The embarrassment started with a sixth-place finish in the World Championships in 2002, was heightened with the poor bronze medal showing in Athens in the 2004 Olympics and then continued in the summer of 2006 when USA Basketball lost to the Greece in the FIBA semis. Prior to the bronze-medal performance in 2004 the US hadn’t failed to win gold since 1988, another bronze-medal showing that prompted the switch to professional athletes.

Oh, and then there was that whole Tim Donaghy deal last summer.

And the Scott Foster thing this summer.

So yeah, there have been a few bumps in the road. NBA pride has taken a hit in a lot of people’s eyes — and this is a league the sports community is all too eager to hate on already.

The latest blow to David Stern and the NBA’s fragile self esteem could come in the form of European defections — starting with Josh Childress. At the time of this writing no major news outlet in the United States had confirmed the former sixth-overall pick signing with the Greek team Olympiakos. But, according to Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski, at the very least he’s shown strong interest in a three-year, $20 million offer from the European powerhouse. According to BasketGround, it’s a done deal. I think. My Italian is a bit rusty.

[Ed. It’s official now according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution]

And who can blame Childress?

He’s an intelligent 25-year-old guy with international curiosity and the ability to make a phenomenal living for himself in Greece. He can live in a beautiful country loaded with culture and nightlife, continue to play the game he loves at a competitive level and be a real star at it there. He can also escape from the clutches of that Mickey Mouse organization in Atlanta.

Childress hasn’t been anywhere near a star in his brief NBA career, but he’s a solid player who still has a lot of upside. He’s an asset to the Atlanta Hawks and to the NBA, and his departure would be an embarrassment to both. Teams like Atlanta can’t afford to have their lottery picks from just a few years prior bolting the continent. The league can’t afford to lose any more ground or face to international competition.

Unfortunately, as Mr. Wojnarowski points out, there ain’t a thing either can do about it: restricted free-agent rights don’t apply to FIBA contracts — and the Euro is very, very strong right now.

How this could be a big problem, after the jump…

Will Talent Flow the Other Way Now?If a reasonably effective sixth-overall pick from 2004 is defecting, who’s next? How will other small market teams compete with the cherry-picking Euros? Granted, the Hawks organization spectacularly characteristically botched their handling of both Joshs this summer. This still has to put fear into other teams on par with Atlanta though — it’s just another way for them to get screwed and another piece of leverage in free agents’ bag of tricks. Players can bolt for a year or two and return as free agents or they can just stay away altogether.

Why not? Childress would make roughly twice as much as the Hawks were offering.

The Childress news comes on the heels of another potentially trend setting defection, that of a player circumventing NBA rules before even being drafted. Last week 18-year-old California basketball star Brandon Jennings committed to play for Pallacanestro Virtus Roma in the Italian professional league in order to evade Stern’s age restriction.

And who can blame him?

David Stern’s draconian age limit would have forced Jennings to attend college for a token season. Instead of pretending to be a student while playing basketball, and doing neither as well as he could, he’ll focus on his career. He’ll also make some money for himself through his efforts instead off padding the coffers of an NCAA juggernaut with free labor.

Josh Childress and Dirk Nowitzki Photo Credit: Icon SMI

If Jennings has the talent, I support his plan. In what other profession could an eminently qualified applicant be categorically denied employment solely on the basis of a demographic characteristic like age? People will pay to see him perform, so why shouldn’t he get paid? And if he did go to college and suffered a career-ending injury, what happens to the family that supported him to this point and was depending on the money he could rightfully earn?

Joining those two in Europe after spending last season in NBA will be names like as Carlos Delfino, Jorge Garbajosa, Gordon Giricek, Juan Carlos Navarro and Viktor Khryapa. Bostjan Nachbar and Nenad Krstic of the Nets are considering offers. Meanwhile, first-round NBA picks like Tiago Splitter and Fran Vazquez are just refusing to come at all after being drafted. Splitter’s agent went so far as to say his client couldn’t afford to come to the NBA.

American-born guys like Childress and Jennings have the talent and name recognition to make this a trend among skilled young basketball players across the country. And soon, it may not just be relatively unknown youngsters like Childress and Jennings. According to Sam Smith’s HoopsHype blog a marquee name will be headed to Europe. Soon.

Mr. Smith throws around some names like Ben Gordon, Luol Deng and even Allen Iverson. Those are major, major pieces on their teams and huge players on the NBA stage. Allen Iverson sold the third-most jerseys last season. Losing a name and player of his caliber, especially an American, would be embarrassing to say the least and certainly disconcerting.

This is something David Stern needs to get concerned about. Now.

It’s hard to blame the young men who go this route. They have to do what makes the most financial and personal sense for themselves and their families. Europe can offer everything the US can culturally, the strength of the Euro makes it attractive financially and it’s not like the international competition is anything to sneeze at — just ask Team USA.

Related: Atlanta Hawks, David Stern, Allen Iverson, Josh Childress


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