Euroleague wary of signing NBA players with existing contracts

Publish date:

"Our clubs need to have stable rosters," Bertomeu said via a translator. "They need to know how long they will be able to employ the player. No team will sign a player for only two or three months, or for an uncertain period of time. This is our forecast."

The Euroleague is the world's No. 2 basketball competition, offering salaries that are second only to those paid by the NBA. Reigning champion Panathinaikos of Athens and other legendary Euroleague clubs -- including Maccabi Tel Aviv, Real Madrid, Montepaschi Siena of Italy, CSKA Moscow and FC Barcelona -- would have provided the most competitive environment for NBA players to recoup some of the money they will lose should the lockout result in a shortened or canceled season.

But Euroleague clubs are wary of investing in NBA talent because of a recent ruling by FIBA, the Swiss-based international governing authority for basketball that enables players to return to North America and fulfill their existing contracts should the NBA resume play midseason.

"When FIBA decided to say that the transfer [of NBA players] will be valid only until the lockout will be over, it was strange," Bertomeu said. "Never in the FIBA history has there been any condition like this. This is very strange."

Bertomeu raised the possibility that FIBA negotiated the terms of its ruling with the NBA. FIBA did not announce its ruling until July 29, almost a full month after the NBA players had been locked out by the owners amid their stalled negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

"We were asking FIBA for their position since the month of May, pending the official announcement of a definitive lockout," Bertomeu said. "The day after the NBA lockout announcement, FIBA should have stated their position. And it took a month. Obviously, since May until now, [the delay] could have been because they were talking with the NBA."

An NBA official told that it had no such discussions with FIBA, which is notoriously deliberate in its decision-making. The official pointed out that commissioner David Stern had declared his opinion during the NBA season -- months before FIBA's declaration -- that NBA players would be free to pursue job opportunities around the world if they were locked out.

The decision to hold NBA players accountable to existing contracts after the lockout makes sense for FIBA, which clearly wishes to avoid becoming a third party to potential lawsuits between NBA teams and players over the validity of contracts.

"This was purely FIBA-generated," the NBA official said. "FIBA doesn't want to be drawn into litigation."

But Bertomeu added that FIBA's ruling bolstered the NBA.

"I don't think that FIBA took this position without an agreement with the NBA," Bertomeu said. "That, for me, is impossible. So I think the NBA feels comfortable with the FIBA decision. And in fact, this decision to deliver the talent [after] the lockout is over -- I think it's a protection of the NBA. I don't think FIBA wanted to interfere with the NBA's position, and I think this will help the NBA's position."

More important than the delay in FIBA's announcement is the uncertainty of the NBA's future. Euroleague clubs may be interested in signing NBA free agents who can commit long term to playing overseas for the full season or longer, according to Bertomeu.

One exception has been Maccabi's decision to sign Nets guard Jordan Farmar, but the reasoning is obvious: He fits into Maccabi's style without necessitating major changes to the team, and if he should leave suddenly then it can continue on the same course without him.

Otherwise, as noted by Bertomeu, the pressure to win is too great to risk investing in NBA players who cannot commit for the entire season. In many cases, the departure of one or more NBA players would devastate a club's chances of winning a Euroleague or domestic league championship at the end of the season.

"In Europe, it is true that sport is a form of entertainment," Bertomeu said. "However, the sporting result is more important than the entertainment value, so at the end of the day a team has to win. ... The team needs to win the championship. That's the competition level the European teams have.

"There is the perception that the European clubs are little bit like the NBDL -- a developmental league. But the games that you see in Europe are of high quality. The idea that the NBA championship is titled as the 'world championship' [creates] the idea that the NBA or any American league is the top sporting competition, and anything other than that is compared to the NCAA or NBDL."

This is why recent reports suggest that NBA stars are now focusing on the Chinese league as a potential destination during the lockout. But who will pay the American salaries in China, and will the NBA stars be willing to play in an environment that is far less competitive than the NBA or Euroleague?

The European club that has been most ambitious in its pursuit of American stars during the lockout is Besiktas of Istanbul, which has reached an agreement with Nets All-Star guard Deron Williams to play in Turkey during a lockout. The same club has also explored hiring Kobe Bryant and other NBA players after bringing on Allen Iverson for a short time last season. But Besiktas is a second-tier organization that is not among the 24 clubs in the Euroleague. Its recruitment of NBA stars has created enormous publicity and raised its profile, even if Williams and other NBA stars never ultimately play for the club.

There is also the question of whether European clubs can afford to pay big salaries to NBA players amid the worldwide recession and the financial crisis in Greece that threatens to spread to other countries in Europe. Bertomeu warned that the biggest clubs in Europe have the wherewithal to recruit any player.

"When you talk about teams such as FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Fenerbahce Ulker [of Istanbul],'' he said, "you're talking about clubs whose budgets double the Lakers' budget."

While it's true that FC Barcelona, Madrid and other big clubs draw from enormous budgets, most of that money is created by -- and allocated to -- its soccer club. FC Barcelona also competes in rugby, track and field, ice hockey, baseball, field hockey, volleyball, figure skating and wheelchair basketball. Basketball and these other sports are subsidized by the soccer team, not unlike the way many NCAA sports are subsidized by football and men's basketball.

"FC Barcelona wouldn't import an NBA superstar because they would rather invest in a local talent," Bertomeu said. "And it isn't their budgetary strategy to spend so much money on a basketball player. That could change ... but we don't think it would happen, because it's not part of the internal politics of the club."

If a European club were to sign an NBA star, the move would essentially be a vanity agreement designed to shine a light on the team. However, the club would lose money by recruiting a big name from the NBA, and the potential in-season departure of the star could sabotage its chances of winning a championship.

While the NBA lockout has destabilized the worldwide basketball market, Bertomeu views the potential absence of NBA games as a showcase opportunity for the Euroleague.

"We have been working to have greater visibility in non-Euroleague markets, the U.S. being one of those key markets," he said. "The strategy isn't going to change. We are aware we need to move into these markets. It is clear that being the only ones in the market will facilitate our presence in this U.S. market."